On Sunday night Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took to the air to proclaim his innocence. Stung by the publication of secretly recorded conversations in which the Egyptian president and his senior staff revealed their contempt for their Gulf donors, discussing how to tap them for billions more and how to divert the money into the army's bank accounts, the president said he was the victim of a plot.
Addressing himself directly to his "brothers in the Gulf," he said that "we show every respect for them, and we should be vigilant toward what is done in order to create division and dissension."
Sisi blamed what he called a fourth generation of warfare, in which "technology" is being used to accomplish political goals to weaken him. In this vein he claimed that his voice and those of his closest advisers had been fabricated. Sisi said:
I have met with all strands of the Egyptian society. I spoke, and my speech is recorded for up to 1,000 hours. In the 1,000 hours there is not a single violation or one abuse coming out of my mouth against anyone, not a state, not a faction, not a group and not an entity.
These protestations of innocence are going down like a lead balloon in Saudi Arabia, which, since the death of King Abdullah, is under new management. King Salman's first act was to throw out of office the coterie of advisers who had tried to stop him from inheriting the throne. As these are the same people who funded and backed Sisi's military coup, the Egyptian leader must be asking himself whether he has just lost his chief sponsor. He will soon find out.
Sisi's existential angst will not be calmed by news that a leading British laboratory in forensic speech and acoustic analysis has authenticated one 30-minute section of the tapes. Worse than that, the laboratory ruled out the possibility that the tapes were fabricated or manipulated electronically.
The secret recordings were broadcast by a Turkish-based satellite channel, Mekameleen, which is pro-Brotherhood. Without independent, forensic authentication, the political sympathies of this source would have cast doubt on the content of the tapes.
J. P. French Associates, led by Peter French, a professor of forensic speech science at the University of York, is Britain's leading independent forensic speech and acoustics laboratory. They give evidence to the courts in Britain and advise international law enforcement agencies. They were tasked to establish whether the voice of the main participant in the discussions, General Mamdouh Shahin, the legal advisor to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), was genuine.
Their conclusion was unequivocal: "Our opinion is that the evidence provides strong support for the view that the questioned speaker is Mr Mamdouh Shahin." The laboratory further states:
There are no indications that the spoken material in the recordings has been fabricated by editing together a large number of short speech segments or utterances. It would be very difficult to create a convincing conversation in this way. Further, the speech material displays the features of natural conversations that one would expect to encounter in a genuine recording.
Shahin, Sisi's office manager Abbas Kamil, and Sisi himself were taped discussing how to "fix" a legal problem that had arisen over the deposed president's detention. According to Egyptian law, Mohammed Morsi initially had been held illegally in an army barracks instead of a prison run by the Interior Ministry.
As Shahin himself admits, if the government prosecutors lost on this issue, all the other charges against Morsi would be thrown out, because under Egyptian law his detention would have been declared illegal. So Shahin, Kamil and others were busy trying to rewrite history, generating backdated orders from the Interior Ministry, turning a military barracks at Abu Qir naval base (near Alexandria) into a prison, supplying it with records of visits and a batch of prison officers. To add a final touch of authenticity, they joke about giving it its own torture chamber.
The other leaks in which Sisi and Kamil disparage their Gulf donors as "half-states" are more damaging to regional ears. Now that one tape has been declared genuine, Mekameleen is offering up all the others for international inspection.
The British laboratory is not alone in believing the tapes and conversations to be genuine. Ayman Nour, a liberal Egyptian politician who is respected by all sides, told me last week, "I know their voices. The tape are genuine." Nour spent 10 years in Parliament trying to get the generals to be transparent about their income and budget. In the end he resigned his seat in a committee to examine the constitution. He said:
We have two states: the state of Egypt and the state of the army. Although the logic should be that the army is part of the executive authority, we have always had a pharaoh, a semi-god, and you have a god that is called the military state.
The authentication of the tapes will have legal consequences, not necessarily in Egypt, where, as we now know, the courts are under the military's thumb, nor even before the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, which, last year, ordered a moratorium on all death sentences passed in Egypt.
British police are currently investigating whether current members of the Egyptian government and military have command responsibility for torture in Egyptian prisons, the massacres that took place last year, and continued killings of protesters. If nothing else, the tapes show the most senior advisers to Sisi discussing the minutiae of how to fix evidence and make a barracks look like a prison. The tapes establish a prima facie case for the involvement of officials at the highest levels of the state in the abuses that are going on. They even boast about them.
At one point in the authenticated tape, Shahin quips, "You can always command us. Forgery is the order of the day."
If Britain's Crown Prosecution Service comes to the same conclusion, members of the Egyptian government or military who enter the jurisdiction of British courts face arrest under universal jurisdiction.
Closer to home, Sisi must be wondering who bugged his closest advisers and who was listening in on the most sensitive discussions taking place in his office. The finger points to someone powerful enough in the Egyptian army or security establishment to subvert him. As Sisi trusts no one and is prepared to betray even those liberals who backed his coup, it goes without saying that some general somewhere is returning the favor. Either way, Sisi emerges from this episode a weaker figure.
Last week Sisi called for a second international intervention in Libya, after his warplanes bombed what they claimed were Islamic State (IS) targets in Derna following the murder of Egyptian Copts. This call failed. As the respected and well-connected Saudi writer Jamal Khashogji observed, reconciliation between the warring groups in Libya is the first step in the war against IS.
No sane person, he argued, would want to see a repeat of Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki's treatment of the Sunnis, which led to the proclamation of the Islamic State in Libya. The Italians have realized this. Khashogji continued:
If only the rest of Libya's neighbors could give this serious consideration, follow suit and stop inflaming the conflict, the better off we will all be. They can't use war in Libya to cover up their domestic difficulties and as a way to justify their failure to achieve genuine national reconciliation that could deliver them from their crises.
Is it safe to assume that Salman's key advisers and those around the powerful interior minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, may be having similar thoughts? If it is, Sisi may well find that Saudi Arabia will no longer be writing him a blank check or, for that matter, any other.