In the aftershocks from the downing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 31, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatteh El–Sisi finds his position increasingly precarious.
Less than two weeks ago, he seemed to be on top of the grave challenges besetting to his regime. Indeed, on Oct. 30, he made a confident appearance at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, calling on the world’s powers to support his war against Islamic extremists.
He said reprovingly that they should give him the chance to bring stability to his country without subjecting his regime to outside interference and opprobrium.
“National security in the Arab world is so threatened that it now requires – demands – the protection of what remains of the states and their institutions,” he said. “We in Egypt are ready to work together with regional and international powers, which understand the importance of the Arab world and believe that it is important not to interfere in Arab affairs and that supporting specific groups detracts from the role of the state.”
The Egyptian president’s complaint was addressed primarily to the Obama administration, which continues to lobby for political freedom to be granted to the Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi ousted and then outlawed.
Little did the president expect that, 24 hours later, Egypt was in for the biggest Islamist terrorist attack since 9/11 that would inflict a devastating blow to his personal prestige and Egypt’s international standing.
ISIS plans to follow up with a killing strike against El-Sisi’s regime
The downing of the Russian Metrojet flight by a bomb or a missile in the Sinai, and the killing of all 224 passengers and crew, suddenly exposed El-Sisi’s leadership to extreme instability up to and including a military coup for his overthrow
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that this prospect has sent US, Russia, British, German and French strategists back to the drawing board to hurriedly revise their forecasts of the future of the El-Sisi regime. Rather than rushing to his aid, they are working between two alternative guesstimates of the conditions for keeping in power and the candidates for his possible replacement
The most pressing concern in Washington and Moscow is that a military coup, assassination or another terrorist attack in Cairo, would generate havoc and a crisis much worse than the present one.
The FBI and European investigative agencies have spurned approaches from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, to cooperate in the probe into the Russian plane disaster. They suspect that Moscow may use their findings for its own ends in Cairo.
Western intelligence and counterterrorism circles lean hard towards the supposition that the Russian airliner was brought down by the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate. They also believe that ISIS was itself surprised by the extent of the damage it wrought to the El-Sisi regime, in the light of which it is resolved to deliver the killing blow with a bigger, deadlier terrorist attack in Sinai or mainland Egypt to remove him from power.
El-Sisi cold-shouldered on proposed anti-ISIS Libya campaign
ISIS strategists did not fail to notice that, during the Egyptian president’s visit to London, Paris and Berlin during the first week of November, immediately after the downing of the airliner, he failed to convince those governments to support an Egyptian operation in eastern Libya for destroying the military and logistical infrastructures of extremist Muslim organizations allied with ISIS. He believes those groups are responsible for the attack on the plane.
The jihadis have no problem organizing large-scale rioting by members of Egyptian Salafi movements, as well as Muslim Brotherhood adherents, in Cairo or other main Egyptian cities, especially in the Suez Canal areas and the Egyptian delta. Such a wave of unrest could prompt various circles within the country to try to depose yet another president, the third in a decade.
During his visit to Europe, El-Sisi proposed a plan “to finish what was started in 2011,” meaning that Europe should finish the campaign that toppled Muammar Qaddafi by saving Libya from falling into the hands of ISIS.
However, wherever he went in Europe, he was given the cold shoulder, particularly by Britain. Nobody in London, and especially Prime Minister David Cameron, who four years ago was the most vocal advocate for military action in Libya along with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, was ready to listen to the Egyptian leader’s proposal for war on ISIS.
After ousting two presidents, Egypt’s military junta watches El-Sisi
A similar diplomatic feeler was rebuffed in the summer by Persian Gulf states. The Egyptian president had hoped to trade on his armed forces’ limited involvement in the Yemen civil war to persuade Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to sponsor. or join, an Egyptian campaign for purging eastern Libya of Islamist terrorist groups. However, Saudi King Salman vetoed the proposal and told him bluntly that he had better drop it if he wants economic aid from Persian Gulf countries to continue.
The consistent rejections of El-Sisi’s war plans have registered with the 22 generals who make up Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the military junta that put him in office and is the country’s real power behind the government and parliament.
The Egyptian president, a former chief of staff, is undoubtedly very well aware that the council acted to remove his two predecessors – Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Muhammad Morsi in 2013. El-Sisi no doubt wonders if he is next in line after his military and diplomatic debacles.