Spinning for Sisi? Blair and Campbell accused of links to regime

Published by The Mail on Sunday (1st June, 2013)

Victims of last year’s military coup in Egypt have accused Tony Blair and his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell of assisting a brutal regime responsible for mass killings, torture and the jailing of thousands of innocent people.

As the coup leader – a former army spy chief – was crowned President in a controversial election last week, they condemned the pair for helping a military strongman trying to win international approval  after overthrowing an elected government.

‘I still have a bullet in my chest,’ said Mohamed Tareq, a biology lecturer shot three times while helping victims of a massacre that killed hundreds of protesters. ‘Is this the democracy these people are promoting to the West?’

Their anger came as new evidence emerged of Campbell’s reported role offering advice to the regime of Egypt’s ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Mail on Sunday revealed last week how Campbell, forced to resign from Downing Street in 2003 after his role in the Iraq War ‘dodgy dossier’ scandal, had visited the country for talks with Sisi’s team.

Campbell refused to say if he was being paid. In February, he spoke at a conference in the United Arab Emirates, one of the Gulf states providing financial support to Egypt since the coup. However, this newspaper can reveal new details of Campbell’s secretive Cairo mission to discuss ‘spinning’ the Sisi regime to the rest of the world.

Diplomatic sources in Cairo say Campbell had lengthy talks with senior aides and politicians on how to defend the coup and its bloody aftermath in the international media.‘They have been very bad at getting their message across,’ said one source.

In recent weeks, Sisi advisers have visited the US and Brussels to push the line that a shattered Egypt needs stability to survive and seek foreign investment. Insiders say the aim is to play down ‘regrettable’ outrages of the post-coup regime and play up abuses by Mohamed Morsi’s deposed Muslim Brotherhood government, while defending press curbs and clampdowns on protests as politically necessary.

Rasha Gafaar, a freelance journalist accused of sending footage to Arab television station al-Jazeera, yesterday became  the latest reporter seized for supposedly aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood. One ex-BBC journalist is among those on trial accused of similar collusion.

Former journalist Campbell has admitted discussing ‘perceptions in the international media about Egypt’ – and one senior official who met him complained the West did not understand events  in his nation. ‘Our political discourse is not very strong and we are not trained to speak to the Western mentality,’ said the official. ‘Democracy is an issue that is relative.’

On Thursday, Sisi won a landslide victory; his only rival came third behind spoiled ballots. Apathy and boycotts led to school and shopping mall closures, a hasty public holiday and polling extended a day to boost turnout.

His triumph – still with far fewer votes than he had demanded – was greeted with fireworks and flag-waving in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, scene of the Arab Spring protests three years ago that ousted the corrupt dictator Hosni Mubarak. But the square was far from filled; street vendors selling T-shirts with Sisi’s image on them told me trade was terrible.

Sisi mounted his military coup last July after massive street protests against Morsi. Since then, an estimated 1,600 dissidents have been killed, 16,000 stuffed into overcrowded jails and up to 40,000 arrested. These include not just large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members, but also scores of liberal and left-wing activists; even one influential youth movement that backed the protests against Morsi has been banned.

Yet Blair praised the army intervention for the ‘rescue’ of Egypt, saying it was the ‘will of the people… to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic’.

Amr Moussa, an adviser to Sisi and defeated presidential candidate in 2012, said they welcomed the help of anyone who understood the deep challenges facing Egyptians. ‘Tony is an intelligent man,’ he said. ‘He has been here several times. He knows what is needed.’

Despite the farcical election, a recent poll showed a slender majority for the coup. Many in this sharply-divided nation are desperate for stability amid economic meltdown, devastated tourism and an upsurge in crime, inflamed by the disappearance of police from the streets.

Most of the Mubarak old guard and business elite back the new regime. Days after Morsi’s fall last July, the telecoms billionaire Naguib Sawiris hosted Blair on his new super-yacht in St Tropez, where they discussed the restoration of order in Egypt.

Sisi’s supporters argue Morsi lost legitimacy by turning most of the country against him with his incompetence and sectarianism.

‘Why should we have to suffer for another three years to have the trimmings of democracy in order to please the West?’ asked Mohamed Salmawy, a celebrated author who helped create a new constitution and has met with Cathy Ashton, EU foreign affairs chief. ‘If the army had not responded, there would have been civil war.’

But human rights groups, journalists and activists allege that repression is now the worst in recent Egyptian history. ‘This is worse than Mubarak,’ said a Human Rights Watch spokesman. ‘The scale of mass protester killings is unprecedented.’

The most savage massacre was last August, when almost 1,000 people were slaughtered and many more injured. Soldiers – who claim to have come under fire first – surrounded a Cairo protest camp in support of Morsi, then fired into it for several hours.

Lecturer Tareq, 34, was among those caught in the carnage, shot three times. Tareq was sacked by his university and still remains in severe pain – but he believes he escaped lightly compared to  those he saw with faces blown apart and innards spilling out. ‘It felt like we were watching genocide,’ he said.

Or take the tale of Haitham Ghonim, a call centre training supervisor who set off to buy a new car earlier this year.

Arriving at the area where drivers come to sell their cars, he passed an anti-coup protest of 150 people. Then, as he looked at the vehicles, armoured cars blocked off the street at either end and security forces began blasting away with birdshot.

Gas canisters were also fired and, amid the chaos, an officer was heard telling his troops to fire live rounds, but they refused. The car owners, desperate to protect their vehicles, hurled back stones, prompting the officer himself to start shooting.

‘There were two men in front of me,’ said Haitham, 29. ‘One was shot in the leg, then a second man was hit in the abdomen and while we tried to help he was dying in front of us. I could not believe it – these guys were just selling cars.’

Haitham was picked up by police, kicked and beaten with a rifle butt, then thrown in a military bus. Inside was an injured young man slipping out of consciousness. ‘I begged them to open the door to let in air for this man. But they just kept telling us we were not human beings, we were sheep, that we must die.’

The brutal assaults continued as they were taken to a police station and questioned over links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Haitham had not voted for Morsi, yet was singled out for the most vicious abuse since he shared his last name with a prominent figure in the original pro-democracy protests. ‘Officers came and told me that if I was his brother they would rape me, then kill me.’

Eventually this bruised and battered man was thrown in a tiny, stinking cell crammed with 70 other people. He was held for 26 days without trial.

So what did Haitham think of prominent figures telling the world Egypt was on the path to progress? ‘These people should come and live with us if they think this is democracy,’ he said. ‘They are helping destroy our revolution.

‘Those who are promoting a regime that is killing, torturing and locking up so many Egyptians have blood on their hands also.’

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