CAIRO (AP) — In a reflection of Egypt's massive dependence on Gulf largesse, its president telephoned an array of oil-rich monarchs to control the damage after allegedly being caught on tape discussing how to milk them for cash.
The quick move from an authoritarian leader to patch things up came at a time when Egypt's government is hoping for more help from regional allies at an international conference next month.
Gulf nations have thrown Egypt's government a lifeline of tens of billions of dollars since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — at the time the head of the military and now Egypt's president — led the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in the summer of 2013. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a dangerous opponent by most Gulf monarchs, and el-Sissi has waged a fierce crackdown on the group the past year.
The financial help, estimated by one analyst at some $32 billion, helped keep Egypt's battered economy afloat after years of instability. It also helped cement growing military cooperation between Egypt and the Gulf. Emirate planes, for example, are believed to have used Egyptian territory to launch airstrikes against Islamic militants in neighboring Libya. The United Arab Emirates pledges some $9 billion to Egypt in September last year.
But the alleged audiotape — aired on a Brotherhood-allied TV station Saturday— was a potential embarrassment for el-Sissi. In it, he and a top aide purportedly banter in a rather unseemly way about how rich Gulf Arabs are and add up the billions they intend to seek.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab insisted that the tape was fake, telling a Saudi newspaper Tuesday that the Muslim Brotherhood created it using actors to "drive a wedge" between Egypt and its Gulf partners. But the leaks have widely been seen as authentic.
Two senior Egyptian security officials also told The Associated Press it was a fake. But they also said investigators are scouring the president's office, Defense Ministry and army for any possible Islamist sympathizers. They said "advanced technology" was used in the recordings, raising suspicion of help from "foreign intelligence."
The two spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal investigation.
Mahlab said the aim was to wreck next month's international economic conference, intended to attract foreign investment. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are partners in the conference, which Egypt hopes will help its goal of boosting annual economic growth to 3.8 percent. It has hovered around 2 percent since the country's 2011 revolt.
"For Egypt, the conference is seen as a milestone to present its vision," said Mohamed Abu Basha, economist at Cairo-based investment house EFG-Hermes. "It's like a vote of confidence for Egyptian economy."
The conference is also key to weaning Egypt off Gulf aid by giving confidence to international borrowers.
On Monday, el-Sissi called leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, praising their wisdom and saying relations won't be undermined by "nefarious attempts" to do so, the president's office said in a statement.
The Gulf countries issued their own reassuring messages. Saudi Arabia's official news agency reported that King Salman views his kingdom's relationship with Egypt as "unchangeable."
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told el-Sissi that "any evil attempts" won't affect the "strong, brotherly relations" between their countries, according to the United Arab Emirates' news agency.
El-Sissi, who was head of military intelligence before becoming military chief, has faced several leaks of closed-door speeches and conversations since he became Egypt's most powerful man after Morsi's ouster.
In recent months, a Muslim Brotherhood-allied TV network called Mekameleen has broadcast what it says are a string of recorded conversations among generals and presidential Sissi aides, which all appeared to have been taped in the office of Major Gen. Abbas Kamel, a top el-Sissi confidante and head of his office. The removal in December of intelligence chief Farid el-Tohamy was reportedly in response to a leak.
Previous tapes have purported to show generals conspiring to fabricate evidence against Morsi and manipulate media reports and prosecutors' handling of Brotherhood trials. Makameleen hasn't explained how it acquired the tapes.
On the new tape, the voices in the conversation sound like el-Sissi and Kamel, apparently speaking not long before the May 2014 presidential elections that el-Sissi won.
The two voices discuss the flow of financial donations from Gulf partners. The voice purported to be el-Sissi talks of requesting that $10 billion be deposited directly in the accounts of Egypt's military along with "some change to the Central Bank."
He lists specific sums he seeks, including $10 billion from the UAE and $10 billion from Kuwait.
"The money there is like rice," he adds, using an Egyptian expression to mockingly suggest that Gulf funds are endless.
The man who sounds like Kamel describes Gulf countries as "half-states" that need help from Egypt to defend themselves. He says future Egyptian deployments should involve "give and take" between Egypt and those receiving the troops.
"I have a starving nation, in miserable shape," he says, "while you have plenty of money."
A third man purported to be the military's chief of staff, Mahmoud Hegazy, comments that royal family members have budgets bigger than whole states. "Each prince has hundreds of billions," he says.
Gulf nations' readiness to overlook the purported tape reflects in turn the importance they put on Egypt. With turmoil tearing apart Libya, Syria and Iraq and Islamic extremism rising, Egypt — after the removal of the Brotherhood from power — provides its Gulf allies with a key peg of stability.
El-Sissi has repeatedly referred to the security of his Gulf Arab allies as integral to Egypt's own security, hinting he would be willing to send troops to defend them from extremists.
"We are passing through difficult and dangerous times in the region and no one would escape the danger if Egypt fell," columnist Abdel-Rahman el-Rashid, known with close ties to the Saudi royal family, wrote in the Sharq Al-Awsat daily after the round of calls.