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Why Egypt's Sissi Is Pulling His Son Out of the Spotlight

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A supporter of Egyptian President Sissi shouts slogans as she demonstrates after Friday prayers in Alexandria, Egypt, September 27, 2019. 
A supporter of Egyptian President Sissi shouts slogans as she demonstrates after Friday prayers in Alexandria, Egypt, September 27, 2019. Credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/ REUTERS

Mahmoud al-Sissi, the eldest son of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, is expected to play a senior role in the Egyptian military delegation to Moscow next year. There is supposedly nothing out of the ordinary about this report. But this time, it comes on the heels of an earthquake that has been shaking the Egyptian intelligence services for the past two years.

That is because Mahmoud al-Sisi is no ordinary intelligence officer who has risen through the ranks. In his 30s, he has skipped rapidly up from major to a rank parallel to general in four years, and he now holds the position of professional head of the General Intelligence Service. He is in charge of relations between the intelligence service and the Egyptian media. In this position, he is considered the unofficial deputy head of Egyptian intelligence, General Abbas Kamel, and even seems to overshadow his boss. 

Distancing him from the nexus of his enormous power is intended to calm discontent towards him within the security apparatus in particular and the Egyptian Defense Ministry in general. According to the news site Mada Masr, which exclusively broke the report, the president made the final decision to send his son away after consulting his friend and close associate Emirati Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed. Sissi also discussed it with Kamel, who is also a close friend, and other members of the Sissi family, including the president’s second son, Mustafa, who holds a senior position in government oversight. Also involved was his third son, Hassan, who is a high-ranking official in the General Intelligence Service and is married to Dalia Hegazy, the daughter of a former head of the General Intelligence Service who was fired in 2017 and is now a presidential adviser.

According to Mada Masr’s sources, Mahmoud al-Sissi has been sidelined as a result of his recent failures in dealing with a number of delicate affairs. These include accusations of deep-seated corruption leveled against the military establishment, the president and his family by Mohamed Ali, a former military contractor and actor. Ali has exposed projects that were assigned without tenders, construction of palaces for the president with public funds and without oversight and graft on the part of senior military officials, naming names. 

These reports sparked the huge wave of protests that engulfed Egypt in September, embarrassing the president and the army. The decision to forcefully repress the protests was one of contention between intelligence authorities and those who supported a more flexible approach, even to the extent of allowing protesters to voice their grievances. The arrest of between 1,500 and 2,200 protesters, among them leaders of human rights groups, led to backlash in Egypt and in the West and put Sissi on the defensive during his visit to the United States for the UN General Assembly.

But Mahmoud al-Sissi's iniquities began in 2014, Mahmoud Sissi launched a series of purges in the Egyptian intelligence apparatus, during which he fired or retired about 120 officers, including some high-ranking figures, who were “suspected” of loyalty to General Omar Suleiman, head of intelligence under Mubarak. The younger Sissi’s rude and arrogant management style terrorized veteran intelligence officials, some of whom were accused of aiding Sami Anan, a former Egyptian army chief of staff who ran against President Sissi in the 2018 elections. Anan was arrested and charged with forgery after government-backed media outlets launched a slander campaign against him.

Some Egyptian commentators are claiming that the president also decided to distance his son from his spheres of responsibility in order to groom him as his successor, like former president Hosni Mubarak did with his son, Gamal. But according to an amendment to the Egyptian constitution, Sissi senior can remain in office until 2034, and a great deal of water will flow under the Nile bridges before that time comes.

Mahmoud al-Sissi, who has not been seen in his office recently, is working alongside Lt. Col. Ahmad Shaaban, Abbas Kamel’s deputy for media affairs. Shaaban was Kamel’s chief of staff when the latter was Sissi’s chief of staff. Together, they are responsible for the content that appears in government and private media outlets. They also coordinate the activities of the media channels owned by the General Intelligence Service, including the TV networks Al Hayat, CBC, Al-Nahar and the newspapers Al-Youm Al-Saba and Sawt al-Umma among others. Egyptian journalist Mohamed Nasser, an anchor for Mekameleen TV, which broadcasts from Turkey, said on one of his programs that Shaaban contacts journalists and editors on a daily basis to tell them how to present their reports.

According to Nasser, Shaaban has established an entire network of young journalists, graduates of training courses he supervised, and were then appointed to key positions in Egyptian media outlets. At the same time, he has meticulously chosen young people and gave them instruction on how to act as an opposition loyal to the government. As part of these activities, Shaaban organizes conferences for these young people at which President Sissi appears, and their role is to present questions or positions that support the president and his policies.

By the way, Nasser and Mekameleen are “suspected” of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in October an Egyptian court sentenced Nasser in absentia to 15 years in prison for “incitement against the army and the state.” Shaaban’s power and the way he manages the media have come under harsh public criticism, especially on social media, and it seems that he, too, will be moved to another position in the near future.

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