Leaks Gain Credibility and Potential to Embarrass Egypt’s Leaders


For months, a steady trickle of leaked audio recordings has appeared to offer a rare chance to eavesdrop on embarrassing conversations among the inner circle of army generals around President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ofEgypt.

Mr. Sisi and the generals can be heard laughing at their Persian Gulf patrons; pulling strings to manipulate the courts, the news media and neighboring countries; and stashing billions of dollars in special military accounts outside the control of the civilian government — if the recordings are accurate.

Now, some evidence has emerged to suggest they are. In three reports given to the British police, a respected audio forensics firm has found “moderately strong” evidence to authenticate Mr. Sisi’s voice on two recordings and the voice of a top general, Mamdouh Shaheen, on another.

There are “no indications” that the recordings were fabricated by splicing together disparate statements out of context, the firm, J. P. French Associates, concluded, calling such editing extremely implausible.

The group that commissioned the reports has a bias: lawyers representing the political party of an ousted president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Sisi, then the top general, removed Mr. Morsi in a military takeover in 2013. The lawyers are trying to use the recordings as evidence in a criminal case in Britain charging the takeover’s leaders with torture and other human rights violations.

But many Egyptian intellectuals and Western and Arab diplomats in Cairo say they have already come to accept the recordings as authentic, if only because of the increasingly pro forma nature of the government’s denials. More than two hours of recordings have been leaked since fall.

After quickly dismissing the first leaks as fabricated, the government has scarcely bothered to dispute the others. Spokesmen for the president, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment or to return phone calls for this article.

Commentators considered sympathetic to Mr. Sisi have shrugged off questions. “Everyone records during the time of chaos,” Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the dean of Egyptian journalists, who was former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s confidant, said of the leaks in a television interview a few months ago.

Others say the existence of the leaks is more embarrassing than the content. “It does not just tell us that there are divisions on the inside,” argued Rabab el-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “It also tells us that they are so incompetent, to allow these recordings inside the Defense Ministry for such a long span of time.”

All of the leaks appear to have been recorded in the office of Gen. Abbas Kamel, a top aide to Mr. Sisi, during a roughly 12-month period precedingMr. Sisi’s election as president last year. All the leaks save one mention events after Mr. Morsi’s military ouster, and most have been released through Islamist satellite networks based abroad.

The Egyptian news media have largely ignored them. The privately owned news outlets have continued to cheer for Mr. Sisi with one voice, as they have since the takeover.

One leak suggests just how minutely the generals appear to believe they can shape their own coverage. “There is a point that we want all of our media personalities on TV to debate,” General Kamel tells an associate: that any criticism of Mr. Sisi is a “shame” to the nation.

Naming several prominent talk show hosts, General Kamel says that they should remind the public that Mr. Sisi is “this brave, special, free and patriotic Egyptian,” and so criticizing him is “slandering this beautiful thing we have found in our lives.”

“Our dear Egyptian people, do you like this being done to the man who labored and sacrificed?” General Kamel suggests.

Then he asks his listener repeatedly: “Are you listening? Are you writing this down or not?” adding, “Stir up the people with it!”

Mr. Sisi himself says in another leak that he wants to be seen as a man “on a nearly impossible mission” who is “carrying the responsibility of a country in an existential crisis,” an image that has indeed permeated his portrayal in the news media here.

In another recording, General Kamel asks General Shaheen, the assistant defense minister for legal affairs, to intervene with a judge in order to help the son of a fellow general. The son was among the security officers charged in connection with the deaths of over 30 Islamist prisoners who had suffocated from tear gas in the back of a police truck.

General Shaheen promises to persuade the judge to allow more defense witnesses like prison guards and wardens: “I will speak to the judge so that he allows this.”

“I will get them for you,” he says, adding, “Don’t worry.” (All the officers charged were ultimately acquitted.)

General Shaheen also asks the interior minister at the time, Mohamed Ibrahim, to “fabricate” a backdated document to help cover up Mr. Morsi’s detention on a military base instead of in a prison.

Prosecutors fear their case against Mr. Morsi “will get ruined” because “Morsi’s defense lawyers are playing games with them about this early detention period,” General Shaheen says in one recording. He asks the interior minister to backdate a writ “like we used to do” when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces governed directly in 2011 and 2012.

At another point, Mr. Sisi reflects that Egyptians have a higher tolerance than Americans for police violence. “Did you see how the Americans played it there?” Mr. Sisi asks General Kamel, apparently watching television news footage of American police officers clashing with rioters.

“This is dirtier than we have,” General Kamel replies, saying that “the people there are not used to it like that.”

“Yes, of course, correct,” Mr. Sisi says.

Mr. Sisi says he also wants to collaborate with Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam, a cousin of Libya’s deposed dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, about what the generals call efforts to “change Libya” and “remove the Brotherhood.

“It is necessary; he is important politically,” Mr. Sisi tells the other generals, “but he wants money.”

“He will open a way for us,” agrees Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, now the military chief of staff and father-in-law of a son of Mr. Sisi.

“We still have not met what’s-his-name, this Hifter,” General Hegazy adds, referring to a general in Libya, Khalifa Hifter, who later announced an attempted takeover that sounded like Mr. Sisi’s and is now battling Islamist militias for the city of Benghazi.

Several recordings relate to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which together have given more than $42 billion over about 22 months to back the military takeover.

In a recording that appears to precede the takeover, General Kamel discusses Emirati money in a bank account controlled by the generals for use in fomenting the calls for Mr. Morsi’s ouster.

“Sir, we will need 200 tomorrow from Tamarrod’s account — you know, the part from the U.A.E., which they transferred,” General Kamel tells Gen. Sedky Sobhy. Tamarrod, or Rebellion, was the ostensibly independent group agitating for Mr. Morsi’s early exit, and General Kamel clarifies that he means 200,000 Egyptian pounds — about $30,000 at the time.

In a later recording, Mr. Sisi bluntly instructs General Kamel to keep the Persian Gulf donations — presumably speaking of billions of dollars or Egyptian pounds — under the exclusive control of the Egyptian military and not the civilian government.

“You tell him that we need 10 to be put in the account of the army. Those 10, when God makes us successful, we put to work for the state,” Mr. Sisi says, apparently referring to his own universally expected success in the presidential election. “We need another 10 from the U.A.E., and an additional 2 cents to be put in the Central Bank, to complete the accounting for the year 2014.”

“Why are you laughing?” Mr. Sisi asks General Kamel. “They have money like rice, man!”

With Saudi Arabia, “we do not ask for small change,” General Kamel says in another recording, discussing a donation from the Saudis of about $4 million to $6 million for health services.

He and the other officers then appear to laugh at the incompetence ofEgypt’s civilian Health Ministry. “Let’s hand it over to the Ministry of Health, see what it has that is useful, and get out of this game,” one officer suggests jokingly, and the others chuckle.

In another call, Mr. Sisi sounds incredulous of the sums they have received. “No, no, no! Not $8 billion in six months, no!” he says, before a count convinces him they have in fact received a total of over $30 billion.

“May God continue providing!” Mr. Sisi says.

“Amen, sir,” answers General Kamel.

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