Divining Divisions in Egypt’s Deep State

Guest post by Scott Williamson

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi salutes the country’s flag. By Faris Knight.

Several leaked conversations have been causing embarrassment for the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. On January 19, a pro-Islamist satellite station aired an alleged recording of Sisi’s then office manager and the military’s then spokesperson discussing how to manipulate the media during last year’s presidential election. Two additional leaks in December reportedly captured senior officers and officials close to the president talking about attempts to tamper with the judicial process. By all accounts, Sisi has consolidated his power effectively since Egypt’s July 2013 coup; certainly, he has gone to great lengths to project an image of a state apparatus firmly united behind his rule. Occasionally, however, the public has been treated to hints of divisions inside Egypt’s deep state—of which the leaks might plausibly be the latest.

Egyptians, of course, have been busy speculating over the source of the leaks. The government claims the recordings are forgeries (which is entirely possible), but even pro-government media personalities have covered them as potentially authentic. One obvious possibility is that Islamist sympathizers within the military or intelligence services passed the recordings to favorable media outlets. Such sympathies would not be unheard of—40 cadets were recently expelled from the Police Academy for alleged Islamist ties, and a militant who attempted to assassinate the interior minister was a former army officer. But Egypt’s state institutions are famously closed to outsiders, and these incidents at least seem to have been outliers since the coup.

Another possibility is that the leaks reflect political maneuvering inside the regime, with anti-Sisi factions releasing the recordings to embarrass the president or his allies. As documented by Hazem Kandil in Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Egypt has been no stranger to nasty internal fights between competing political, bureaucratic, and security institutions. On one level, this maneuvering has involved institutional competition for greater power and resources, but these struggles have also been tied up in personal political conflicts. Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all fought to prevent challenges from rivals—potential and actual—in the state apparatus. Despite his apparent popularity and control of the military, Sisi is not immune to the same dynamic, and the president has already demonstrated a sensitivity to potential challengers with their own connections to the deep state.

On December 14, for instance, security officials censored the Egyptian newspaper Al-Mesryoon. No official explanation was given, but it was reported that one of the censored articles had discussed the recent leaks in connection with political competition between Sisi and Ahmed Shafik—a former Air Force commander, prime minister, and presidential candidate. Shafik has been in Dubai since losing the 2012 election to Morsi, but he continues to be an influential figure in Egyptian politics. Prior to Sisi’s election last year, rumors were circulating that Shafik would jump into the race. The former prime minister publicly backed Sisi, but more leaked recordings allegedly captured him criticizing the field marshal and complaining that the vote would be rigged.

Sisi also seems to have a particularly tense relationship with Sami Anan, the former chief of staff of the Egyptian military whose retirement coincided with Sisi’s rise to defense minister in 2012. Anan publicly flirted with a presidential run last year, until he backed out after claiming divisions in the military and an alleged assassination attempt against him. The former officer has tried to stay politically relevant, but he has been smeared in the press and in December his political party was denied registration by the government, blocking its ability to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections.

While Sisi tolerated the cosmetic candidacy of leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi in last year’s presidential race, he has clearly been less willing to countenance a potential competitor with a background in the military and security forces. Sisi has already been shuffling around government officials as well, recently replacing his former mentor General el-Tohamy as director of Egyptian General Intelligence. Without his own organized political base, the president is all the more reliant on the state apparatus and cannot afford rivals who might undermine his control. That dependence, not to mention the suppression of popular politics since the July coup, points to the importance of politics within the deep state for understanding current political developments in Egypt.

Unfortunately, determining the extent to which internal divisions actually exist or matter is an almost impossible task, since speculation over rumors and the occasional leak is often the best information available. It could very well be true that Sisi has “surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious…institutions in the modern Egyptian state.” But the reality is that it remains difficult to gauge the firmness of Sisi’s internal support, or to predict how potential divisions within the state apparatus might play out if Egypt fails to escape its political and economic morass in the coming years.

Update (1/31/2015): On September 28, Sami Anan’s political party won its appeal at the Supreme Administrative Court to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Scott Williamson is a PhD student in political science at Stanford University.

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