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After Sisi's purge of rivals, is he safe from the generals?

What Sisi has done to rival factions in the army is not a recipe for a long and peaceful life, even in retirement

A few days before Ahmed Shafiq announced his short-lived run for the Egyptian presidency, a meeting was held in Cairo to decide who should mount a serious campaign to unseat the incumbent, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

A number of  former senior army generals and civil society figures were present, including Sami Anan, the former chief of staff. Also present were Magdi Hatatah, one of Anan's predecessors as army chief of staff, and Ossama Askaar, the former commander of the third army, the Middle East Eye has been told.

The meeting talked at first of backing a civilian candidate, but could not agree on one. They agreed then to support Shafiq. Anan kept silent. When Shafiq's candidacy crashed in flames (he and his daughter had been threatened with corruption smears) the group who attended the meeting shifted their support to Anan.

Anan swiftly amassed a wide spectrum of supporters. They included the political and business clan around former president Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal and figures in the Egyptian opposition.

Sisi's nerves were also set jangling by a continuous series of leaked conversations, which he attributed to opposition to him from within the General Intelligence Directorate, the rival intelligence service to military intelligence and the only institution powerful enough to tap mobile phones of the president's inner circle.  

Sisi's camp correctly assumed that the dissidents inside the GID, who had been doing their best to undermine him, would support Anan. 

All guns blazing

Anan began his campaign on Sunday with all guns blazing. He launched a salvo of rockets at Sisi’s presidency. It was not just what he said, but whom he gathered around him that sent the required messages.

One of his key advisors was a former top auditor Hisham Geneina, who claimed in 2016 that state corruption had cost the country $76bn - roughly the amount Sisi had received from three Gulf states since his coup in 2013.

Then Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi (R) meeting with retired former defence minister Hussein Tantawi (C), and retired Armed Forces chief of staff, Sami Anan (L) at the presidential palace in Cairo on 14 August 2012 (AFP)

His spokesman was Hazim Hosni, a professor of political science, whose expertise was "political and economic empowerment".

But what Anan said was challenging enough. He said the two big failures of Egypt were water and land - the first was a reference to the growing dispute with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Assosa, which threatens water levels on the Nile, and the second was a reference to the controversial decision to give Saudi Arabia two barren islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir.

Both Anan and Shafiq have brought the split in the Egyptian army from back to centre stage, from the shadows into the limelight

Anan called for political openness, which is code for releasing the tens of thousands of political prisoners Sisi has thrown into his jails. He repeated Shafiq's line that the army was vital to Egypt but that it should retreat from the position it now occupies in both politics and the economy.

Hosni, Anan's spokesperson, was repeatedly asked to deny claims that Anan was running with the backing of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. He pointedly did not. He replied: "When you put your vote in the ballot box, you do not declare whether you are Muslim Brotherhood. As long as there are people eligible to vote, these are welcome to us."

Hosni repeated the claim that there was "a lot of injustice about people who have been put in jail".

Anan entered the fray with his eyes open. Hosni predicted it would be "bone breaking" without, one imagines, calculating how soon the skeleton of Anan's own campaign would be crushed.

Clearly rattled, Sisi said that he would not allow "corrupted people from getting close to the seat of the presidency". On Tuesday Anan was arrested by the Army high command for "incitement".

An army spokesman claimed that Anan had falsified official documents which stated that his military service had terminated and that he would be tried by a military court for "a serious breach of the laws of the military service".

Mahmoud Refaat, a lawyer and spokesman for Anan's presidential campaign, told MEE he believed Anan's life was under threat.

Army split

Anan's campaign lasted all of three days. But whatever happens from now on, and the betting is that Sisi will apply as much force as he needs to crush dissent and be acclaimed president for a second term, Shafiq and Anan's cameo roles in this drama could have a lasting effect.

Both Anan and Shafiq have brought the split in the Egyptian army from back to centre stage, from the shadows into the limelight. 

The Egyptian Army, that state within a state, the leviathan whose tentacles extend into every area of the country's economy and political life, is openly split. Gone is the balance of forces which backed his coup in 2013 and his candidacy a year later.

