By James M. Dorsey
Leaked memos from Egypt’s interior ministry discussing ways to counter mounting public anger at the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi raise the spectre of a split between the military and security forces over how to deal with expressions of public discontent and potentially about the future of Mr. Al Sisi’s presidency.
This latest leak, contrary to past leaks, many of which were from within the military rather than the interior ministry and appeared designed to portray Mr. Al Sisi in a negative light and undermine his credibility, seems inadvertent. The internal memos were sent by the ministry to journalists by mistake in an email that was supposed to contain a regular news roundup.
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The significance of the leak in evaluating relations between the military and the security forces lies in the fact that some of Egypt’s military-controlled, state-owned media like Al Ahram, which is believed to take its cue from Mr. Al Sisi, and pro-government privately owned media, backed a call by Egypt’s journalists’ union for the resignation of interior minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar.
Members of the union staged this week a sit-in in defiance of Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law in front of the interior minister in support of their demands after security forces raided the group’s offices on World Press Freedom Day. Two journalists were arrested during the raid on charges of calling for anti-government protests against Mr. Al-Sisi's recent decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
In response, security forces surrounded the building of the journalists’ syndicate. The raid of was the first in the 75-history of the union despite decades of varying degree of censorship.
The transfer of the islands during a recent visit to Egypt by Saudi King Salman sparked rare public protests. The protesters although far smaller in number than those that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak adopted slogans reminiscent of the chants employed during the 2011 popular revolt. Protesters shouted “Bread, freedom – the islands are Egyptian!” during recent protests, an adaptation of the 2011 chant, “Bread, freedom and justice.”
In addition to backing the journalists’ call for Mr. Abdel-Ghaffar’s resignation, Al Ahram reported that various Egyptian papers were publishing “the image of Egypt's interior minister in negative, instead of positive, as a form of protest.” The papers also reported favourably on the journalists’ protests and their further demand for the release of scores of their colleagues who have been arrested in recent months.
The backing of the journalists by pro-Sisi media as well as media critical of the president constitutes a pushback by Mr. Al-Sisi against criticism of his presidency by prominent Egyptian journalists who had initially supported his 2013 coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brother who was Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. It also followed a string of leaked tapes in recent years designed to sour Mr. Al Sisi’s ties to his financial backers in the Gulf by highlighting derogatory remarks that he made.
Both the criticism of Mr. Al-Sisi and the leaks would have had to have had the tacit approval of a military unit that oversees the Egyptian media. The unit, according to some of its employees, has military officers in various television studios, vets reports before publication, and at times drafts news stories that are then published in the media.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s counter strategy appears to go beyond proxy battles in the media. He has moved to make Egypt’s unreformed and brutal security forces look more accountable by putting several officers on trial on charges related to abuse of human rights.
The indictments followed a string of incidents involving security forces and local residents that provoked spontaneous local protest. The incidents and the raid have fuelled calls for long overdue reform of the security forces who, according to human rights activists, have been allowed to operate with impunity.
Mr. Al-Sisi, in an extraordinary gesture in February, also reached out to militant soccer fans, a backbone of protest in the country. His overture constituted recognition of the fans’ street power.
The tacit power struggle between the military and the security forces is all the more remarkable given the fact that the interior ministry and the security forces used much of Mr. Morsi’s short-lived tenure to persuade the military to act against him and to feed on popular discontent with the president’s attempts to seemingly Islamicize Egypt to create a popular movement that would back his removal. That effort resulted in mass protests in late June 2013 that paved the way within days for Mr. Al-Sisi’s coup.
The backing of the journalists’ union by the pro-Sisi press contradicts the recommendations made in the leaked memos that are intended to shield the interior ministry and the security forces.
The memos recommended that the ministry not back down in its conflict with the union and suggested that the prosecutor general impose a gag order on the investigation into the killing of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD candidate who was abducted in January and severely tortured before his body was found days later on the outskirts of Cairo. The ministry has denied that security forces were involved in the killing, which has strained ties between Egypt and Italy.
The memos also called for the boosting of the ministry's media image and monitoring capabilities, including the hosting by popular television shows of former police generals to communicate its message and stepped-up monitoring of news websites on a 24-hour basis.
Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek has since issued a gag order on the case of the two journalists arrested in the union offices. Al Ahram and other media reported on the journalists’ protests on their front pages in defiance of the order.
"(The ministry) cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?" one of the memos said.
Egypt’s military has long been happy with the security forces doing the regime’s dirty work and shouldering the blame for it. International pressure and mounting discontent with the government’s failure to deliver economically have however persuaded Mr. Al-Sisi and those segments of the military that continue to back him that the impunity of the security forces is damaging Egypt’s image and undermining the regime’s legitimacy.
The interior ministry’s fear that it could be held accountable lays bare its concern that its security forces could become a scapegoat. It is a concern that could widen emerging gaps in the country’s ruling elite.