Alleged plot keeps Egypt’s Sisi from Arab summit
Cairo - Experts — some with links to the country’s security apparatus — claimed that Egyptian intelligence had information that jihadist groups linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) had targeted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the recent Arab summit in Mauritania.
The Egyptian presidency denied the plot reports; however, its failure to give reasons for Sisi’s absence from the meeting fuelled conspiracy rumours. Sisi could have merely decided, such as other prominent Arab rulers, including Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Jordanian King Abdullah II, not to go to Nouakchott.
“News of the plot was true but the presidency has denied it to avoid making the public worry,” said Mamdouh al-Kidwani, a retired police major-general and the former governor of Sohag province.
Kidwani claimed Moroccan authorities had information that Sisi would have been targeted last March in Morocco, where the 2016 Arab summit was first scheduled.
Sisi had planned to travel to Nouakchott after Mauritania was asked to host the summit when Morocco declined. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s Foreign minister from 2004-11, led the sessions for the first time.
There is little information about why Sisi would have been assassinated but security experts say Egyptian security personnel had information about moves by jihadist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, also powerful in Mauritania, and the ISIS to attack Sisi in Nouakchott.
“One likely scenario for his assassination would have been an attack on his motorcade as he travelled from the airport to the summit location,” said Ahmed al-Awadi, a member of parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee. “Sisi is on the hit list of terrorist organisations.”
There are sceptics, including Khaled Okasha, a retired police lieutenant-general, who ruled out the assassination scenario as a reason behind Sisi’s absence from the summit. He claimed Sisi kept away from the summit because the event would not be attended by most Arab leaders.
“This was the real reason why he did not attend,” Okasha said. “He [Sisi] knew that if he went there, he would be one of few leaders showing up.”
Political experts said the Egyptian leader had reasons not to risk his personal safety to attend an event that marked the official demise of everything he toiled to achieve during the past two years, including his proposal for the formation of an Arab military force.
Sisi had been calling for forming the force since he rose to power in 2014. He officially proposed it in March 2015 during an Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. The force was not, however, on the agenda of the Nouakchott summit, even as King Salman pledged to go ahead with it when he was in Cairo in April.
“The president had enough evidence that the summit would not be worth the pain of travelling,” said Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “This was also the reason why most Arab leaders did not show up.”
The Egyptian Interior Ministry refused to comment on the plot reports but local experts said the security situation in Mauritania gives credence to the allegations.
The country is vulnerable to terrorist destabilisation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a research paper in February 2016. It added that, relative to its population, no other country in the Sahel and Sahara region produces as many jihadist ideologues and high-ranking terrorist operatives as Mauritania.
Sisi is an avowed enemy of Islamist movements. He crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful Islamist movement. Sisi also battles an ISIS-linked insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
This is probably why he seems obsessed with his personal security, even as he told visiting US congressmen in March 2015 that he did not fear suffering the fate of late president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated during a military parade in 1971.
Sisi shrouds his movements inside his country with secrecy. His moves inside Egypt become known only when they happen.
Nevertheless, he does everything possible to hide his security obsession. He recently said, as he attended the graduation of new military pilots, that he was told by army leaders that the graduates would use live ammunition during the ceremony. “I told them [the army leaders] that this is nothing I can fear from,” Sisi said.
It seems, however, that there was something he feared in Nouakchott. Zunt said Sisi heeded intelligence warnings against going there.
“It would have been difficult for his bodyguards to secure him in a country like Mauritania,” Zunt said. “This became even more difficult after the assassination plot transpired.”