Egypt: Mahmoud al-Sisi, cut from the same cloth as his father
Will the Egyptian president try, like his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, to prepare his eldest son to take the reins?
“You will have difficulty finding someone in Egypt who is willing to talk about him,” we were warned, and rightly so. At the mention of the name Mahmoud al-Sisi, the eldest son of the president, all the doors of Cairo seem to slam fearfully. The promise of anonymity is no longer a sufficient guarantee to evoke this 38 year-old young man whose media appearances have been minimal. He is in fact one of the most powerful leaders of the security services of his father’s military dictatorship.
In the classic tradition of the satraps of the Near East and following in the footsteps of former president Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in 2011, President Sisi relies on his blood to guarantee his security and power. He appointed his son, discreetly before the required age, to the position of brigadier general in the intelligence agency linked to the presidency, according to well-informed sources.
Rarely mentioned in public
In January 2018, The New York Times warned: “Mr. Sisi’s son Mahmoud, who works for the General Intelligence Service, is expected to have an important role. On at least one occasion, he accompanied Fawzy [an Egyptian intelligence chief] to Washington to meet with the Obama administration.”
Rarely and briefly mentioned in public by his father alongside his brothers Mustapha, Hassan and his sister Aya, Mahmoud appeared on international screens in July 2016 when, based on Egyptian leaks, the Italian weekly L’Espresso linked him to the assassination of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student.
In January 2016, Regeni who was investigating Egyptian trade unions, disappeared before his body was found in a Cairo suburb, horribly disfigured. “It is hard to believe that al-Sisi’s son was not aware of Regeni’s movements even before his disappearance,” the magazine wrote.
In 2018, Italian investigators identified five suspects, all members of the service where Mahmoud al-Sissi was in charge of counter-espionage, at the time of the murder. In June 2020, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte admitted to being “concerned about Egypt’s slowness to cooperate with Italy” on the case.
“There are only two pictures of him and the public has never heard his voice, he is a shadow. If you talk about Mahmoud in Egypt, you’ll go straight to jail,” warns Saïf Alislam Eid, an Egyptian political science researcher at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Taking refuge in the adversary country of Qatar, this activist of the 25 January 2011 revolution was imprisoned for a year in 2014 by the regime that had just taken power.
He says that his family continues to face police pressure, but does not hesitate to mention Mahmoud’s name. “At the time of the Regeni affair, he already held an important position within the General Intelligence Service (GIS), of which he is now number two after Abbas Kamel, the shadow of the president. He was at least aware of Regeni’s disappearance, even if he didn’t order it.”
Eid points out that a large part of the Egyptian population is still unaware of Mahmoud’s existence. However, his name began to circulate amongst his opponents and activists in September 2019 after a particular event. Mohamed Ali, an actor and building contractor, began publishing videos from Spain denouncing the magnificent work he would have done for free for the al-Sisi family and how the General would transform Egypt into a family kingdom.
His father’s silent partner
The accusation inevitably echoed the abuses of the deposed Mubarak clan and presented the eldest of the Sisi family as the silent partner of his father : the true mastermind of his repressive policy and the new Gamal, ex-powerful heir of Mubarak. Ali called for demonstrations and, despite an unprecedented level of repression in Egypt, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets.
Control of the media is one of the issues that Mahmoud al-Sisi is in charge of at the GIS, which has been in control of large groups since 2016. The service’s satellite information site, Cairo 24, published a long article in June 2020 claiming to reveal to the general public the true face of this servant of the state with a tarnished reputation.
Referring to the demonstrations in autumn of 2019, it stated that “Mahmoud al-Sisi seemed to have the lion’s share of the anger directed towards his father,” making the son out to be a scapegoat for the opposition “Muslim Brotherhood’s”, also referred to as terrorists.
Did these embarrassing revelations, a few weeks after the demonstrations, motivate the departure of Mahmoud on an indefinite diplomatic mission to Moscow? This episode, like many others concerning Mahmoud, is shrouded in mystery. However, the brutal pressure exerted on the press in Egypt is just one of many examples that illustrates the taboo represented by the powerful son’s name.
