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Egypt: Abbas Kamel is more than a spy chief, he’s central to al-Sisi’s inner circle

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Thursday, 15 July 2021 13:08, updated on Friday, 6 August 2021 01:25

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shakes hands after the swearing in of Major General Abbas Kamel, newly appointed chief of the country's General Intelligence Service on Thursday at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, June 28, 2018. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Supporting the decisions of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a network of close advisors and loyal persons; in particular is spy chief and head of the ‘hawks of Egypt’: General Abbas Kamel.

On 28 May 2019, the security owned television channel ON TV interrupted its broadcast to livestream the extradition of one of Egypt’s most wanted Islamist militants and former Special Forces officer Hisham Ashmawi.

Ashmawi – who was expelled in 2007  from the military due to his religious opinions – was surrounded by masked Egyptian soldiers with the label GIS (the acronym for Egypt’s General Intelligence Services) strapped to their chests, as he descended from a military plane in Cairo.

The perfectly directed PR stunt came days after Egypt’s intelligence chief General Abbas Kamel visited Libya and had intense meetings with Khalifa Haftar – the Libyan warlord and head of the country’s self-proclaimed eastern parliament.

Hours after the extradition, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised what he described as “the hawks of Egypt”, arguably referring to the GIS and its trusted leader Kamel.

The birth of the hawks

Kamel was born in 1957, only three years after former President Gamal Abdel Nasser established the GIS (often referred to as the Mukhabarat) to spearhead counterintelligence during the Arab Israeli spy conflict.

Egyptian head of Intelligence Abbas Kamel in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. (Khaled Elfiqi/Pool photo via AP)

He is currently the 26th chief of the GIS after he was appointed in June 2018 to ensure loyalty of the outdated apparatus to the military and the new regime. His appointment was the final part of Sisi’s shakedown to ensure loyalty and ‘efficiency’ of the GIS, one of the country’s top intelligence departments.

Egypt’s goal is ultimately to get a seat at the table of the peace talks with the US, after failure of the Jared Kushner plan which included Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

In popular culture, especially films and TV series, members of this spy agency are often portrayed as meticulously organised, well-built, mysterious, and constantly working in the shadows.

Headquartered, at least officially, near one of the country’s oldest presidential palaces in eastern Cairo, Al-Quba palace, the apparatus was described by Kamel in 2014 during a phone discussion leaked in 2015 as “a lost cause”.

According to a source who used to work with the GIS as a negotiating expert during the 2011 Hamas-Israel prison swap, Kamel is more than a spy chief. He is said to be part of Sisi’s close inner circle, providing advice and implementing policies to ensure stability and prosperity of the regime.

United Media Services

In his speech on 5 August 2014, during the new Suez Canal inauguration ceremony, Sisi said: “Gamal Abdel Nasser was lucky since he had the support of the media. The Egyptian media has a great responsibility and must side with the people.” Since that day, the media scene has been monopolised under one banner: the United Media Services (UMS), a company owned by the GIS.

UMS now owns the majority of private TV stations, private newspapers, English language news websites, radio stations, film studios, advertising and marketing agencies, entertainment streaming networks and most of the country’s ticketing services.

An intelligence officer acquires more skills than your normal English- speaking diplomat, plus the GIS has always been present in negotiations between Palestinian factions.

A familiar joke in Egypt is what is said in the morning radio shows can be read in the newspapers and seen on the TV programmes at the same time. “The aim is to provide the masses with content that upholds national and patriotic meanings, with no agitation [but] clear moral and professional standards,” says a current GIS official speaking to The Africa Report on the condition of anonymity.

To drive the point home, promos displaying the military and police gearing up, chanting patriotic songs are now standard features aired during the break on a TV cooking show or celebrity gossip segment.

The source explains that the performance of the GIS-controlled UMS is better than the content produced by the Morale Affairs Department – run by the military intelligence – which is less creative and more direct. “Take the newly produced patriotic TV series, for example, Al-Iktiyar 2 and Hagma Mortada, their effect was better than four years of producing propaganda newsletters about the war on terrorism.”

