Meet The Mukhabarat, The Fingernail Pulling Secret Police The Ex-US Official Threatened To Unleash On Cart Vendor In New York

Former diplomat and Obama-era National Security Council advisor Stuart Seldowitz, who was arrested for hate speech and racist taunts at a Muslim cart vendor in New York City, saw him making references to the Mukhabarat in Egypt, detaining his parents and torturing them. The feared secret police has been used by successive Egyptian governments to control citizens and check dissidents. 

But the term is also used to describe state intelligence and security services elsewhere in the Arab world. This includes Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Israel’s Arab-speaking nationals, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In Libya, they are known as the Mukhabarat el-Jamahriya (Intelligence of the Jamahriya), and in Saudi Arabia as the Al Mukhabarat A’amah. 

Generally and colloquially, it means a police force used to spy on citizens. But they have come to be more popularly associated with Egypt, given the country’s tumultuous political history of repressive rulers. A look at modern history over the last two decades, during the war on terror, would be a more relevant period to understand Mukhabarat’s role.  

Tortured 9/11 Suspects

Journalist Sam Husseini, who proclaims to be anti-US, posted on X, making further claims about the Egyptian Mukhabarat, its role in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“An under-appreciated aspect of Seldowitz’s threats to the food vendor is that the US gov does use the Mukhabarat in Egypt to torture people. Most notoriously, they tortured al-Libi into a false confession about al-Qaeda working with Iraq.

“Colin Powell would present that as ‘evidence’ at the UN to justify invading Iraq. (Al-Libi was then transferred to Libya, and the US gov then cozied up to Qaddafi for a period to have him ‘suicide’ al-Libi.) I asked Powell about it, and he continued the cover-up. US policy has been one long-lying imperial con orchestrated by many criminals (sic),” Husseini said.

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, Husseini was referring to Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, is a Libyan national captured in Afghanistan in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban. He was interrogated by the US and Egyptian authorities, both of whom allegedly tortured him.

The then-President George Bush administration cited the information he provided as proof of connections between al-Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein government, which led to the invasion of Iraq.

However, media investigations, books, and Congressional reports said his stunning claims about links to al-Qaeda and its activities in Iraq were made “under duress” and to stop the extreme torture and “enhanced interrogation” techniques. 

These revelations implicated the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Egyptian Security and Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat). At a broader level, they also raised questions on the reasons behind the Iraq invasion: Saddam’s links to Islamic fundamentalist groups and holding weapons of mass destruction. These had turned out to be untrue. 

Seldowitz’s Background 

Seldowitz’s comment to the Muslim immigrant about the “Mukhabarat in Egypt (getting his) parents” and “(taking) out their fingernails one by one” stems from this history of the agency. 

The Egyptian secret police have long been known to receive terror detainees from the US, claimed The New Middle East Podcast, a poorly subscribed X (formerly Twitter) handle that highlights issues relating to the Mideast and Islamic world from a Muslim point of view, quoting Moazzam Begg, an ex-Guantanamo prisoner and self-proclaimed ‘war on terror’ consultant.

“The largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, Egypt was a key strategic ally, and its secret police force, the Mukhabarat, had a reputation for brutality,” said a February 2005 article in The New Yorker. The State Department had frequently cited Egypt for torture of prisoners, the article said. 

A May 9, 2005 report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) dealt with the network between the US and Egypt in conducting ‘extraordinary renditions’ — interrogating Islamists and terror suspects and “detainees” outside the US. The program operated at its peak between 1994 to 2004. 

It mentioned the case of Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of senior al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was handed over to Egyptian authorities by the US. “He stayed for four years and a half in an underground detention facility run by the Mukhabarat, where he did not see sunlight and could not distinguish between day and night. The interrogation and torture went hand in hand,” the report said. 

The HRW report quoted a statement by former CIA officer Robert Baer in investigative journalist Stephen Grey’s famous article in The New Statesman, ‘America’s Gulag:’ “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.” 

A section of foreign policy and security observers have, therefore, long criticized the US practice of turning a blind eye towards repressive Arab governments, many of them with orthodox and fundamentalist Islamist leanings, when it suited its political needs. Opposition from within official policy circles only exposed and curtailed the practice but did not end it. 

Thus, Seldowitz’s accurate reference, context, and pronunciation of the term ‘Mukhabarat’ was not a loose usage of the word driven by stray knowledge. Stemming from his professional background as a diplomat, it represents the controversial anti-terror investigation mechanism US and Egyptian officials evolved.  

Seldowitz was the deputy director and senior political officer in the US Department of State’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs from 1999 to 2003. He also served as an advisor in the National Security Council during the Obama administration. 

File Image
Egyptian President El-Sisi with UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed

Current Role In Egypt

Three periods in Egypt’s recent history have witnessed the Mukhabarat’s prominent role. One: Arab Spring protests across the Middle East saw mass demonstrations against the incumbent Hosni Mubarak, triggering a repressive response against the demonstrations. 

Following Mubarak’s ouster, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi came to power by allegedly manipulating electoral and Constitutional rules. His opponents accused him of usurping power, and many were arrested and jailed. 

This, too, saw protests against him when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed him in a coup. However, Sisi’s government has been accused of a heavy-handed clampdown on dissent and opposition, illegal detention of critics, and custodial deaths.