Egypt's unsustainable military regime

Egypt's unsustainable military regime
Comment: The military's audacious move from behind the curtain of influence to openly governing Egypt makes for an unsustainable and potentially explosive situation, writes Sahar Aziz.
6 min read
20 May, 2016
The military's elevated status as paternalistic protector of Egypt could be called into question [Getty]

When Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square in January 2011, the last thing they wanted was a military regime. Five years later, Egypt is looking more like the 1960s when the military ruled the country. Most provincial governors are former military officers, the military controls more than half of Egypt's economy and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the fourth (former) military general to rule Egypt. 

While the generals appear to have come out on top after Egypt's so-called January 25th revolution, their decision to govern may prove to be fatal. Between internal fractures and populist anger at their mismanagement of the economy, the military regime is unsustainable.

Since 11 February 2011, when Mubarak was forced to step down, the generals have been plotting to regain their status as the final arbiter in internal as well as foreign affairs. Claiming to act altruistically as the interim government shepherding Egypt through its transition towards democracy, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) appointed itself executive of the nation. 

But when the revolutionary youth rejected the SCAF's attempts to extend its interim governing period from months to years, the generals shifted strategy. The time was not yet ripe for them to govern openly.

Working behind the scenes, the SCAF negotiated with the party that would win democratic elections by a landslide - the Muslim Brotherhood's newly created Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). A longtime political actor and target of state persecution, the Muslim Brotherhood understood all too well that any electoral victory could not be sustained without the military's blessing.   

What the FJP did not appreciate, however, is that any civilian government was a non-starter.   

The military had built a commercial empire estimated to be worth 20 to 40 percent of Egypt's economy. Comprised of hundreds of factories and businesses, what has come to be known as Military, Inc. generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues - all of which stayed in the military's coffers and undisclosed to the public. A government headed by a civilian, as opposed to a retired general like the past three Egyptian presidents, could threaten these significant economic interests.

In addition, the military elite had come to rely on lucrative post-retirement appointments to boards of regulatory agencies, state enterprises, and the civil service. Retired generals and their subordinates sit on boards of state-owned enterprises that control public utilities, infrastructure, and other public services. 

Military retirees also work in government ministries and agencies with jurisdiction over housing, real estate management, agricultural development and tourism.

The military elite clearly has much to lose, should a civilian regime upend this civil-military structure

Local and state government has been another profitable destination for retired officers. Mubarak reportedly appointed 63 former officers as governors out of a total of 156 during his tenure. Most were senior officers, including four of the seven commanders of the Republican Guard, and 11 of the 21 officers who commanded the Second and Third Field Army.

Under the officer-turned-governor is a hierarchy of deputy governors, heads of cities and heads of boroughs to which are appointed subordinate retired officers. The positions were not only rewards for loyalty to the regime, but also a means of rent-seeking through government positions - a common form of corruption by civilians and security personnel alike.

Each of these post-retirement opportunities provides significant income to supplement an officer's modest monthly pension. A major-general, for example, earns approximately $500 a month and a lieutenant approximately $350 month. Contrast those amounts with political appointments in the civil service or state and local government, which can pay a reported $16,000 to $160,000 per month depending on rank.  

The military elite clearly has much to lose, should a civilian regime up-end this civil-military structure.

Despite the FJP's seemingly best efforts to accommodate the generals, the military ousted Morsi only one year after his election as president. Analysts have proffered various theories expounding the military's motives - ranging from disagreements with Morsi's attempts to normalise relations with Hamas, to Morsi's restraint in responding to the violence in Sinai, to the breakdown of law and order domestically. 

In light of the high economic interests at stake, the most plausible theory may be Morsi's move to place his Brotherhood loyalists and supposed Qatari benefactors in charge of developing the Suez Canal corridor, relegating the military to the role of a sub-contractor. Indeed, the military wasted no time expanding the Suez Canal and increasing their control over the economy soon after it deposed Morsi.

Not only were billions of dollars at stake, but the military's identity has been tied to the Suez Canal since Egypt's last war in 1973 when it fought to regain control of the Sinai from Israel. Shutting out the military would thus strip them of a powerful national narrative that preserves their legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people. In turn, the military's elevated status as the paternalistic protector of the nation could be called into question, leading to further calls for accountability and transparency in military affairs.

As FJP leaders and revolutionary youth languish in jail and Morsi faces the death penalty, the military appears to have triumphed. It is expanding its economic empire, increasing the number of current and former military officers in appointed government posts, and manipulating electoral laws to all but guarantee a weak parliament.  

But its victory may be short lived. The military's audacious move from behind the curtain of influence to openly governing Egypt exposes it on at least three fronts.  

the military could fracture internally over disagreements on how to govern a country teaming with social and economic problems

First, the people's anger from the same grievances that led to January 25 2011 - rising poverty, skyrocketing inflation, high unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure and a bulging young population with few economic prospects - will now be directed at their military regime. And when Egyptians rise up against their new authoritarian rulers, the army will not be able stand on the sidelines as it did in 2011. 

This could lead to much bloodshed and defections of soldiers who refuse to shoot their fellow countrymen.

Second, the military could fracture internally over disagreements on how to govern a country teeming with social and economic problems, and a security crisis in Sinai. This is a recipe for another military coup. 

Finally, the military's human and financial resources will be strained by its new role, which will only exacerbate internal divisions and compromise its ability to address security threats. The end result is an unstable regime governing over a powder keg of problems.

Let's hope the Egyptian military comes to the realisation that a military regime in the 21st century is unsustainable - if not for the sake of Egypt's future, then for its own survival.

Sahar Aziz is associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and nonresident fellow at Brookings Doha Center. Prior to joining Texas A&M, she served as a Senior Policy Advisor for the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and an associate at Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll PLLP in Washington, D.C. where she litigated class action civil rights lawsuits.

She is the author of Independence without Accountability: The Judicial Paradox of Egypt’s Failed Transition to Democracy. Follow her on Twitter: @saharazizlaw

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.