The Sisi leaks and intra-regime power dynamics
“They shouldn't give me except cash,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to his chief aide and office manager, General Abbas Kamel. The latter, in turn, suggested that Gulf supporters should pay for much-needed commodities like wheat and oils and then ship them to Egypt.
That was one leak.
This was another: “Look, you tell him we need 10 [billion]
|Unlike Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad and the rest of the "90% club", Sisi cannot sack the defence minister.|
to be deposited in the military’s account. You tell him, then with God’s blessing when I win [the elections], that 10 will then work for the state. And we want another 10 from the Emirates and another 10 from Kuwait. And a couple of pennies to be put in the Central Bank to balance the 2014 budget,” Sisi told Kamel.
When Kamel laughed and told Sisi that the Saudi “facilitator” (apparently Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the former Secretary General of the Royal Court, who was sacked recently by King Salman) will faint on hearing the figures, Sisi replied: “Man, their money is like rice...the Americans take these amounts just like that.”
So far, the leaks that have surfaced revealing the not-for-public-consumption conversations between Sisi and his inner circle have been hard-hitting. They have shown an ugly mix of chauvinism and betrayed a willingness to milk regional patrons and local businessmen. Their conversations have suggested the forging of legal documents. They discuss criminal behaviour on tape, including concocting a legal case against former President Mohammed Morsi, dictating talking points to talk-show hosts on private TV channels, and giving the Prosecutor-General instructions to drop the charges in a high-profile corruption case against the son of a pro-coup senior journalist.
The persistence of the leaks and the powerful figures they touch, raise a few questions. The “touched” figures included General Mamdouh Shahin, the general in charge of the “legal portfolio” in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), General Abbas Kamel , Sisi’s chief aide and office manager, General Mohammad Ibrahim, the interior minister, General Osama El-Gindy, Chief of Naval Forces, General Mahmoud Hegazi, the current army chief of staff and a relative of Sisi. This is in addition to Sisi, himself.
Intra-regime power dynamics
Despite the level of exposure that the leaks introduce to the Egyptian scene, so far there is little new for anyone who is familiar with post-coup, military-dominated authoritarian regimes. Corruption, brutal repression, media and judicial manipulation are integral parts of the formula to dominate. Accountability and transparency are usually myths for public consumption.
So, what about the characters who are equally involved in this “formula” but were not mentioned in the leaks? Is that by coincidence or design? Perhaps the most important missing character is General Sedki Sobhi, the minister of defence. But other SCAF members are also important, such General Mohammad Said al-Assar (deputy defence minister for military affairs) and General Ahmed Wasfy (former commander of the Second Field Army, who was removed from his position by Sisi).
The January 2011 uprising has changed the intra-regime power dynamics quite significantly. Traditionally, since Nasser’s reign, the military officer who occupied the presidency was more powerful than the military officer at the helm of the army. And if they clashed, the former would defeat the latter. When Gamal Abdel Nasser clashed with “Field-Marshal” Amer, the latter allegedly killed himself. When Anwar Sadat clashed with General Mohammed Fawzy and other generals, it was they, not the president, who ended in jail. And even when mere rumours about the potential political rise of Field-Marshal Mohammad Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala circulated, Hosni Mubarak suddenly sacked - then later – humiliated him.
Since February 2011, that pattern has changed. The officer at the top of the high command (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) became the most powerful political actor, even compared to the presidency, the intelligence establishment and the security apparatuses. When interests clashed, the SCAF removed Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and then Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. The SCAF then appointed a third figure as an “interim president” after the July 2013 coup.
In January 2014, the SCAF “endorsed” one of its members as a presidential candidate; not that different from any local political party, except that the endorsement was communicated to a regional sponsor before it actually took place, according to a recent leak. The endorsed candidate, Abd al-Fattah al-Sis, became president in May 2014 by “96.9% of the vote”. But unlike Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and the rest of the “90% club”, Sisi cannot sack the defence minister except after the approval of the SCAF, according to the post-coup 2014 constitution.
So, do the leaks represent disaffection among factions within the ruling junta? And if they were merely warning shots, is a regime, composed principally of military and security hawks, capable of internal compromise or will these rivalries escalate? If they do escalate, will the result of the clash be a continuity of the 2011 pattern, that is: the defence minister jails the president?
It is hard to answer these questions without a clearer intra-regime factional map as well as an understanding of the issues at stake. So far, the leaks lack a deeper motive, aside from the obvious one: embarrassing and weakening Sisi’s faction, its pawns and tools.
But regardless of the ultimate objective and identities of the actors involved, the intra-regime tensions – reflected by these leaks– can have a positive impact on Egypt’s dismal democratization status and inglorious human rights record. Mubarak and the SCAF had similar views on the future of democracy in Egypt. But the removal of the former by the latter created unprecedented basic freedoms as well as free and fair elections. The strategic blunder of the pro-change forces was not to protect these achievements and then advance further. This blunder should not be repeated again if the opportunity arises.