Mahmoud al-Sisi, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s son and a senior official in the powerful General Intelligence Service (GIS), is being reassigned to a long-term position at Egypt’s diplomatic delegation in Moscow, according to multiple sources, including two GIS officials who spoke to Mada Masr separately.
The move is based on the perception within the president’s inner circle that Mahmoud al-Sisi has failed to properly handle a number of his responsibilities and that his increasingly visible influence in the upper decision-making levels of government is having a negative impact on his father’s image, the GIS sources said.
The suggestion that the president’s son be sidelined also came from senior government figures in the United Arab Emirates, a close and influential ally of Egypt, who view Mahmoud al-Sisi’s role as having become damaging to the president, according to a source close to Abu Dhabi’s decision making circles.
The two GIS sources — who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity — did not specify the length of Mahmoud al-Sisi’s term in Moscow, but they both stated that it would be a long-term assignment that could last months, or even years.
A government official and a senior politician with close ties to the president’s inner circle also confirmed the move. According to the government official, Mahmoud al-Sisi’s transfer to Moscow will be implemented in 2020 shortly after his reassignment from GIS to the Military Intelligence Directorate, where he will be appointed as military envoy to the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Moscow.
The two GIS officials told Mada Masr that the decision came after lengthy discussions among the president’s family and his small inner circle, including Abbas Kamel, the head of GIS, and Mohsen Abdel Nabi, the director of the office of the president. In the discussions, there was a general agreement that Mahmoud al-Sisi’s rising prominence as a decision maker, as well as the increasingly frequent mention of his name in international and regional media outlets, had significantly harmed the public image of the president and his family and constituted a threat to the stability of the administration.
Multiple sources agreed that the numerous discussions that took place within this small inner circle aimed at finding a way to facilitate Mahmoud al-Sisi’s smooth departure in order to both alleviate growing criticism and give him an opportunity to acquire new expertise. The president immediately welcomed the idea.
Russia seemed like an appropriate choice due to its close relations with Egypt, as well as the longstanding admiration among many senior Egyptian officials for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of governance. The government official added that President Sisi has already discussed the move with Russian authorities, who welcomed the decision.
Among the primary reasons for sending Mahmoud al-Sisi to Moscow was his failure to properly handle most of the responsibilities assigned to him, according to the GIS sources.
Chief among them was the media, over which he has exercised direct control for more than a year. In 2017, the GIS began to exert direct control over the media through acquisition, purchasing a controlling stake in the Egyptian Media Group, the biggest media conglomerate in Egypt. The corporation has several influential newspapers and television outlets under its control, including ONtv and the Youm7 newspaper. GIS also owns the DMC television network. Yet during Mahmoud al-Sisi’s tenure, the president has been unsatisfied with the media’s performance to the extent that he publicly criticized local media coverage on several occasions, one GIS official said.
The GIS source also pointed to Mahmoud al-Sisi’s failure to properly handle the firestorm of controversy ignited by former army contractor Mohamed Ali two months ago. In September, Ali sparked a public outcry after he posted videos online revealing alleged details of the president and his family’s lavish expenditures on personal vanity projects and accused Mahmoud al-Sisi of direct involvement.
From the outset, Mahmoud al-Sisi was responsible for dealing with the controversy but ultimately failed to contain the crisis, the source said. On September 20, government officials were taken by surprise when thousands of people took to the streets to protest in cities across Egypt in response to the Mohamed Ali videos to call for the president’s ouster.
A number of informed sources told Mada Masr at the time that, on the president’s orders, Mahmoud al-Sisi oversaw the fierce crackdown that followed the protests, with over 4,000 people arrested, including prominent activists, lawyers, university professors, and political opposition figures. At the time, the president was in New York to take part in the UN General Assembly on the advice of his closest aides, particularly Abbas, a longtime confidant of the president and current head of GIS.
The president’s son also blundered, the GIS sources said, when he tried to pull a media stunt by proposing that TV presenter Amr Adib announce he would be interviewing a guest on his show by the name of Mahmoud al-Sisi on September 22. The interview was highly anticipated but it was not until airtime that it was revealed that the guest was not the president’s son, but another person named Mahmoud al-Sisi, the managing director of the pharmacy chain 19011. The aim of the stunt was to embarrass the Muslim Brotherhood, who had touted on their media outlets what they thought was an upcoming interview with the president’s son. Yet the end result was that Sisi’s family came under further scrutiny, the source said.