Then chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces Sami Annan (3rd L) attends the Coptic Christmas midnight mass at Abbassiya Cathedral in Cairo on 6 January 2012 (AFP)

There is now only Sisi with the absolute power of military intelligence and a growing list of his victims, which now include once powerful former army generals. The original opposition, the Islamists and secularists of Tahrir Square, are a sideshow compared to the power these dispossessed generals wielded. 

Sisi should read up the history of the Five Families - the mafia clans which ran New York City - to understand that what he has just done to rival factions in the army is not a recipe for a long and peaceful life, even in retirement. 

Humble origins

To understand this, let's go back a few years to when Sisi was an unknown military officer eager to impress his bosses. After the coup in 2013 Sisi conducted a long interview with Egyptian journalist Yasser Rizq, in the presence of his office manager Abbas Kamel. The interview was taped, and excerpts have leaked out ever since.

In it Sisi told the story of how he was introduced to the don, the most powerful man in the army, commander in chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

Sisi told the journalist: "When Abbas introduced me (to him) he said this is my son and he is a piece of me… That night we were at the Supreme Council in Al-Ittihadiyah (presidential palace). Field Marshal Tantawi is a man who has the trait of being extremely discrete. So much, I mean. I looked and found Marshal Tantawi saying: 'Come ride with me in the car, I need you.' This was unprecedented. I said to him: 'Yes, sir. As we walked away I asked him: 'Where are we going, sir?' He said to me: 'We are going to the rest house.' And this too was unprecedented."

The interview reveals Kamel's role in bossing Sisi, correcting his answers and directing the journalist on how to conduct the interview.

Sisi was asked who his role model was. "Which is the personality that impacted on you as a top military role model whether in the world or inside Egypt?" Sisi hesitated, but Abbas replied for him: "Hitler."

Did Sisi hold Tantawi in awe? According to Mustafa Bakri, TV anchor, who is close to Tantawi and wrote several books about the army and one about Sisi, Sisi was Tantawi’s choice. Bakri claims Tantawi chose Sisi as his anointed son. 

Bakri however has changed his version of events several times to suit the prevailing mood. 

At the time, the aides of then president Mohamed Morsi described a scene in the presidential palace when Tantawi, then minister of defence, was sacked after an attack on Egyptian troops in the Sinai. Sisi was in another room, and when his turn came to be appointed his hands shook.

Tantawi's comeback?

The anecdote positions Morsi as the kingmaker and Tantawi as his humiliated victim, although we now know how flawed that account proved to be.

At any rate, Tantawi backed Sisi's presidential run in 2014, to the extent that he forbade Anan to run. We also know that Tantawi and Sisi fell out two years later. 

In November 2016, to everyone's surprise, Tantawi appeared in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, triggering an impromptu press conference. He said the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners would not be executed.

He put down the chances of Anan running and at the same time suggested that he, Tantawi, godfather of the army and father of the nation, was there to save the nation. 

"Sami Anan is at his home … he's grown old anyway," Tantawi told reporters. He then added: "Don't worry. God will not leave you alone." To which Tantawi's mobile fan club chanted: "Police, army and people are united together", "long live Egypt" and "down with the traitors".

This performance did not go down well back at the presidential palace, and Sisi instructed Kamel's network of TV anchors to go on the attack.

That was less than two years ago. Sisi had conducted three internal reshuffles within the military while he was still defence minister. Nasser al-Assai was replaced as head of the second army, and Askaar as head of the third army.

The current defence minister, Sedki Sobhy, remains in place, guaranteed by a constitution put in place to make sure Sisi was never challenged when he held the post. Sisi will have to change the constitution again to get rid of Sobhy. 

Tantawi, according to sources who spoke to the Middle East Eye, this time backed Anan, the man he stopped once from running.

The critical questions to ask now are these: has Sisi purged the army of enough generals to be able to count on its unconditional loyalty? The statement of the army in which they indicted Anan appears to give that impression.

What remains of Tantawi's former power base? Or does he still lurk in the background, a wounded but distinctly dangerous beast?

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi (L) and Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy (R) listening to the Egyptian national anthem during their visit to former Egyptian President Sadat's grave and the memorial of the Unknown Soldier tomb in the capital Cairo, as part of the celebrations marking the 43 anniversary of the October War Victory (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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