Protesters were waiting in London when the president visited this week.

Photographer: Carl Court

Allies of Egypt's Leader Fear He's in Jihadis' Crosshairs

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Since 2013, Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has kept a tight grip on his country. He has jailed, killed and exiled his Islamist opposition. Nonetheless, Israeli officials are said to worry whether he can hold on to power.

Speaking Thursday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Vin Weber, a former Republican member of Congress and the co-chairman of the think tank's task force on Egypt policy, said Israeli officials and others with whom he had spoken are concerned el-Sisi's government will fall.

"We encountered a lot of people in Israel and elsewhere that don't think that he is going to survive his term," Weber said. Israeli government representatives declined to comment for this column. One Israeli official disputed Weber's assessment but did not elaborate. Weber's task force met with senior Israeli security officials and diplomats, according to the group's report released this week.

"He is under constant death threats," Weber said. "Many people said we're not sure where he sleeps every night. And I think there is that question mark in the minds of the Israelis about whether or not the government can succeed."

Questions about el-Sisi's ability to stay in power and run Egypt are newly urgent this week. The U.S. and U.K. governments say there is evidence that the Islamic State placed a bomb aboard a Russian commercial jet that exploded this week over the Sinai. It took off from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. On Friday, Russia canceled all flights to Egypt.

The group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which pledged loyalty to the Islamic State in November 2014, initially claimed credit for destroying the Russian Metrojet plane. Despite a new Egyptian military campaign this summer against insurgents in the Sinai, Islamic State-linked jihadis there launched a wave of terror, killing scores of Egyptian soldiers and assassinating the country's chief prosecutor. Last year el-Sisi himself acknowledged there had been two attempts on his life in 2013.  

Greg Craig, a former top lawyer in the Obama White House and the co-chairman of the institute's task force, said Egypt's military was working more closely with the Israeli intelligence community -- particularly in Sinai -- than they ever had before. Nonetheless, Craig said one Israeli military analyst gave the Egyptian campaign in the Sinai very low marks.

"We did spend some time with Israeli national security folks. One of the smartest persons I've ever met in terms of analytical capacity was talking about the Egyptian proclivity to do all the wrong things when it comes to counter-insurgency," Craig said. "If you had a list of boxes you checked of things not to do, the Egyptian military has checked every one of those boxes."

The Israeli government has enjoyed unprecedented cooperation with el-Sisi's government, particularly in the Sinai where Egypt has worked to destroy the smuggling tunnels operated by Hamas in Gaza. If el-Sisi's government fell and Islamists took over, Israel would face a hostile neighbor on its southern border.  

Coups and assassinations are common in recent Egyptian history. El-Sisi seized power in 2013 as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Jihadis in 1981 murdered Anwar al-Sadat, the Egyptian president who signed a peace treaty with Israel, at a military parade in Cairo. Islamists tried to kill Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, in 1995 on a state visit to Ethiopia.

Like past Egyptian leaders, el-Sisi also faces threats from within the military. In August an Egyptian court sentenced 26 Egyptian military officers for plotting a coup against the Egyptian president. A retired Egyptian general, Sameh Seif Elyazal, told Foreign Policy last year that 2 million to 3 million Egyptians hate el-Sisi: "Everybody knows that he is a target."

Other U.S. officials and outside experts have told us they too worry that el-Sisi's heavy-handed approach could end up bringing down his own government.

"The policy that el-Sisi has pursued has created a large number of enemies in the country," said Michele Dunne, the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "The fact that one of those enemies would lash out at him whether through violence or a coup, that possibility is there. These are things notoriously difficult to predict."

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told us he was less concerned about the potential for an assassination than he was about the broader issue of stability in Egypt. "It's stating the obvious that all those leaders in the region are under constant death threats, but that's not what concerns me," he said. Nunes, who visited with el-Sisi and toured the Sinai this year, said he was more worried about the broader economic instability in Egypt and a young population that is increasingly falling under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical jihadi groups.

"I hope el-Sisi can keep the country together," Nunes said. "Furthermore the Sinai is completely unstable where jihadis are roaming all over, and on the other side of Egypt you have Libya where we have no plan. This could potentially set Egypt into chaos."

Since el-Sisi took power, the U.S. government has struggled internally over whether to embrace what most analysts called a military coup. Although the U.S. government decided not to legally determine whether a coup had taken place, U.S. military sales of large weapons systems were suspended after Sisi took power.

Secretary of State John Kerry led the camp pushing for a resumption of normal relations with Egypt, despite Sisi's brutal crackdown on political opposition, civil society and the press. (El-Sisi won a barely contested election in 2014 to the presidency.) By early 2015, the U.S. had fully lifted its suspension of U.S. arms sales to Egypt.

Sisi himself called on the international community to support his campaign against jihadis, in a speech Oct. 30 at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue. He urged world powers to let him consolidate power without criticism and international intervention.

"National security in the Arab world is so threatened that it now requires -- demands -- the protection of what remains of the states and their institutions," he said. "We in Egypt are ready to work together with regional and international powers who understand the importance of the Arab world and believe that it is important not to interfere in Arab affairs, as supporting specific groups detracts from the role of the state."

But many of el-Sisi's allies fear the biggest threat to his rule is not international meddling, but Egyptians who have been radicalized by his campaign to consolidate his own power.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net