Sending Mahmoud al-Sisi to Moscow will also help alleviate growing tensions within GIS about the role of the president’s son in the removal of senior officials from their posts in the intelligence apparatus since the president formally came to power in 2014, according to both the government official and the senior politician with close ties to the president’s inner circle. The process of removing senior members of the GIS came under the pretext that they were “Omar Suleiman’s men” (the late intelligence chief under Mubarak) who had no loyalty to the “new state.”
Last year, President Sisi replaced the head of the General Intelligence Service Khaled Fawzy with Abbas Kamel. In 2017, he removed Mahmoud Hegazy, his military chief of staff, and replaced him with Mohamed Farid Higazy.
In late September, one of the ousted GIS officials and an advisor to the GIS on foreign affairs both told Mada Masr there has also been growing unease within the intelligence apparatus regarding the “confrontational” and “extreme” manner in which Mahmoud al-Sisi has handled various security matters and that he had ignored the advice of many.
The shuffling of top security officials has even possibly threatened Abbas Kamel’s powerful position as head of GIS.
The government official ruled out Kamel as the source of the idea to send the president’s son to Moscow, stating that the political space granted to Kamel by the president has shrunk dramatically in recent months, including in matters of foreign policy. As a case in point, Kamel did not accompany Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on a number of recent official missions, including the negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
“A year ago, we heard that Abbas Kamel could be removed, as other close presidential aides have, but this has not happened so far,” the government official said. “One cannot say with confidence that the president will remove two of his closest aides, who have played a vital role in the General Intelligence Service under his rule. But we should remember that the removal of major former figures was not expected either, including former Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy, who was removed in late 2017 under circumstances that have yet to be fully revealed, despite information that has been leaked.”
The decision to send Mahmoud al-Sisi to Moscow comes in the wake of similar removals of security officials to assignments overseas.
According to one of the GIS sources, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shaaban, an officer in the Military Intelligence Directorate who was assigned to the GIS where he worked on media-related issues for years, was recently sent to work in Egypt’s diplomatic mission in Greece. The move came just a few months after a decision was made to terminate his service in the Armed Forces as a military intelligence officer.
The GIS source pointed to similar decrees issued in recent days to other officers, who have all either been reassigned to work overseas or to different governmental institutions in Egypt. The reshuffling has primarily targeted officials within the intelligence apparatus whose prominence has exceeded their posts, the GIS source said.
The suggestion that Mahmoud al-Sisi be sent to Moscow was also echoed in discussions with senior government figures in the United Arab Emirates, according to the source close to Abu Dhabi’s decision-making circles. The discussions came in the context of high-level bilateral coordination between President Sisi and Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, who is one of the Egyptian president’s closest allies.
“I think that President Sisi knows very well that there is a general state of dissatisfaction within governmental institutions. There are considerable worries inside the state apparatus that cannot be underestimated,” the source close to Abu Dhabi’s decision-making circles said. “I think he understands that his popularity on the streets has declined for various reasons, some of which are economic, while others are rooted in social and political grievances. Besides, the wound inflicted by his handover of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia three years ago has not healed. Sisi will certainly not ignore the growing signs of anger altogether.”
According to both the government official and the senior politician, Mahmoud al-Sisi’s removal from the GIS does not necessarily mean that the president’s most influential son has “been sent packing.” The new Russia post may instead be an attempt to hone his skills by becoming a military envoy in a country of great strategic importance to Egypt, including in its role in constructing a nuclear power plant in Dabaa.
Mahmoud al-Sisi, who is currently working toward a doctorate in Public Administration at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport, according to a university professor there, is the president’s eldest son. His two siblings include Mustafa, who works in the Administrative Control Authority, and Hassan, who moved from the oil sector to a GIS position nearly three years ago.
“We believe the role that Mahmoud al-Sisi has been playing has become problematic and harmful to the president’s popularity within the circles of power,” the source close to the UAE said. “The advice was that the son should not cast a shadow over the president’s position, so that the situation of Hosni and Gamal Mubarak is not repeated.”