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Mohamed Ali: Sisi and family toured new palace as Cairo burned

Renovations demanded by Sisi's wife doubled the publicly funded project's cost, whistleblower tells MEE as he reveals the family's passion for spending
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his wife Intissar Amer last year (AFP)

On the evening of 5 December, 2012, the Egyptian capital witnessed one of the deadliest clashes between supporters and opponents of then-President Mohamed Morsi outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace. By night's end, 11 people had been killed.

Five miles across town, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then defence minister, and his family were touring their newly built, multi-million dollar palace in Cairo's Helmeya district, businessman-turned-whistleblower Mohamed Ali told Middle East Eye.

“People in Ittihadiya were dying. People couldn’t find fuel or food," he said. Yet the tour continued.

Ali, 45, worked for 15 years as a military contractor in Egypt until he fled the country earlier this year and started posting videos, detailing his experiences working on the inside and calling for uprisings against Sisi.

Earlier this week, Ali spoke to MEE at length in a secret location in Spain and offered more details about his projects, including renovations that gave him an inside look into Sisi's family life.

The first time Ali said he heard about Sisi was when his company was chosen by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to build a new villa for Sisi’s family in Cairo's historic Helmeya.

Sisi had been appointed defence minister by Morsi in August 2012, replacing Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy. 

Tantawy, according to Ali, lived in the vicinity of the house where the late Egyptian General Abdelhakim Amer, who led Egypt's army during the 1967 Middle East war, once lived.

Tantawy had preserved Amer's house. But when Sisi became defence minister, his wife, Intissar, refused to live in Amer's house, so Sisi ordered it to be demolished and a new house built in its place, Ali said.

'The country was on fire, and the people were killing each other in the streets, but he was still very interested in the house and its details'

- Mohamed Ali

The residence, paid for by the armed forces, was initially planned to cost 25m Egyptian pounds (then $3.9m), but then the expenses jumped to 60m ($9.5m) after feedback from Sisi’s wife. 

Every few days, Sisi would come to view the house, including that December evening when the clashes broke out over Morsi, who Sisi would later remove in a 2013 military coup. Ali said he started to see Sisi's family seemingly unconcerned with the political and economic crisis swirling around them.

“I realised how frivolous he was. The country was on fire, and the people were killing each other in the streets, but he was still very interested in the house and its details, the pool, the rooms in the master suite, and his children’s rooms,” Ali told MEE.

“And then he started to do the viewings with Intissar and the children: they walked around the house, each one of them wanting to realise their dreams, checking their rooms, the pool and jacuzzi, and how big the kitchen was.”

'State of Sisi and Intissar'

Ali’s revelations about Sisi’s wife and children have shed rare light on the president’s family, who largely stay out of the public eye, and has emboldened Egyptians to view and speak about the first family beyond the image it had carefully crafted.

In 2012, when they first met, Ali said Egypt was a country with two states: the state of Morsi and the state of Sisi and Intissar. 

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“I was working in the state of Sisi and Intissar,” he told MEE.

“Intissar and her children had a great passion for spending, something you couldn't even imagine,” he said.

Ali says that Intissar saw herself as “the queen of the universe" with her demands for the Helmeya palace pushing the designated budget up by millions. 

"She is some sort of a Sultan of Brunei, on her own. She is very fussy. She doesn't like anything,” he described the first lady.  She and her children “have their own budget within the state".

Sisi’s sons

Sisi’s sons, according to Ali, hold senior positions within the two most vital intelligence and anti-corruption agencies and wield significant power. 

Mahmoud, Sisi’s oldest son, is the de facto head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the country's leading intelligence agency.

Meanwhile his other son, Mustafa, works for the Administrative Control Authority, the agency tasked with gathering information about administration and financial violations within the government, and referring cases on to prosecutors.

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Mahmoud el-Sisi’s name first came to light last spring with reports of his leading role in coordinating his father’s bid to amend the constitution in order to extend his time in power. 

“The most powerful agencies in the country are controlled by his sons. So who’s going to monitor who?” Ali asked. 

Discussing Mahmoud’s growing influence in Egypt, Mohamed Ali told MEE that he has essentially become the head of the intelligence apparatus even though he is less senior in military rank than many officers. 

President Sisi appointed his former office manager Abbas Kamel as head of the GID in June 2018, replacing Khaled Fawzy. 

Kamel’s main qualification, according to Ali, was his close relationship with Sisi. With a close ally as head of the agency, Mahmoud would naturally be the de facto head, said Ali.

“So if today I am the president’s office manager, who will I be loyal to? To the president. And how about when his son is hired to work with me? Will I be able to upset his son? His father will fire me like he fired others,” Ali said.