CAIRO — “Angry” was the way many described President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s improvised speech during the inauguration ceremony of the Zohr natural gas field on January 31.
The president declared that the only way Egypt’s national security could be compromised was over his “dead body” and the “dead body of the military.”
But with whom exactly the president is angry is not clear. Sisi did not specify whether he was addressing opposition leaders — many of whom have called for a boycott of the upcoming presidential elections — or individuals within state institutions who have antagonized him recently.
The speech follows a series of high-level shuffles within the security apparatus, with Sisi unexpectedly dismissing Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy in October. According to a family friend, Hegazy had been under house arrest until December 16, when he appeared at a small event held in his honor — which the president attended — and where the dismissed official was permitted limited movement under strict surveillance.
Last month, Sisi also dismissed Khaled Fawzy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS). Fawzy’s movement has also been restricted, according to a source close to his family. He was removed from his post after calls were allegedly leaked in which a man who appears to be affiliated with Military Intelligence speaks to media talk show hosts and celebrities and instructs them to appear understanding of US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The man is also heard condemning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for political stances that Cairo is not pleased with, especially with the rapprochement between Kuwait and Qatar and the fear of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. The leaks have yet to be independently verified.
According to a Foreign Ministry source and to a European diplomat who has recently visited both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the leaked calls have made officials from both countries unhappy and compelled the Egyptian Foreign Ministry to release a statement of apology to Kuwait and take unannounced measures to placate Saudi Arabia.
A former government official says that Fawzy lost his position following accusations that his grip on the service was weak, and reports that the leak was the fault of members of the GIS, who are currently under investigation. The official predicts that an order that will see a large group of these officers retired will be issued soon, as part of a large-scale “purge” that began on the day of Sisi’s inauguration in 2014 and has continued since, so far affecting approximately 200 GIS leaders, officers and administrators. Some of these individuals had been handling vital issues, such as Egypt’s relations with Israel, Palestinian factions and countries in the Horn of Africa.
Anan’s arrest was carried out after unsuccessful attempts to convince him to withdraw his bid.
Several GIS members are also being investigated for continued contact with former Air Forces’ Chief of Staff Ahmed Shafiq or for sympathizing with former Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff Sami Anan, according to the former official. Both Shafiq and Anan acted briefly as contenders to Sisi’s 2018 presidential bid.
In January, Anan was arrested and detained at a military prison following his public challenge to Sisi in a video statement, in which he implicitly accused the president of relinquishing national lands and waters. According to sources in direct contact with several military figures, Sisi spoke directly to a number of Armed Forces leaders before ordering that disciplinary action be taken against Anan.
Anan’s arrest, according to these sources, was carried out after 48 hours of unsuccessful attempts to convince him to withdraw his bid. The attempts were made by some of the highest profile military men, and involved former Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, with whom Anan had worked closely for nearly a decade under former President Hosni Mubarak. Mohamed al-Shahat, the head of Military Intelligence, as well as Abbas Kamel, the president’s chief of staff and acting director of the GIS, were also involved in these attempts.
According to a retired military source, Sisi refused the idea of simply denying Anan the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is legally required for military men to run for president. He, instead, insisted that a firm stance be taken and backed up by the Armed Forces, which had backed his own bid for presidency four years ago when he was serving as defense minister.
Sisi, the sources report, instructed Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, the Defense Ministry’s deputy director for legal affairs, to draft the statement that was released by the general command of the Armed Forces and broadcast on national television on the day of Anan’s arrest.
The sources’ accounts are in line with a journalist’s first-hand testimony of a conversation led by former SCAF member and current Minister of Military Production Mohamed al-Assar during a reception ceremony held by the Saudi Embassy in Cairo at the end of January. Assar spoke to a small group of Egyptian journalists about what he described as a “violation” committed by Anan, not just of the law, but of military norms. For Assar, Armed Forces leaders could not let it appear as though the military was fielding two candidates competing over power, and the decision to arrest Anan was only made after all efforts to sway him away from candidacy had failed.
The same ceremony attendant recounts that Assar affirmed that the Egyptian military would not allow one of its leaders to be humiliated; while being charged with violating military laws must entail disciplinary action, Anan’s punishment “will not be more than six months of house arrest, which he’ll serve in his own home.”
Before this showdown, Anan had placed calls to a withdrawn candidate urging him to remain in the race, according to one of the candidate’s campaigners, who added that Anan said, “Egypt’s political life is in dire need of saving.”
Meanwhile, weeks after his month-long forced stay at the Cairo hotel where he had been held since his arrival to Egypt on December 2, following his deportation from the UAE, Shafiq — who was also prime minister during former President Hosni Mubarak’s final days in power— remains unable to move freely, according to friends of his family.
This would strip him of his title as the savior of the country.
Several sources report that Shafiq had withdrawn his earlier bid for presidency after having been bargained with and been subjected to pressure over the span of a month, during which he was detained at the hotel. The talks with the lieutenant general were led by Kamel, Shahat and Fawzy, before Fawzy was sacked.
This is not to forget Ahmed Konsowa, a military officer who was handed a six-year prison sentence by a military court in December for “violating military codes” by announcing his desire to resign from the military and run for office in a video he posted online.
According to the former official, the president would not have allowed “competition against him for the rule of Egypt, because this would strip him of his title as the savior of the country, and render him a mere politician who can be competed with over power. He truly believes that he saved Egypt and that he is seeking to guide the country on the way to recovery from the setbacks that had been caused by Gamal [Mubarak].”
Voicing the same sentiment and using similar terms, the withdrawn presidential candidate’s campaigner says that his former potential candidate’s decision to withdraw his bid was made in light of a message relayed by figures within the president’s closer circles: The candidacy is unwelcome and “he should withdraw safely or otherwise be met with unpleasant misfortune.”
The former government official also says that those in official circles mostly believe that the Shafiq and Anan stories will be forgotten by the public in a few weeks, the president will be “reelected smoothly, and efforts to draft amendments to the Constitution may even resume.”
These amendments would likely see the two-term limit removed, the presidential term extended from four to six years, and perhaps even the defense minister’s impunity revoked. The committee drafting the 2014 Constitution had designated an eight-year tenure – starting in 2014 – for the defense minister, which cannot be revoked by the president without the approval of SCAF. It was tailor-made to protect Sisi in the event that he decided not to run for office and opted to remain in his post as defense minister.
Several Western diplomats based in Cairo believe that the president has successfully sidelined his challengers, and that calm will be restored within the next few weeks.
The diplomats also report that Sisi has been directly informed, during US Vice President Mike Pence’s late-January visit to Cairo, that he has the backing of the current US administration for a second term.
According to a well-informed Western diplomat based in Cairo, the US’s only demand of Sisi regarding the elections was to find a contender, any contender, and not run unopposed, as the return of near-referendums for the reelection of the president would have further intensified the tension between Republican and Democratic congressmen over the deterioration of democracy in Egypt.