The company promises to produce sequels to the successful, morale-boosting series and other blockbuster films that portray police and military officers in combat, ensuring they dominate TV and cinema markets.

‘End the media chaos’

“Kamel has been an avid supporter of this decision to end the media chaos, gather all the national talent and give them the freedom to practice their profession,” says the source. “This has in turn satisfied the political leadership.”

In the leaked phone conversation dating from 2014, ahead of the elections following what some refer to as the coup d’état, or second revolution to others), Kamel can be heard lecturing the then military spokesperson Ahmed Ali about how he should “dictate” some media personalities on what they have to say to support Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (the presidential candidate at the time).

Kamel continues to pursue his approach into foreign policy by planning, for example, to get closer to several Asian countries like Malaysia and bonding through the anti-Islamist agenda.

Kamel can be heard referring to the media personality as “that kid” and “that girl” saying Ali should contact the person. Some of the names mentioned include Ibrahim Eissa, Ahmed Moussa, Wael al-Ibrashi, Youssef al-Husseiny – all of whom are still working with GIS-owned channels.

With the nationalisation of the media has come a severe crackdown on all independent outlets, or social media users who do not obey the rhetoric and orders of the GIS. Journalists , academics, activists, artists, or even doctors and lawyers who speak up against the government are all fair targets.

At present, hundreds of websites remain blocked with some news outlets taken over by the government to serve as a mouthpiece for the regime.

Creation of youth fronts

Another success for Kamel, says the source, has been “the creation of youth fronts that serve as a support system for the political leadership and train other young people on how to be leaders, based on the perceived current political and security situation [in] their nation.” The source refers to three entities where the GIS plays a partial role in operations and has been encouraged by Kamel:

1.     National Training Academy (NTA)

According to the website, the NTA aims to see youth graduate who are ‘qualified to carry the leadership torch within all areas – political, administrative or community – and possess profound national awareness with a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by the country.’ Sitting at the high level of the academy’s board is no other than Abbas Kamel.

2.      The Presidential Youth Leadership Programme

This is another academy under the auspices of the presidency and the defence ministry. Sisi launched it in September 2015 to ‘create a base of competent youth who are capable of assuming political, social and administrative responsibilities across the country’.

One of its nine members was appointed governor and the other eight as deputies, according to the independent publication Mada Masr. The academy has also organised over five national youth conferences and three editions of the annual World Youth Forum: a conference whose aim is to ‘market Egypt’ across the international community.

The source says that the GIS plays an essential role in vetting and choosing candidates from these programmes to take up various positions in ministries, state institutions, and security-owned companies.

3.     The Coordination of Youth Parties and Politicians

Those who prove their loyalty and political smartness can then access the final stage: The Coordination of Youth Parties and Politicians. This is a security-coordinated, youth parliamentary bloc, much like a modern arm of the state. It is a vocal supporter of every decision and policy the president issues and serves as a sharp critic of the opposition. Nevertheless, Kamel’s ambitions do not stop at these youth entities.

The Nation’s Future party

Kamel has been Sisi’s chief of staff since 2010. “In 2014, as a military intelligence officer, fascinated by the idea of a youth front to support the candidacy of Sisi, Kamel helped create the Nation’s Future party, which later developed to now become the country’s most resourceful and powerful party,” says the source.

The party, which is now the dominant power in the Senate and Parliament, is another faction that the security apparatus influences. It is now reminiscent, if not close to that, of the new Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP) and includes former members, wealthy businesspeople, retired army and police generals, public figures, and influential clans’ persons.

Kamel the diplomat: ‘ruthless pragmatism’

Kamel’s continued involvement in Egyptian political life after the 2013 military removal of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, was not just through his skills as a local state craftsman, but also that of an avid quasi diplomat.

Asked whether it was unusual for a spy chief to coordinate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants or visit top Palestinian and Israeli officials in the West Bank, Gaza and even Tel Aviv, the GIS source laughs, saying: “An intelligence officer acquires more skills than your normal English-speaking diplomat, plus the GIS has always been present in negotiations between Palestinian factions.”

