Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1134, 7 - 13 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

No Revolutionary Guard

Despite the cautionary Iranian experience, there have been rumours that Egypt’s Islamists are aiming to set up a Revolutionary Guard, something forcefully denied by the Islamists themselves, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) as they are more familiarly known, is a major component of the Iranian military. Founded after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, it has become a symbol of the Islamic regime that then emerged, and it is the branch of the army that protects the state of the Iranian murshid, or supreme guide, from “enemies” within.
The Iranian clergy, a segment of which would eventually establish the velayet-e faqih (rule of the Islamic jurist), were not originally at the forefront of the Iranian revolution. Instead, the driving force consisted of the marginalised and disaffected from a broad array of political forces that rebelled against the corrupt and tyrannical regime of the shah in pursuit of a dream of freedom and justice.
Only later did the more organised Islamist forces get on board and ride the crest of the revolution, much as would be the case in Egypt several decades later. One chief difference between the two cases was that the shah’s army was dismantled following his overthrow, whereas following the fall of Mubarak in Egypt the army took control of the reins of government.
It remained cohesive in spite of the attrition that had taken place during the Mubarak period and the crises that had arisen against the backdrop of its direct involvement in post-revolutionary politics. The domestic security agencies also remained intact in Egypt, although they were also profoundly shaken by the revolution.
The Revolutionary Guards quickly served as the instrument to crush the major sources of opposition to the policies of Ayatollah Khomeini, who descended upon the revolution by airplane from Paris and soon succeeded in consolidating his hold on power. They are a multi-branched force with their own ground forces, navy, air force, intelligence and special forces. At least 1.2 million Iranians serve in the IRG, which dominates not only the military establishment but also other institutions of the state and which is under the command of the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, who also happens to be the murshid of the state.
The idea of the IRG has inspired many in post-revolutionary Egypt at several levels. Following the outbreak of the revolution some Egyptian youth, most of whom were described in security reports as belonging to the Shia, attempted to create the first version of an Egyptian Revolutionary Guard. It was probably no coincidence that this attempt followed a famous speech in Arabic by the Iranian supreme guide, Ali Khamenei, congratulating Egyptians on the success of their revolution.
Shortly after this, groups of young people of unknown political affiliation began to travel to Iran where they took advantage of various political forums to speak on behalf of the Egyptian revolution. Upon their return home, some of these youths took up the call to create an Egyptian version of the IRG. Although the idea initially attracted a number of supporters, it precipitated criticism on the part of various political forces, who charged that it was being masterminded by Tehran under the rubric of the “Islamic awakening”.
Eventually, the call subsided since it reeked of sectarianism and Iranian influence. Members of a group that advertised itself using a photograph of the Iranian supreme guide against a backdrop of the Iranian flag, and two Egyptians against the backdrop of the Egyptian flag, said that theirs was a group of Sunni and Shia Egyptian youth and that they had played a part in the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. After the security forces countered the embassy siege through negotiation, no further news was heard of the group.
Following the election of Mohamed Morsi as president in June last year, relations between the executive and the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, and the state security apparatus were initially tense. One of the new president’s most pressing tasks was to set the security services in order that they would meet the demands of the current circumstances in the country. Although his approach to this task generally followed the principle of rewarding loyalty over competence, the police continued to come under criticism by the Islamist forces and a general air of mutual wariness and suspicion prevailed.
Against this background, the presidency began to be haunted by rumours to the effect that it was planning to recruit Hamas elements to serve as a security backbone, or to imitate the IRG. Considerable concern was also raised by narratives built around comments made by Muslim Brotherhood member and current minister of youth, Osama Yassin, that mentioned a “Brotherhood 95 Division” that had taken up positions on top of buildings overlooking Tahrir Square.
According to a formerly highly placed General Intelligence official who had been involved with the question of the Islamist movements for many years, this “division” may have appeared as a reaction to the rise of such self-defence groups as the “Black Bloc” that have recently emerged as a response to the tactics of the Islamist organisations. In fact, he said, the Brotherhood had had this paramilitary branch long before the revolution. It had been involved in operations before that had not been made public and it had never been dismantled.
The Islamists have also come up with other ideas for militias. The Hazemoun, for example, have called for a “White Police” to be set up to counter the “Black Bloc”, as well as for a Revolutionary Guard. The Hazemoun is a group formed by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a former presidential candidate who was disqualified from the electoral race and who is the founder of the Salafist-oriented Watan (Nation) Party. In November and December last year at the time of the mass demonstrations in front of Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace, the Hazemoun surrounded Media Production City outside Cairo and some of its members were said to have been involved in confrontations at Al-Ittihadiya.
Ahmed Salam, who conceived the idea of an Egyptian Revolutionary Guard, told Al-Ahram Weekly that this force would “aid the regime against its adversaries” and serve as “the hand it would use to strike in order to protect itself.” Such a corps was needed, he said, “as long as the Republican Guard is indulgent towards the demonstrators and as long as the police are afraid and ineffective in the wars in the streets”.
However, as inspiring as this idea may be to some, it does not appear to have caught on. Maybe this is because it originated with an unknown person who belongs to a fringe group like the Hazemoun, or maybe some quarters of the Islamist current fear it would be divisive. This appears to be the position of the Salafist Front, for example. For the Muslim Brotherhood, the idea seems to be out of the question by its very nature.
At all events, the idea would be relatively easy to achieve in concrete terms, though it would not be practical or realistic. Security experts in the army, police and General Intelligence hold that the material means are available, but that the very notion is taboo. The idea of a Revolutionary Guard would not be popularly accepted, and it would be regarded as an infringement of the authority and prestige of the state.
