Copts Work for CIA but Regime Oppresses The Islamic Movement

Crescent, Sept. 16-30, 1989, Vol. 18, #12
COMMENTARY - by our correspondent in Cairo

A recent secret trial in Cairo of what was described as a spy ring working for the CIA in Egypt ended with sentences of 10 years' imprisonment for two Coptic brothers (one a doctor at a Cairo University hospital) and five years for the US agent who recruited them between 1983 and 1988. They were uncovered by Egyptian intelligence services, gathering information on the activities of the Islamic movement with particular emphasis on the students and professors of Cairo University. The agent, who worked in the mid-eighties as a journalist on a Cairo-based English language magazine published by a US corporation for Egypt's large western community, was sentenced in absentia along with the second defendant in the case.

Secrecy surrounded the trial but an announcement of the fact that it had taken place at all was surprising as it could only be found embarrassing to all parties involved, not least to the Egyptian regime itself. The chief defendant's lawyers and his family forged visit passes with the signature of the chief prosecutor to see him in prison. This led to the cancellation of all visits to the thousands of Islamic detainees held in Cairo prisons. The chief defendant Samy Yusef Ibrahim claimed that he was innocent but had been framed by the Egyptian authorities to fake a spy case in exchange of one uncovered in the US last year when an Egyptian was charged with smuggling defense materials into Egypt. Even if this were true, it did not negate the fact that the Egyptian intelligence services chose a known US information gathering network as their target for a tit-for-tat operation.

According to the prosecution's submission to the State security court that tried the defendants, the group tried to recruit workers of the Islamic movement to spy on their comrades for the CIA. The spy ring was accused of fomenting sectarian strife between Muslims and Copts. Reports filtering from the secret trial suggested that the Copts themselves may have committed arson of churches and cabinets which had been blamed on Islamic groups at the time. The two Coptic brothers were also said to have tried to organize and finance groups of Coptic youths in Cairo University to confront the dominance of the Islamic groups in the student unions.

The announcement of the verdict may have been an indirect reply to recent US charges that Egypt was spying on them to get advanced technology for its arms industry. Otherwise, the nature of the case and possible revelations during the trial necessitated a media blackout being imposed by the official press. It was embarrassing for the regime to admit that its main benefactor, the US, had been spying so openly and brazenly on the country's largest political and social movement. This spying ring was obviously no(t) working in utter secrecy as normally happens. It must have been known at least to the intelligence services who easily cracked it when the order was given last November, after the Egyptian spy was uncovered in California. [J4JP Note: The Arab media had absolutely no qualms about characterizing Helmy as a "spy". What a pity that politics prevented our Justice Department from prosecuting him as one!]

The case caused other highly embarrassing aspects least of all to the Americans. It was embarrassing to the Copts whose spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda, gave press interviews early in July attacking the Islamic movement saying that it threatened the security of the State in a manner that the Copts did not. His statements came only two weeks before the sensational announcement of the trial. The naiveté merely fuelled suspicion that Copts were cooperating with foreign agents and that this 'cooperation' had reached a serious level.

The security forces in Egypt came off the worst from this case particularly as it was the general intelligence services and not the much-vaunted security police that brought the case to trial. It exposed their obsession with Islamic activism rather than caring for the overall security of the State. Moreover, there were doubts that the State security police actually turned a blind eye on the foreign agencies, notably US and Israeli, against the Islamic movement because they were exchanging information on a regular basis.

Despite the secrecy and the potential embarrassment to the regime, the foreign journalist based in Cairo virtually ran a media campaign on behalf of the Coptic defendants to have president Mubarak cancel the sentences. It is incredible that such activities are tolerated where dozens of Islamic activists are sentenced on trumped-up charges. But this audacity reflects the strength of foreign powers in Egypt.

© Muslimedia, London 1989

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