Hard Cells

05.10.15 11:00 PM ET

Secret Tapes of the 2013 Egypt Coup Plot Pose a Problem for Obama

Ever since the overthrow of Egypt’s elected president, the U.S. administration has tried to avoid the word “coup.” Hard to do that now, but it’s still trying.

Pity the poor dictators!  What’s a dedicated bunch of military plotters to do when they learn the elected leader they overthrew may have to go free because they put him in the wrong kind of jail?

If you’re among the conspirators who ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, it seems you initiate a flurry of meetings and phone calls and soon reach a solution that relies on forgery and, to make sure a replacement jail looks authentic, construction of a “torture area” inside it. 

“Forgery, we do all the time,” brags one member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  “We are very good at it.” He might have said the same about torture.

What neither he nor his colleagues realized, however, is that their words were secretly recorded, and eventually tapes of these alleged conversations would be released to the outside world. 

The list of plotters included Deputy Defense Minister Mamdouh Shaheen and Gen. Abbas Kamel, the chief of staff to Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the top military commander regarded as the mastermind behind the coup, who is now president of Egypt.

Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which propelled him to victory in the national elections that were forced by the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, was found guilty last month of ordering the arrest and torture of protestors during the unrest that preceded the coup. An Egyptian court sentenced the former president to 20 years in prison; his lawyers pledged an appeal.

The authenticity of the secret tapes has been verified forensically at the request of Morsi’s lawyers by J. P. French Associates, a British company that specializes in voice analysis, the Guardian newspaper has reported. The Egyptian government denies the finding, denouncing the tapes as “fabrications.”

If genuine, the tapes raise embarrassing questions for U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular.  Besides rigging the legal case against Morsi, the tapes describe the Egyptian military’s role in fomenting the street protests that el-Sisi used to justify Morsi’s removal—a revelation that undercuts the military’s assertion that it took power as part of a popular “revolution,” not a coup.

U.S. law prohibits supplying advanced military equipment to a government that seized power in a coup.

Obama froze U.S. military aid to Egypt immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, but recently reversed course.  In a March 31 telephone call, the president informed el-Sisi that the U.S. would be sending $47 million worth of F-16 fighter jets, Harpoon missiles, and other weaponry to Egypt, fortifying Egypt’s role as the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind Israel. Kerry heaped fulsome praise on el-Sisi during a March 13 visit to Egypt, asserting that the new Egyptian president “deserves enormous credit for working to improve the basic business climate in Egypt.”

The Daily Beast asked National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan if the Obama administration had doubts about the authenticity of the tapes and, if not, how it justified resuming military aid to perpetrators of an apparent military coup. She referred questions about the tapes to the State Department, which did not respond.

As for the aid resumption, Meehan cited a statement the White House released after Obama’s phone call to el-Sisi. In the statement, Obama said the aid will leave the two countries “better positioned to address the shared challenges to U.S. and Egyptian interests in an unstable region” even as “he reiterated U.S. concerns about Egypt’s continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials.”

As revealed on the tapes, translated for The Daily Beast by an Egyptian democracy activist who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals, the problem posed by Morsi’s imprisonment was a legal one.

Shaheen, the deputy defense minister, tells the minister of the Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, that the government prosecutor in the case is worried. In the first hours and days after the coup and his arrest, Morsi’s whereabouts were kept secret. Now it seems he was being detained in a military rather than a civilian jail.  This was illegal and, the prosecutor feared, could invalidate the entire case against Morsi.

(As we have seen in the seemingly endless trials of Hosni Mubarak, the president ousted in 2011, the wheels of justice in Egypt grind exceedingly slow in an effort to appear to conform to the rule of law. In the latest turn, on Saturday, Mubarak was sentenced to three years in prison.)

Shaheen and Ibrahim, along with Gen. Kamel, allegedly decided to refashion the jail in question, turning it from a military into a civilian one in case the court decided to inspect it.

The jail was located on Navy property, so it needed a new access road and surrounding wall to make it look like a separate facility.  To buttress the deception, the officials agreed to bring in old mattresses and newspapers from when Morsi supposedly was imprisoned there.

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As veteran bureaucrats, the officials recognized they also had to create a paper trail of other civilians who supposedly were imprisoned there. Kamel, apparently passing along direct orders from el-Sisi, tells the chief of the navy, Adm. Osama el-Guindy, “I was in his office, and he told me to tell you, whatever it costs, whatever it costs, it has to be done right.”

To make this refashioned “civilian jail” truly realistic, the military men further decide that it must have a torture room. Kamel tells Shaheen, “We’ll have, like, an area for beating. If someone were to inspect, it would look like this was a torture area, and some people with marks on their feet, and so on….”  The general concludes this remark with a low chuckle as his colleagues agree.

Even more damaging from the standpoint of U.S. law, a separate tape suggests that the Egyptian military helped to bankroll the mass unrest it used to justify ousting Morsi.

According to the Guardian’s translation, Kamel is heard in June 2013—the month leading up to the coup—authorizing withdrawal of a large sum of money for the army’s use from the bank account of Tamarod, the supposedly independent grassroots group that was organizing protests against president Morsi. 

The government of the United Arab Emirates had provided the money, indicating further high-level collusion. “Sir,” Kamel tells an aide to el-Sisi, who was then chief of the Egyptian military, “we will need 200 [thousand Egyptian pounds] tomorrow from Tamarod’s account, you know, the part from the UAE, which they transferred.”

Although the secret tapes have gone unremarked in Washington, their existence is well known elsewhere, including in Egypt. The tapes began to be released last November by a TV channel based in Turkey, Mekameleen. The channel’s Islamist sympathies were quickly seized upon by el-Sisi and his supporters as reason enough to discredit the tapes.

But according to a comprehensive account by Guardian reporter Patrick Kingsley, the J. P. French Associates firm, which frequently offers expert testimony in British courtrooms, concluded not only that the tapes were genuine but that the voices they contain are indeed those of senior security officials, and no misleading editing or other falsifications were detected.

If the tapes are in fact genuine, a host of intriguing questions pose themselves. Just who managed to tape these unguarded, incriminating conversations inside the office of one of president el-Sisi’s closest advisers? What additional revelations might be forthcoming from tapes yet to be released? And when, if ever, will the Washington press corps demand answers from the Obama administration about its apparent endorsement of a regime whose highest officials literally joke about torture and brag about forgery?