“Do you have a mobile with a camera?” one of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi’s security guards asked the US Secretary of State John Kerry as he attempted to enter a room to meet with the Egyptian president on a visit to New Delhi earlier this month.
“What?” answered Kerry, surprised.
Why was Sisi concerned that Kerry might have a mobile phone with a camera at an official meeting?
“Do you have a mobile with a camera,” the security guard repeated. “No” said Kerry, after which the security guard let him through.
The video of this incident went viral on social media, with several activists ridiculing the security guard under the hashtag “#معاك_موبايل_بكاميرا” (Do you have a mobile phone with a camera?). “The guard did not know that this guy is the US Secretary of State in the first place and this shows how unqualified the security guard is because the ruler himself is backward,” one tweet read.
But aside from the jokes, this incident triggers a serious question: why was Sisi concerned that Kerry might have a mobile phone with a camera at an official meeting?
In fact, the incident reflects Sisi's existential fear of any type of surveillance of him, given his unwavering belief, which pops up in almost all his speeches, about plots and conspiracy theories of the “Fourth Generation War” in which global powers, led by the US, utilise media, psychology and intelligence to wreak havoc in Egypt and the whole region.
For Sisi, any type of dissent against his rule is a recipe for chaos and dissidents are intentionally or unintentionally agents of foreign powers.
Among other terms he always uses include “foreign agents”, “people of evil” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, “hellish schemes” and “hidden hands” that have all banded together to bring down Egypt.
A few days after the New Delhi incident, widespread footage showed the Egyptian president at the G20 summit in China waiting to greet US President Barack Obama. The US president, however, appeared to snub Sisi, offering only a quick handshake amid similar rebuffs from surrounding officials.
After the scene, pro-Sisi TV presenter Ahmed Moussa dedicated his show to insulting and gloating over Obama. “Two presidents were the most humiliated, Erdogan and Obama,” he said.
Sisi arrives in China for the G20 where Obama snubbed him (AFP)
Last May, Egyptian authorities prevented journalists accompanying Kerry from entering the country. One of the banned journalists, New York Times correspondent David E Sanger, wrote that Egyptian authorities were afraid that journalists would ask Egyptian president “a question or two about the dissidents he has jailed. Instead only photographers and videographers would be permitted inside (the presidential palace) to record the ritual handshakes between Mr Kerry and Mr Sisi”.
For more than two decades, Sanger said, he accompanied US officials to even the most repressive countries. “I am used to watching leaders disappear behind closed doors. But not even being allowed to see the doors close sets something of a new standard,” he wrote.
Even earlier, in July 2014, Kerry was personally inspected after passing through a full-body scanner while entering the presidential palace to meet Sisi, an unprecedented act that triggered a campaign of sarcasm.
These repeated incidents suggest that Sisi’s fear of the surveillance of his conversations is related to Kerry himself or US officials from the Obama administration, which seems hesitant to recognise his legitimacy. Obama has not visited Egypt since 2009.
Sisi’s overzealous caution over potential US surveillance is evidenced by the fact that officials from other countries have not experienced the same degree of inspection.
As a former director of military intelligence, Sisi might well be worried by the fact that tapping of telephone lines is widespread in the US, given that two major telecommunications companies in the US - AT&T Inc. and Verizon - have contracts with the FBI.
Several Western firms, including the Milan-based Hacking Team, sell intrusion and surveillance technology to repressive countries in the Middle East, including United Arab Emirates and Egypt. This technology is used by Sisi’s government to keep both dissidents and Islamists under his radar.
However, Sisi is fearful that the same methods he has been using could be used by the US to monitor him.
Fourth generation fears
Specifically, Sisi may be worried that US officials could wiretap off-the-record parts of his meetings with Kerry. Sisi’s growing suspicions of the US came after Washington temporarily froze the annual $1.5bn-worth military aid, forcing Egypt to turn to Russia, Germany and France.
Sisi’s suspicion of US officials reflects a combination of anxieties, conspiracy theories, his hatred of social media, and the fact that he has been bitten several times by leaks
Then last year, the Obama administration announced it would reinstate military aid to Egypt after the expansion of the Islamic State in Sinai. But the return of the aid does not necessarily mean that the diplomatic ties are the same as they were under Mubarak.
Sisi’s suspicion of US officials reflects a combination of anxieties, most notably, conspiracy theories about US-led "Fourth Generation Wars" in the Arab region, his hatred of social media which many believe triggered the post-Arab uprising turmoil, and the fact that he has been bitten several times by leaks exposing his real intentions.
After the recent incident with Kerry, the government’s mouthpiece Ahmed Moussa said that “Americans spy on everything” and “are masters in recording, wiretapping”. In another TV talk show, Moussa presented a controversial video game to show real-life Russian air strikes in Syria. “This is the difference between a force fighting terrorism (referring to Russians) and a force supporting and financing terrorism (referring to Americans).”
This is the same explanation offered for the Egyptian uprising in 2011, that the revolution was fuelled by US, Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and Iranian agents.
In fact, Sisi himself is a product of conspiratorial thought which he often uses to cover up his bad governance that has led to the worsening economic crisis, and is also used to strike fear in Egyptians to foil any potential public revolt against his rule.
His passion for conspiracy talk suggests his belief in a US-inspired plot to take over the region, one that is widely shared in Egypt. Both pro- and anti-Sisi media speak about the “New Middle East” - a term coined by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in June 2006 - believing that it is a US plot to redraw the map of the region.
Dreams or nightmares?
Last year, Turkey-based Egyptian satellite TV channel Mekameleen, known for supporting deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, broadcast an audio recording featuring then-defence minister Sisi making offensive remarks to his aides about Gulf states in early 2014. These leaks may be one of the reasons that Gulf countries became less enthusiastic about their unconditional aid flow to Egypt.
Early in Sisi’s rule, parts of an interview he gave to Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm that were off-the-record were also leaked despite security procedures. “Thirty five years ago, I had a dream that I am holding a sword. On it, there is a sentence reading there is no God but God in red colour,” Sisi said in the leaked records. In another dream, Sisi talked about a dialogue with former president Anwar Sadat predicting that Sisi would be president and Sisi replied saying, “Yes I know.”
Despite his dreams – or maybe as a result of nightmares reminiscent to Shakespeare’s Macbeth - Sisi fears that, in a vicious circle of panic and doubt from every possible corner, his repressive policies will return to haunt him.
- Muhammad Mansour is a journalist from Egypt, who covered the Arab uprisings, and who writes about Egyptian affairs, Sinai insurgency and broader Middle Eastern issues. For more details, visit www.muhammadmansour.com.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye
Photo: A screenshot of footage Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi’s security guard ask the US Secretary of State John Kerry about his mobile phone (You Tube)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.