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The Egyptian treasure plane increases the pains of the Sisi regime

August 23, 2023 at 12:30 am

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Nairobi, Kenya on July 16, 2023 [State House of Kenya/Anadolu Agency]

Bad things often come in threes, it is said. This is the case with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime, which is having a difficult time paying the country’s foreign debts as the country suffers from power cuts, a severe shortage of dollars and leaks about corruption. Now along comes the scandal of the treasure plane to trouble Sisi. It apparently left Cairo and landed in Zambia last week, carrying millions of dollars, gold and weapons, and was promptly seized by the Zambian authorities.

The silence of Egyptian officials and the Attorney General’s failure to investigate the incident raises questions about the extent of any involvement of sovereign parties; perhaps even conflicts within the Egyptian regime that sparked the crisis.

The private aircraft that arrived at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport last Sunday was carrying about $5.7 million, 127 kilograms of gold, pistols and ammunition. According to the Zambians, it was raided after a tip-off that it was carrying dangerous materials. The crew and passengers were detained.

The source of the tip-off was not disclosed. However, speculation suggests that someone within the security and intelligence services in Egypt was behind the leak.

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Such speculation is reinforced by reports of links between the aircraft and Sinai businessman Ibrahim Al-Arjani, who is close to Mahmoud Al-Sisi, the son of the Egyptian president. Al-Arjani is suspected of being involved in the attack on the National Security headquarters in El-Arish last month in an attempt to release detainees belonging to his Tarabin tribe. Some say that those behind the attack were paid back in Zambia.

Al-Arjani is a member of the board of directors of the National Agency for the Development of the Sinai Peninsula, a public economic agency affiliated with the Egyptian Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for granting the right for Egyptians and foreigners to own or use land, as well as managing and investing in land in Sinai.

An Egyptian political analyst, who requested anonymity, suggested to me that the aircraft’s itinerary could be reported from within or outside Egypt, especially by Saudi Arabia, in light of Riyadh’s anger that Gulf aid to Cairo is being looted and smuggled to secret bank accounts. According to the flightradar24 aircraft and flight tracking platform, the detained Bombardier Global Express XR plane has made dozens of flights through Cairo Airport to Saudi, UAE and Israeli destinations, as well as to other Arab and African countries, most notably Libya.

It is both interesting and concerning that the Egyptian authorities did not reveal the identity of those on board the plane. This strengthened suspicions about them being very senior figures who may be connected to the regime and so must be protected. 

Suspicions grew after it was revealed that Cairo Airport was not a transit stop, and that the flight departed from VIP Terminal 4, with passengers or goods boarding there without inspection. This contradicts the official narrative that the aircraft was “not Egyptian” and that it was a “transit” flight, as reported by MENA, the official Egyptian news agency.

The British website Middle East Eye noted that a Zambian investigative report revealed that an assistant military attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington was on board, but it is unknown if he is still serving in the Egyptian army. The names of those known to be on board are Yasser Mukhtar Abd Al-Ghafour Al-Shishtawi; Michael Adel Michel Boutros; Munir Shaker Gerges Awad; Walid Refaat Fahmy Boutros; and Noha Salah Al-Din Ali Nadim, along with a Zambian citizen, a Dutch citizen, a Spaniard and a Latvian.

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One Egyptian journalist and writer who lives abroad, Gamal Sultan, claimed on Facebook that, “One of the Egyptians holds a diplomatic passport, and the smuggled amount is much greater than what was announced.”

Perhaps this information may explain the Egyptian authorities’ decision to block the publication of any news about the incident, forcing Egyptian news websites to delete news about the aircraft from their websites. It would also explain why journalist Karim Asaad of the Matsada2sh platform team was arrested. The outlet published information about the identity of those who were on board the plane. Asaad was later released after the journalists’ union and human rights organisations intervened.

Moreover, Matsada2sh said that its social media pages were subject to a security breach, and two articles were deleted from the Facebook page after it covered the Zambian plane incident. It had revealed that a number of Egyptian officials were involved. It added that it holds the Egyptian security authorities responsible for the safety of its team members.

The debate on the Egyptian street about the scandal is growing, coinciding with the publication of leaks involving corruption in major projects worth billions of dollars inaugurated by Sisi years ago. Egyptian YouTuber Abdullah Al-Sharif broadcast a video a few days ago that he said was leaked from inside the greenhouse project at the Muhammad Naguib military base. It showed burnt seedlings and severe damage to the project, which opened in 2018 at a cost of 16 billion Egyptian pounds (about $500 million).

Al-Sharif also revealed facts about corruption in Al-Lahoun agricultural project in Fayoum Governorate. A video clip showed greenhouses in ruins, after the failure of the National Company for Protective Cultivations (NCPC) to operate them. The NCPC belongs to the Egyptian Armed Forces.

All of this exacerbates Sisi’s troubles just a few months before nominations are due for the next presidential election. The former defence minister hopes to win a third term in office taking him up to 2030. There are, though, reports circulating of Gulf dissatisfaction with his policies, and the feeling that ten years of President Sisi is enough, and he should be replaced by another candidate from within the military establishment. 

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The treasure plane crisis may get worse with international financial institutions restricting their dealings with the Sisi regime, given that millions of dollars were being smuggled at a time when Egypt is suffering from a severe shortage of hard currency and is requesting another new loan from the International Monetary Fund.

It is almost certain that the mysterious missions carried out by the aircraft over the years will come under scrutiny, and the scandal may grow if the involvement of regional and international partners and influential figures is exposed. Political opponents believe that it is likely that the plane is affiliated with the Egyptian General Intelligence Service. Furthermore, former Egyptian state security officer Hisham Sabry tweeted that, “The plane seized in Zambia is the private plane of Mahmoud Al-Sisi, or at least is at his disposal.”

Pictures being circulated show that the location of the aircraft often coincided with the presence of Egyptian intelligence and security delegations. These include officials from the Egyptian intelligence service accompanied by Al-Arjani in Libya, as well as Interior Minister Mahmoud Tawfiq at the head of an Egyptian security delegation participating in the 40th session of the Arab Interior Ministers’ Council in Tunisia in February.

An Egyptian expert who spoke to me on condition of anonymity believes that it is likely that a settlement will be arranged with Zambia to cover-up the issue. This is probable given the climbdown from the gold story with claims that the ingots confiscated from the plane were tested and shown to be made of copper, zinc and other minerals. What’s more, the pilot has disappeared after being detained by the Drug Enforcement Commission in Zambia; he obviously has important information about the flight.

Cairo may go in another direction to get out of this difficult situation, with the arrival of a senior official delegation to negotiate with Lusaka, and possibly forfeit the plane and its contents to the Zambian government, in return for closing the file and concealing the results of investigations.

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Or maybe Israeli and Gulf parties will intervene to put pressure on Lusaka in order to cover up the scandal and save their distressed ally, especially with the growing accusations on social media of smuggling nearly half a trillion dollars. The recent smuggling operation is not the first of its kind, and the plane seized in Zambia has made a total of 125 trips to and from Egypt.

However, the crisis may become more complicated, with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema vowing to prosecute those involved in the incident, regardless of who they are or what their nationality is. He stressed in a televised speech last Friday that the incident at the airport was a crime and may be deeper than what appears on the surface. We will just have to wait and see.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.