Egypt’s strong man, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has covered all bases ahead of his run for the presidency. He is assured of Saudi-United Arab Emirates backing and funding; has no serious political rivals – except for the Muslim Brotherhood which he is purging with an iron fist; he fully controls the Egyptian military; and the judiciary takes care of clearing every political and legal obstacle from his path.
The general behaves as though there is nothing left to stop him doing whatever he pleases.
He traveled to Moscow, Feb. 12, under the unassuming title of defense minister. But his Russian hosts, just like the Americans and fellow-Egyptians, have no doubts about his real power and ambitions.
Indeed, President Vladimir Putin greeted the visitor with the words: "I know that you, mister defense minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt. I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people."
On Jan. 27, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) empowered him to stand for election to the presidency. Anonymous sources speaking to state news agency MENA that day said that in the next few hours he would announce whether he had decided to enter the race as a civilian. According to SCAF, his decision would be dictated by "his sense of patriotism and the popular demands of the Egyptian people.”
But in the meantime, no one has been named to succeed him as army chief and defense minister should he shed his uniform for the election.
Confusion in Cairo over El-Sisi’s plans
The situation in Cairo is confused because after announcing he was stepping down as defense minister, El-Sisi is still serving in that capacity. The “few hours” in which he was expected to announce his candidacy for president have stretched into weeks, with no announcement.
Under the Egyptian constitution, interim President Adly Mansour (head of the Egyptian judiciary) was to have accepted the strongman’s resignation to legalize his candidacy. But that resignation was never tendered.
This bizarre state of affairs is partly explained by the extreme wariness of the Egyptian strongman – who has been nicknamed by Egyptians the “quiet general.” He tests every step before making decisions, plans every move down to the last detail and, above all, keeps his plans close to his chest. He therefore makes sure that no one knows enough to waylay him at any point or interfere with his plans.
Massive Saudi-UAE injections of support and cash give him a free hand to avoid deferring to the United States as a superpower whose wishes must be respected. He never openly challenges Washington and takes care not to strain relations to the limit. His tactics are simple: He listens politely and attentively to US Secretary of State John Kerry or US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when they talk on the phone, then goes off and does the opposite of what they requested.
In the view of DEBKA Weekly’s Egyptian experts, the Egyptian strongman is neither pro- nor anti-American. He simply and very coolly goes his own way.
Foreign diplomats consorting with the Brotherhood take consequences
Wednesday Feb. 12, the US media reported that an Egyptian US Embassy employee who was responsible for liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood had been arrested. This stirred concern for Western diplomats in touch with the Islamist opposition. Embassy officials disclosed that since his arrest on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising, Ahmed Alaiba had been held without charge.
According to an Egyptian government official, Mr. Alaiba was under investigation for participating in an illegal demonstration and communicating with an outlawed group.
As far as Gen. El-Sisi is concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed as a terrorist organization on Dec. 24, 2013, and any persons consorting with its members, as though they represented a legal opposition party, must accept the consequences.
As for his Moscow trip, it has been officially termed a return visit by the Egyptian Defense and Foreign Ministers for the visits Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu paid to Cairo in mid-November.
But his shopping list is revealing.
In his pocket, the Strongman of the Nile has two billion dollars of Saudi cash to spend on the most up-to-date weapons in the Russian armory for the Egyptian army. The Saudi chief of intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan has allocated this sum to enable Cairo to distance itself from the American sphere of influence in the Middle East.
El-Sisi wants top-line Russian arms for new elite force
But El-Sisi has his own ideas. He is willing to go along with Riyadh and Moscow up to a point. When Lavrov and Shoigu were in Cairo last November, he informed them that what he wants from Russia is advanced air defense missiles, MiG-29 jets, helicopters and long-range surface-to-surface missiles, making up for some of the weapons that Washington has withheld from Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed in a coup.
This week in Moscow, he homed in on S-300 anti-aircraft missiles – the top-of-line weapons the Russians have refrained from shipping to Iran – and for the Russians to build an advanced air defense system for Cairo.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say these requests tie in with the plans Egypt’s de facto ruler is keeping under his hat. To buttress the new regime he is fashioning, he can no longer rely on the Egyptian military or the even larger internal security police. He has decided to set up a high-class force composed of quarter of-a-million well-educated soldiers with elite military training to maintain the new order’s stability.
This would be the biggest commando force in the Middle East and require a far more sophisticated class of weaponry than the arms in current use by the army and security forces. It will be interesting to see how far the Russian president is willing to back up his support for the future Egyptian president with Moscow’s most advanced hardware.