Indeed, Kamel’s active travel log to Sudan and Libya as well as his latest efforts towards a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel demonstrate his ability, not only as a security official and negotiator, but also as a diplomat.

His continuous appearances during essential meetings, diplomatic visits, and involvement in different statecraft decisions, instead should acquire him the status of a prime minister, or even a foreign minister.

According to the source who worked with the GIS negotiation teams that mediated talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Kamel is seeking to implement his foreign policy visions after consultations with Sisi and other foreign PR and consultancy companies.

“That does not mean that there is a division in the foreign policy teams. Kamel meets and discusses matters with the Egyptian Gaza disk at the foreign ministry, for example, but his decisions are the decisive ones,” the source says.

After brokering a shaky ceasefire in Gaza, Egypt dropped the anti-MB rhetoric when dealing with Hamas, after years of antagonism and accusations of the Palestinian faction having aided militants in North Sinai. Now Hamas is described as the resistance, and the Egyptian national anthem is played with every truck carrying food and medicine to the devastated strip.

“Ruthless pragmatism. That is [what it] is,” the former GIS negotiator says, quoting from the American TV series House of Cards to describe Kamel. “No eternal animosities and no eternal friendly relations,” he adds, citing the improving Egyptian relations with Qatar and Turkey – two countries that had been accused of harbouring members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo is currently enjoying more friendly talks with both Doha and Ankara.

The former negotiator also cites Egypt’s position in Libya, which is arguably close to that of the EU, but a little farther away from that of the UAE, despite the fact that Abu Dhabi spent the last three years supporting Haftar with the help of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Beacon of calm within the storm

The gem of Kamel’s ‘diplomatic work’, the GIS source says, is  “the points [that] Egypt scored from the latest Gaza conflict”.

The source notes how Egypt was able to present itself as a strong point for “reasonable foreign policy” away from the agitated stances of both conflicting sides, “hence gaining the trust of the Biden administration.”

“The ceasefire in many ways mildly sidelined the human rights criticism that the US always directed towards Egypt, and allowed Egypt to appear as a considerable and reliable power in the region.” The former negotiator also emphasises that receiving contracts to “rebuild the infrastructure of Gaza will give Egypt more influence to secure and grow their national interests in the east.”

Egypt’s goal is ultimately to get a seat at the table of the peace talks with the US, after the failure of the Jared Kushner plan, which included Saudi Arabia and Jordan. “Kamel continues to pursue his approach into foreign policy by planning for example, to get closer to several Asian countries like Malaysia and bonding through the anti-Islamist agenda,” the source says.

‘The fox’

Nicknamed by local media throughout the years as ‘the fox’, ‘the hawk’, and ‘the president’s shadow’, Kamel has proven to be more valuable to the Sisi regime even before it came to power, acting not only as its top spy chief, but also as a media strategist, local politics guru, foreign diplomacy expert and effective conspirator.

In the leaked 17-minute phone conversation, General Mamdouh Shahin – a legal advisor to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces – had demanded from Sisi’s then chief of staff General Abbas Kamel, that the charges against former president Mohamed Morsi be dropped, as his lawyers were arguing that he was imprisoned at a military facility rather than prisons run by Egypt’s interior ministry.

According to the recordings, Kamel asks Navy General Osama al-Guindi to change the description of the building where Morsi was initially held: from an army facility, to an interior ministry prison.

Bottom line

As Sisi’s former chief of staff “[Kamel’s] continuous appearances during essential meetings, diplomatic visits, and involvement in different statecraft decisions, should give him the status of a prime minister, or even a foreign minister,” says the GIS source.

In June, as the Egyptian state celebrated its seventh anniversary since the military-led removal of Morsi, Kamel’s role in legalising the former president’s arrest – after the army’s take over on 3 July 2013 – has proven his loyalty and effectively given him a carte blanche to continue serving the country as per his vision.

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