Will the real faces of Egypt’s new revolution please step forward? Is it the young hipsters of the Tamarod movement, the revamped coalition of Facebookers who first took to the streets in 2011? Is it the ex-Mubarakites, who, after a year of Islamist government, realised they had more in common with the Facebookers than they originally thought? Or, could it be a rather jowlier, more thuggish set of faces altogether, not generally known for their love of democracy and human rights?
Step forward, yes, the men from state security, whose undercover operatives have played an extraordinary behind-the-scenes role in recent events. Easily identified by their “Plainclothes-Man-at-C&A” look of smart slacks, casual shirt and leather jacket with a distinctive bulge, they were bete noir of the Facebookers in Tahrir Square in 2011, whom they would duff up and arrest with gusto.
Now, though, those same brutish men appear to have changed sides, if not clothes, protecting the anti-government crowds who demonstrated against President Morsi in recent weeks. So is it an outbreak of sudden peace and love among Egypt’s spooks? Or is the “deep state”, as it’s known in Egypt, back with a vengeance?
For once, this is a conspiracy theory that appears to have some credence. The Amn al-Dawla, or State Security Investigations Service, was a hated organisation during Mubarak’s time, a sign that Egypt, despite its tourist friendly image, was a police state in much the same mould as Syria or Iraq.
Its 100,000 staff monitored every walk of Egyptian life, even organisations such as hospitals and universities, and to get on the wrong side of them politically was to have one’s card marked for life (or, in some cases, death).
It was no surprise, therefore, when after Mr Mubarak’s fall in 2011, its headquarters were ransacked by crowds of angry demonstrators. Back then, anyone who even looked vaguely like a state-security man – burly, middle-aged, bad dress sense – could get surrounded by a mob and beaten up.
But while state security lost its stranglehold of terror that time, and has been in something of a directionless flux ever since, no organisation with 100,000 people in it just disappears completely. And crucially, its leaders did not form a warm relationship with the Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood masters when they swept to power in last year’s elections.
From the Brotherhood’s point of view, state security had beaten up and tortured far too many Brotherhood followers to ever be trusted to any real degree. And from state security’s point of view, far too many Brotherhood types had pasts as violent militants, who had no business being anywhere near the reins of power.
Hence the sight of plain clothes men mingling in recent weeks with the crowds of anti-government protesters, this time with a view to protecting them rather than singling out people to cart away for questioning. So is there a genuine change of heart, or is it just a good instinct for self-preservation?
One Egyptian friend of mine, Cairo surgeon Ali Abdelwahab, thinks it’s a bit of both. A fervent supporter of the 2011 revolution, he is no fan of state security, with bitter memories of how the resident agent in his own university hospital used to swagger into the Dean’s office and put his feet on the desk. But he also knows a few of them personally, and reckons they have wised up a little since 2011.
“They have had a bit of self-insight since then,” he says. “Some of them now want to be a modern, functioning part of society rather than people who are hated by everyone.”
Whether that will happen, of course, is another matter. Liberal Egyptians like Dr Abdelwahab want an Egypt that is no more a police state any more than it is an Islamist state. But as they often say in the Arab world, it doesn’t matter how many revolutions there are, or who comes and goes in power – the men in leather jackets will always be watching.