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In November 2019, the news site Mada Masr, banned in Egypt but accessible via “mirror sites”, published an article announcing that Mahmoud al-Sisi was sent into exile in Moscow. In the following days, the premises of the independent media Mada Masr were searched, four journalists briefly arrested and their computers seized. Mada Masr wrote that the presidential circle had decided to temporarily remove Mahmoud because he was taking up too much attention in both regional and international media.
Citing sources within the GIS itself, the article attributed the main reasons for this to “his failure to properly manage most of the responsibilities he had been entrusted with”, notably his failing to control the media. A media which is still too independent for the president’s taste despite the acquisitions by the GIS and his inability to defuse the Mohamed Ali videos scandal.
Pressure from MBZ?
Other explanations have been put forward for his departure to Moscow, such as pressure from the Emirati leader and major financier of the Egyptian regime Mohammed Ben Zayed (MBZ). He might be worried that popular opposition but also internal opposition to Mahmoud’s growing power could spill over into his father’s presidency.
“In Cairo, some people also say that the time had come for him to go and do an internship with Putin to learn the effective way to manage an authoritarian state,” says political scientist Eid.
Internship or dismissal, the Moscow exile did not last long, and the son was made Deputy Director of the GIS at the beginning of 2020. This was a step taken by his father to consolidate power.
The Doha researcher also recalls the essential political role played in recent years by Mahmoud. According to internal leaks, he was the architect of the constitutional reforms promulgated in 2019 that allowed his father to run for a new presidency. He was also the man behind the organisation of a grand coalition around the presidential party Future of the Nation for the legislative elections held in late 2020.
Is a dynastic succession being prepared, in an umpteenth attempt to make an Arab republic hereditary? “It is much too early to say: President Sisi is in very good health and still sees himself as president for the next twenty years, at least,” says Eid.
The unofficial portrait of Mahmoud al-Sisi drawn by Cairo 24, a site controlled by the GIS, continues to propagate the idea that the son owes his advancement solely to his own merit and not to paternal influence. They also firmly deny that he holds any eminent rank much less the rank of general accorded by “the hostile media”.
According to the author of the article, his career path is very coherent: he graduated from the military academy in 2003, was assigned to securing the Suez Canal and then became an officer in a base in the Sinai. In 2009, he joined the GIS where he would have been in charge of North Sinai, the terrain of a branch of the Islamic State armed group.
Wanting to re-establish the truth about a man he admits is shrouded in secrecy, the author goes as far as reporting that Mahmoud was, during the revolution of January 2011, “one of the officers responsible for securing Tahrir Square where, under a false name, he came into contact with a group of activists and revolutionaries, many of whose members he helped.”
This is unlikely in view of the ruthless repression of activists in 2011 carried out by the very services he leads.
Quoting a retired soldier, Cairo 24 praises an individual that contrasts with the soldierly and irritable temperament he is said to have: “He is polite and frank, like his father, except that he smokes. This does not prevent him from loving sport and doing it regularly.”
My father, the hero
Mahmoud appears in this flattering portrait as a son worthy of his father’s praise, following in his steps as a soldier and master spy for Egypt.
If he doesn’t plan to make Mahmoud his heir apparent, would General Sisi use his sons in the same way as his neighbour and Libyan ally, Marshal Haftar, who placed five of his sons in key positions in his regime? Or put differently, is the General placing them in positions of power more to protect himself from internal coups than to protect his succession?
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While Mahmoud holds the most prominent position, his brother Mustapha is also well placed in the powerful Administrative Control Authority. His youngest, Hassan, meanwhile recently joined Mahmoud at the GIS after working in the oil sector.
It is difficult not to connect these family promotions to the numerous “purges” that have taken place at the head of the army and intelligence since the seizure of power by al-Sisi in July 2013.
“Between 2014 and 2017, Sisi dismissed 47 high-ranking members of the GIS, following internal leaks, to finally replace in 2018 its director Khaled Fawzy with Kamel, one of his most loyal servants, assisted by his own son Mahmoud. The same happened in the army with the dismissal of Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy in 2017, whose critics suggested to Sisi, may attempt an internal coup,” says Eid.
A concentration of power held by the president’s family may end up revealing the regime’s weaknesses more than bolstering its strengths.