To those familiar with him, Salam is little more than a page on Facebook. According to two of his relatives, he is a highly strung person who took part in the attacks against the demonstrators at Al-Ittihadiya and emerged despondent from what he regarded as a defeat. They say that he believes that there is a conspiracy afoot against the regime, which, to him, is embodied in the president whom he regards as inviolable and any opposition to him would be “sinful” on the grounds that this would constitute insubordination against the “guardian” of the revolution.
General Fouad Allam, a former state security officer, regards this type of thinking on the part of some quarters of the Islamist trend as a threat to the state in itself. The government must combat extremist thought that tries to promote the notion of self-appointed guardians of the regime or the country, he said. Such ideas, which have their roots in political and ideological antagonisms, were “a recipe for chaos”, Allam added.
Allam strongly disagreed with the claim that it was the current crisis in the police that was generating the growth of unofficial armed groups. “I reject this notion of a police crisis. Everything in Egypt is in crisis. The government is beleaguered, and the economy is in disarray. These ideas of founding revolutionary guards or similar unofficial militias are high treason, because they will ultimately lead the country down the path to destruction and civil war, since the rule of law would no longer prevail to govern and protect society,” Allam said.
Nevertheless, he did not rule out the possibility that such militias could arise. “They [the Islamist groups] have the means and the support bases, and recruits would be easy to train,” he said. What worried him most was not so much the idea of a Revolutionary Guard that would serve the office of the president and that would be at the command of the state, but the prospect that such a corps could effectively become the arm of certain ideological groups in society, rather than a branch of the security apparatus of the state.
Ali Bakr, an expert on the Islamist groups at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly that Salam’s idea of a Revolutionary Guard could reflect some of the Islamists’ thoughts and aspirations, but that it would be difficult to realise. He agreed with Allam that the notion was sectarian and ideological in origin and substance, as well as potentially dangerous.
“If a Revolutionary Guard were formed by a Salafist group, it would not fully conform with the Muslim Brotherhood’s or Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s ideas for such a corps. There would be problems in creating it and in designating its duties and functions. In addition, it would be an instrument in the hands of the Islamist parties and forces that created it, though effectively it would consist of ideologically differing camps.”
However, the fact that such a proposal exists may only be the surface of a deeper problem, which is an inclination to create paramilitary types of organisations prepared to assume control over the state. According to Bakr, this danger is real, not only because the Salafist groups have the support bases needed to create militias, but also because “weapons are to be found everywhere and at dirt-cheap prices.”
In an interview with the Weekly, Salafist Front spokesman Khaled Said said that he did not know Ahmed Salam. “Who is that man,” Said asked. “We do not know him. Egypt is a government of institutions,” and not of militias. Said was adamantly opposed to the notion of a Revolutionary Guard. “Some of our brothers in the Islamist ranks are unaware of the consequences of the ideas they proclaim,” he said.
“Unfortunately, these are attempts, unfortunately from within these ranks, to distort the [Islamist] trend through calls that have no merit. We are a state with institutions, and these institutions cannot be superseded by such proposals. What that person [referring to Salam] has suggested does not merit further discussion because it is unviable and we reject it.” Although Said felt that the Egyptian security agencies had harmed the Islamists in the past, the country today could not dispense with them.
Instead, he said, “we need to reform and restructure them and steer them in a professional manner. This is particularly important at this time when society does not need more fragmentation than already exists.”
The Hazemoun, to which Salam claims to belong, has also denied any connection with him. Gamal Saber, spokesman for the group, told the Weekly that “we do not know him and we have never seen him since our group was founded. He is just someone who has passed through the media and has now gone. If there had been any ideas of that sort, it would have been me who had brought them to the attention of the public.”
On the matter of the “White Police” that the Hazemoun had allegedly called for to oppose the “Black Bloc”, Saber said that “the police today are capable of confronting them, and as long as they remain so we have no problem. They [the police] must do the job. We do not need extra burdens.”
Salam has claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood has approved his idea and told him that they would study it and bring it to the attention of the president. However, the Brotherhood has firmly and unequivocally denied this. Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told the Weekly that “the claim is untrue in its entirety. He never submitted the idea to us.”
The spokesman said that the constitution prohibited the creation of any militias or entities of this sort. “Are we to approve a constitution and then ignore it,” he asked. “We reject the idea out of hand. We are a large group. We have no one to fear that could make us approve an idea of that sort, although the situation is currently not healthy.”
The former General Intelligence official told the Weekly that “everyone is now familiar with the experience of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. Therefore, no one will allow it to be applied in Egypt. The Egyptian security agencies will not permit it. Even if the means are available, the agencies will confront such attempts with full determination. If the Muslim Brotherhood plans to use Hamas in the manner that Syria used Hizbullah as its proxies, this will have grave consequences. The army leadership and officer ranks will never permit such a scenario because it would mean the end of Egypt.”
“The Muslim Brothers have the support bases that would enable them to play that role, and there have been suspicious movements on the part of some who believe that the agencies responsible for exposing them are unaware of what is happening. However, nothing can be kept secret in Egypt now. They have the bases and they have the desire, demonstrated by failed attempts to infiltrate the security agencies and, today, by test balloons of this sort. But if the presidency is suffering from a rift, the military establishment is not. It is cohesive to the highest degree.”
A military source agreed. “This is a red line. However heavy the current burdens, the Egyptian security agencies, from the official Republican Guard to the police and the Armed Forces, will not permit the creation of an entity of that sort or an army system of that nature. Regardless of what it is called, it is just a gang or a militia.”
“We know who is trying to infiltrate [into the security establishment] by means of this idea. Egypt is aware of the Iranian experience with the Revolutionary Guards, just as it is aware of the experience of Iraq that built its army out of militias loyal to Shia political organisations such as the Badr Brigade. Intellectually mature people in the Islamist current know very well that the army of Egypt is itself Egypt.”

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