When protests started in Egypt last week, mainstream news outlets cried "democracy!" and compared the situation in Egypt to the Berlin Wall and Tienanmen Square. Meanwhile, STRATFOR (an intelligence company I've followed for years) spoke of a different possibility. At the time it may have been counter-intuitive for most institutions to draw parallels to 1979 Iran, but my friend and the company's founder George Friedman produced an internal document that raised that possibility. Days later, news outlets began asking questions about groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and realizing there could be other forces behind the unrest than simple calls for Western-style democracy.
While the jury is still out on the Egypt situation, I have always found STRATFOR's analyses to be thought-provoking, unconventional and more often than not, spot on in the end. Included here is that first Intelligence Guidance on the budding unrest in Egypt. Originally meant as an internal guideline for their analysts to understand and evaluate events, it was made available to STRATFOR subscribers - and now you. It's an excellent example of how folks at this intelligence company begin thinking about a new event. I highly recommend joining their free mailing list to keep up on all things relevant in global affairs.
By the way, congrats to those of you who ordered George's new book The Next Decade. George tells me it will debut at #3 on the New York Times Bestseller list next week. Nice forward-thinking on your part!
Intelligence Guidance: The Situation in Egypt
January 27, 2011
Editor's Note: The following is an internal STRATFOR document produced to provide high-level guidance to our analysts. This document is not a forecast, but rather a series of guidelines for understanding and evaluating events, as well as suggestions on areas for focus.
Let's use the Iranian rising of 1979 as a model. It had many elements involved, from Communists, to liberals to moderate Muslims, and of course the radicals. All of them were united in hating the Shah, but not in anything else.
The Western press did not understand the mixture and had its closest ties with the liberals, for the simple reason that they were the most Western and spoke English. For a very long time they thought these liberals were in control of the revolution.
For its part, the intelligence community did not have good sources among the revolutionaries but relied on SAVAK, the Shah's security service, for intelligence. SAVAK neither understood what was happening, nor was it prepared to tell the CIA. The CIA suspected the major agent was the small Communist Party, because that was the great fear at that time -- namely, that the Soviets were engineering a plot to seize Iran and control the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, Western human rights groups painted the Shah as a monster and saw this as a popular democratic rising. Western human rights and democracy groups, funded by the U.S. government and others, were standing by to teach people like Bani Sadr to create a representative democracy.
Bani Sadr was the first post-Shah president. He was a moderate Islamist and democrat; he also had no power whatsoever. The people who were controlling the revolution were those around Ayatollah Khomeini, who were used by the liberals as a screen to keep the United States quiet until the final moment came and they seized control.
It is important to understand that the demonstrations were seen as spontaneous, but were actually being carefully orchestrated. It is also important to understand that the real power behind the movement remained opaque to the media and the CIA, because they didn't speak English and the crowds they organized didn't speak English, and none of the reporters spoke Farsi (nor did a lot of the intelligence agency people). So when the demonstrations surged, the interviews were with the liberals who were already their sources, and who made themselves appear far more powerful than they were -- and who were encouraged to do so by Khomeini's people.
It was only at the end that Khomeini ran up the Jolly Roger to the West.
Nothing is identical to the past, but Iran taught me never to trust a revolutionary who spoke English; they will tend to be pro-Western. When the masses poured into the streets -- and that hasn't happened in Egypt yet -- they were Khomeini supporters who spoke not a word of English. The media kept interviewing their English-speaking sources and the CIA kept up daily liaison meetings with SAVAK -- until the day they all grabbed a plane and met up with their money in Europe and the United States. The liberals, those who weren't executed, also wound up in the United States, teaching at Harvard or driving cabs.
Let's be very careful on the taxonomy of this rising. The Western human rights groups will do what they can to emphasize its importance, and to build up their contacts with what they will claim are the real leaders of the revolution. The only language these groups share with the identified leaders is English, and the funding for these groups depends on producing these people. And these people really want to turn Egypt into Wisconsin. The one thing I can guarantee is that is not what is going on.
What we have to find out is who is behind this. It could be the military wanting to stage a coup to keep Gamal Mubarak out of power. They would be doing this to preserve the regime, not to overthrow it. They could be using the demonstrations to push their demands and perhaps pressure Hosni Mubarak to leave voluntarily.
The danger is that they would be playing with fire. The demonstrations open the door for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is stronger than others may believe. They might keep the demonstrations going after Hosni leaves, and radicalize the streets to force regime change. It could also be the Muslim Brotherhood organizing quietly. Whoever it is, they are lying low, trying to make themselves look weaker than they are -- while letting the liberals undermine the regime, generate anti-Mubarak feeling in the West, and pave the way for whatever it is they are planning.
Our job now is to sort through all the claimants and wannabees of this revolution, and find out who the main powers are. These aren't spontaneous risings and the ideology of the people in the streets has nothing to do with who will wind up in power. The one thing to be confident of is that liberal reformers are the stalking horse for something else, and that they are being used as always to take the heat and pave the way.
Now, figure out who is really behind the demonstrations and we have a game.