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The many faces of Sisi

The incriminating leaks come just weeks before a major donor conference for Egypt

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is an actor of some talent. To the revolutionary leaders in Tahrir Square, and to the youth leaders he met, he was the general who told them the army was on their side. To Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, he was the religiously observant officer, whose hands shook when told he would replace Hussein Tantawi as commander-in-chief. To liberals like Mohammed ElBaradei, Sisi was the man who would get rid of Morsi and hand over power to a civilian government. To America, Europe and Israel, he was a Westerner. To Nasserites, an Arab nationalist.

But sometime, somewhere, Sisi would be caught without a script, off-mic, revealing his real thoughts and personality. This has now happened in a series of leaks of recorded conversations featuring his senior officials. In earlier leaks, they were allegedly recorded giving instructions on what Egyptian TV anchors should say about Sisi’s candidacy for the presidency. They also appeared to be tampering with a high-profile court case of four police officers involved in the killing of 37 prisoners en route to prison.

On Saturday night the most significant of the leaks to date was broadcast, as they concerned conversations about Egypt’s Gulf donors. When the Turkey-based Egyptian satellite TV channel Mekameleen broadcast the audio recordings, the satellite link was jammed. The contents quickly came out on YouTube.

In one excerpt, allegedly recorded about a year ago, Sisi, Mahmoud Higazi, who was then head of military intelligence and now head of the army, and Brigadier General Abbas Kamil, the manager of Sisi's office, were talking about asking Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait for $10bn each. They discussed how the money was to be transferred - not into the coffers of the state, or the central bank, but surreptitiously into small amounts to bank accounts used by the Egyptian Army.

The translated excerpt reads:

Sisi: Look, you tell him that we need 10 to be deposited in the army's account. Ten what?

Kamil: Into the army's account.

Sisi: These ten, when we succeed will be worked for what? For the state. We want another ten like them from the UAE and we want from Kuwait another ten like them. That is in addition to the two pennies ( Egyptian expression for small amounts of money) to be deposited in the Central Bank and to complement the account of 2014.

Kamil (laughter)

Sisi: What are you laughing at?

Kamil (still laughing): He'll pass out.

Sisi: What?

Kamil: He'll pass out. (laughs)

Sisi: They have money like rice (meaning too much).

Kamil: I know, Sir.

Sisi: The Americans (tell them) this figure is this … like this.

In another recording, Kamil is allegedly telling a Saudi official, Fahad al-Askar, an aide to Khalid al-Tuwaijri, then Secretary General of the Saudi Royal Court that the Egyptian military council will back Sisi’s bid for the presidency. This was as the meeting itself was taking place.

The tone is contemptuous. In a third recording, Kamil describes his key Gulf donors as “half-states” who should "pay up" because they "are living a fancy life and have piles of money". Kamil said Kuwait owes Cairo for sending 35,000 troops to fight in the coalition against Baghdad after Iraq’s invasion in 1990. Egypt should have demanded the money then, he explains. 

These recordings have not been independently verified and they were leaked to a satellite station in Turkey that is pro-Morsi. The satellite channel is so confident that these voices are genuine though that they having them tested by international voice recognition experts. Coming on top of what has already been published from Saudi sources about the links between Sisi’s office and Tuwaijri, the weight of evidence leads one to conclude they are genuine.

The leaks are certainly timely and come just weeks before an international donors conference in which the same Gulf States are expected to cough up billions of dollars more. They show Sisi diverting money meant for the reconstruction of the state into the Egyptian Army’s coffers. And they beg the question: where has all this money gone?

The donor’s conference in Sharm el-Sheikh is key. A $4.8bn loan from the IMF has fallen through twice over its insistence that Egypt reform subsidies which account for one third of its budget. Without the money from donors, money from the IMF looks less likely.

Sisi has had the begging bowl out several times already. The last occasion was for an $8.5bn project to dig a second Suez Canal in the hope of doubling annual revenue of $5bn by 2023. Dredging work on the grandiose scheme started in January, but already there has been one collapse in a precipitation basin and there are rumours that companies might be considering pulling out. Sisi got this money from small investors to whom he promised large and swift returns.

Egypt’s budget is running at an annual deficit of around 10 to 11 percent. It has been given more than $33bn by the Gulf States, which is one third of the current budget, and still the budget continues to shrink. Not unlike the dredging works of the Suez Canal, money pours in and the grand project of rebuilding the shattered state continues to sink into the sand.

The latest leaks were intended, however, for another audience. Saudi King Salman has already turfed out the characters involved in Sisi’s cosy ring in Riyadh. But Saudi Arabia has yet to declare its policy on Egypt. Will the kingdom continue to bankroll a corrupt Egyptian army? For how much longer will Saudi Arabia see the Egyptian army as a stabilising force, when instability in the country is growing? Will it keep on funding, unconditionally? Already calls demanding accountability for the money Tuwaijri gave Sisi are making themselves heard. In a series of tweets, Prince Saud Bin Seif al-Nasr , the grandson of the late King Saud Bin Abdulazi, claimed that $20bn was stolen and divided between Tuwaijri and the Egyptian generals.

Despite the billions “showered on Egyptian generals like rain," no single problem has been resolved. “The Egyptians are still suffering from electricity, gas and bread crises. It is clear that the gang headed by him [Tuwaijri] stole the money with the Egyptian generals." Nasr tweeted.

The international scene already looks different to what it was for Sisi just one year ago. Saudi Arabia is under new management, and one that has kept its contacts with Turkey and Qatar, Sisi’s avowed enemies. Greece is, too. The alliance Egypt was trying to build with Greece and Israel also looks in tatters. Greece’s new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is on the other side on that particular confrontation.

Sisi has presented many faces to his bosses, his people and his former allies. Just maybe, more of them might be seeing his real face today.

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.    

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Photo: The latest leaks could make Sisi economically vulnerable (AFP)