The Morsi Leaks: Not Much of a Scandal

The Egyptian government spent much of this week denying the authenticity of a series of leaked alleged conversations between senior military aides. According to the leaks, official records were tampered with to show that former president Mohamed Morsi was not illegally imprisoned after his removal by the army on July 3, 2013. They allege that Morsi was held in a military facility, rather than an interior ministry facility, a legal violation since he is being tried by a civilian court. However, the recordings, aired on December 4 by a pro-Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey-based satellite television channel, Mekameleen, are unlikely to change the outcome of Morsi’s many trials in which he faces serious charges, most of which are punishable by death. They have also done little to garner sympathy for the Brotherhood with a public that seems to largely support the harsh security crackdown on its members.

What was in the leaks?

The television channel aired three separate conversations said to take place between Supreme Military Council member, Mamdouh Shaheen, who handles military legal affairs, and other senior army and government officials, including Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim; Army Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy; Commander of the Navy Ossama al-Gindi, and the director of then-Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office Major General Abbas Kamel, as well as, briefly, Sisi himself. According to the taped recordings, which the Prosecutor General’s Office claims were “fabricated” by Brotherhood supporters to influence Morsi’s ongoing trials, Shaheen was told by prosecutors pressing charges against the former president that the case would collapse if they could not prove that Morsi was legally held in an interior ministry prison.

In the leaked recordings, Shaheen allegedly contacted the interior minister and asked him to sign a backdated decree stating that a small part of the Navy base in Abu Keer, where Morsi was being held, was turned into a “special prison under the mandate of the interior ministry.”  The prosecutor who first questioned the former president, described the prison in full detail, so as a result, according to the alleged recordings, the senior officers agreed with the navy commander to build a similar prison in Abu Keer Navy base. All details were replicated, “including where the fridge was, the sofas, and even the place where newspapers were kept.”

Shaheen was also heard speaking to the Navy Commander, asking him to build a special road leading to the prison, separate from that of Abu Keer Navy base, in order to confirm that it was totally under the mandate of the interior ministry. After the leaks were released, journalists were quick to take to Twitter to share images from Google Maps indicating that some changes had in fact taken place in the area where Morsi was being held. “All this will be removed as soon as the trial is over,” Shaheen allegedly told the Navy Commander. “You will never find better forgery than this. At your service,” he added, while other participants were heard laughing.

Morsi’s lawyers push for a dismissal

Less than two days after the leaks emerged, one of Morsi’s lawyers, Montasser al-Zayat, submitted the recordings to the court, where Morsi is being tried on on charges of espionage. Zayat pointed to a decree, included in the court papers and signed by the interior minister, declaring that part of the Navy base in Abu Keer was considered an interior ministry prison, under his mandate, nearly two months before Morsi’s removal. The decree was dated May 3, 2013—a date specifically referred to in the leaks.

The prosecutor immediately told the court the alleged recordings were fake, and that Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, had ordered an investigation to determine those responsible for leaking it to the press. He also warned Zayat he would be held responsible for presenting fake documents to the judges.

Morsi, who clearly did not know the details of the recordings, asked the judges to address the court. He said he was forcibly taken to the Republican Guard’s Headquarters in Cairo shortly announced his removal. He added that he was later forcibly taken, by helicopter, to an army base in Ismailia for a few hours, and later to a Navy base in Alexandria. Morsi said the Commander of the Republican Guard ignored his warnings that he was acting illegally and that he would he put him on trial for taking part in a coup against a democratically elected president.

Why the recordings will have no impact

While the official denial was expected, the fact that the Prosecutor General issued his statement describing the recordings as fake, hardly a day later, led some legal experts to question whether a serious investigation was held in the first place. Adel Ibrahim, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, also wondered why Barakat’s office was responsible for investigating the recordings, when all parties involved in the alleged recordings were senior military officers. “Of course if this case was investigated, it should be the responsibility of the Military Prosecutor’s office,” Adel said. It was not until December 9, four days after they were leaked, that the recordings were referred to the military prosecutor for investigation.

Other former senior judges who commented to the local press on the alleged recordings also pointed out that they held no value in a court because they were illegally taped. “Any taped recordings have to be ordered legally by the prosecutor’s office,” said Rifaat al-Sayed, former Chief Judge at Cairo Appeals Court. He added that the senior army commanders did not need to go through a detailed plot to make up a fake prison. “Morsi himself signed a decree while in office giving army officers the right to arrest citizens due to the deteriorating security situation. In any case, his arrest and detention were legal,” he explained.

However, some commentators point out that if the taped recordings were authentic, the real scandal is not only that senior officials were involved in a clear forgery of official papers, but that someone infiltrated the defense minister’s office and managed to tape the conversations. While news of the recordings was widely covered both in private and state-owned print and television media, they largely ignored this issue, and only reported the statement issued by the Prosecutor General’s office.

The public seems largely supportive of the security crackdown on Brotherhood members, in light of the disruption daily demonstrations by Morsi supporters cause to their lives, and of the increased terror attacks which authorities often blame on the banned organization. This sentiment is likely to bring a swift end to the story, instead of turning it into a major scandal that could lead to the release of the former president, as the Brotherhood clearly hopes.

Pro-Sisi columnists were even able to twist the possibility of the authenticity of the recordings to their favor. “If these recordings are true, they show how we truly have separation of powers in Egypt,” said Suleiman Gouda, a daily columnist for a private daily. “Even senior military officers feel they need to resort to all sorts of tricks to set their records straight due to the independence of the judiciary in Egypt,” he added. However, that positive spin is unlikely to impress Brotherhood supporters who believe the army was directly involved in a coup against a democratically elected president.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Image: Photo: Egyptians watch television showing the trial of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, in Cairo on January 28, 2014. (Reuters/Mohamed Abdel Ghany)