CAIRO – Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi scrambled to avert any damage to ties with Arab Gulf countries after he and his aides were allegedly caught on audiotape mocking his crucial oil-rich allies and discussing how to milk them for billions.
El-Sissi's rapid-fire phone calls to leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates on Monday reflected the pivotal role that financial aid from those nations — givers of more than $20 billion in the past year alone — plays in sustaining Egypt's battered economy following four years of instability.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab insisted that the tapes — the latest in a string of purportedly leaked tapes of private conversations within el-Sissi's inner circle that emerged the past year— were fakes, a defense viewed with substantial skepticism in Egypt and the wider region. Mahlab told a Saudi newspaper, al-Hayat, on Tuesday that the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of ousted President Mohammed Morsi fabricated the recordings using actors to "drive a wedge" between Egypt and its Gulf partners.
Mahlab said the aim was to wreck an upcoming international economic conference being held by Egypt next month, intended to attract foreign investment especially from Gulf countries. El-Sissi has received strong backing from Gulf nations for overthrowing Morsi in 2013 and opposing Islamists and militants, a common concern for Egypt and the Gulf states.
A statement from the president's office said el-Sissi, during his telephone calls Monday with Gulf leaders, praised his colleagues' wisdom and said their strong relations "won't be undermined by nefarious attempts."
The Gulf countries issued their own reassuring public messages to el-Sissi. Saudi Arabia's official news agency reported that King Salman viewed his kingdom's relationship with Egypt as "unchangeable."
Abu Dhabi's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told el-Sissi that "any evil attempts" won't affect the "strong, brotherly relations" between their countries, according to the United Arab Emirates' news agency.
In recent months, a Muslim Brotherhood-allied TV network called Mekameleen has broadcast what it says are audiotapes recording conversations among el-Sissi and senior generals, which all appeared to have been taped in the office of Major Gen. Abbas Kamel, a top el-Sissi confidante and head of his office. Previous tapes have purported to document how generals conspired to fabricate evidence against Morsi and to manipulate media reports and prosecutors' handling of key Muslim Brotherhood cases. Makamaleen hasn't explained how it acquired any of the tapes.
Two senior security officials, speaking to The Associated Press, echoed the stance that the new tape was fabricated. But they also said security authorities are carrying out an investigation inside the presidency, Defense Ministry, army and state institutions to filter out employees suspected of ties to Islamists. They said that authorities suspect "foreign intelligence" is behind the recordings, in which they said "advanced technology is being used." They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal actions.
On the new tape, broadcast Saturday, the voices in the conversation sound like el-Sissi and Kamel. From the context, the conversation appears to take place not long before the May 2014 presidential elections that el-Sissi — the former head of the military — won.
The two voices are heard discussing the flow of financial donations from Gulf partners. The voice purported to be el-Sissi talks of requesting that $10 billion be deposited directly in the accounts of Egypt's military and "some change to the Central Bank." He lists specific sums he is seeking, including $10 billion from UAE and $10 billion from Kuwait.
"The money there is like rice," he adds, using an Egyptian expression to mockingly suggest that Gulf states have an endless amount of money.
The man who sounds like Kamel is heard describing Gulf countries as "half-states" that need help from Egypt to defend themselves. He says future Egyptian deployments should involve "give and take" between Egypt and those receiving the troops. He contrasts this with the 1960s deployments of Egyptian forces to Yemen in a spirit of Arab pan-nationalism.
The two security officials said Gulf countries are eager to help he Egyptian military in terms of armament and advancing its capabilities amid the Arab world's turmoil the past four years and the increased threat of extremists after the rise of the Islamic State group.
El-Sissi has repeatedly referred to the security of his Gulf Arab allies as a "red line" and integral to Egypt's own security, hinting he would be willing to send troops to defend them from extremists. Shortly before he left the military to run for president, he inaugurated an elite rapid deployment force and later cryptically said that the Gulf region was "only a short distance away" from Egypt.