We need to talk about Egypt's army's absolute power

We need to talk about Egypt's army's absolute power
5 min read
23 Sep, 2016
Comment: Under Sisi, the military’s influence, both politically and economically, has expanded to new levels. But this is not a recipe for efficiency or stability, argues Mohamed ElMeshad.
Under Sisi, a military-president, the power of the army increased almost exponentially [AFP]

Recently, a former chief editor of Egypt’s largest state-run newspaper described the current regime as a continuation of the regime created by the 1952 coup-turned-revolution by Nasser’s Free Officers. A regime, he said, that does not believe in accountability, democracy, or inclusive governance.

Since then, Egypt’s presidents have curbed any serious attempts for building pluralistic and effective civilian government institutions. They openly circumvented fiscal transparency, checks and balances and bolstered centres of power beneficial to them.

The state institutions instated after July 1952 inherently favoured autocracy and a system revolving around the president. It is no wonder that political parties and participation have been, limited at best, non-existent at worst.

One other permanent fixture of the post-1952 is the proximity of the military to seats of power. The presidents themselves have all been career military men, with the negligible exceptions of interim president Adly Mansour (’13-’14) and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi (’12-’13) – who was deposed by the military.

During Nasser’s time, the Free Officers themselves ruled the country.

His successor, Anwar AlSadat, despite being a member of the Free Officers, attempted to limit the political role of the military, while expanding their economic roles, by opening more avenues for them in industry, real estate and consumer goods.

Hosni Mubarak, a general in the air force continued in this vein, while giving the police (which had become extremely militarised) more authority and powers.

Since the 2011 revolution, the role of the military seems to be expanding again. But this time, there is no trade-off between economic and political gains, but instead a dual-pronged increase of military/security presence and prominence in both.

This month, Sisi made six new gubernatorial appointments, five of whom were former generals in the military or had police backgrounds. At the moment only, eight of Egypt’s twenty-seven provincial governors have civilian backgrounds.

The price of subsidised baby milk formula had increased beyond the spending ability of many of those entitled. The government’s response was to announce that the military would be importing milk at half the current cost.

Baby formula

It is no secret that this regime trusts and favours alumni or current members of the different security apparatuses for any post. This month as well, the military swooped in to solve a crisis facing many impoverished young families.

The price of subsidised baby milk formula had increased beyond the spending ability of many of those entitled.  The government’s response was to announce that the military would be importing milk at half the current cost.

For international observers, this may seem to be an odd task for the military. However, in Egypt, this is par for the course. At different points over the past two years, the military offered its assistance to solve a handful economic crises, especially having to do with rising prices and with the need to quickly complete infrastructure projects.

Clearly, the military, its organization, personnel and modus operandi, is being presented by the regime to the general public as the only reliable institution in the country. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Sisi forbade any questioning of the military, reinforcing a notion that they are a cohort above the rest of society.

Driving along any major highway, chances are, the land on the right and left belong to them. Many of the petrol stations that are constantly stocked up with petrol, are military-owned. They run some of the most reliable hospitals, and have in some cases offered public transportation services. A handful of military-owned luxury hotels have recently opened, as well as an international English-language school.

The relationship between military establishments and personnel and the general public must be recalibrated

An important question must be asked here: Is this a military state? If not, then the relationship between military establishments and personnel and the general public must be recalibrated.

Currently if someone is suspected of committing a crime on the premises of any of the aforementioned establishments, they are very likely to go through a military prosecution. Reporters risk their freedom if any reporting they do on anything military-related is considered a “threat to national security”.

Meanwhile, army-owned businesses are not taxed and their revenues/profits are not known. Military spending is a national secret unavailable for any budgetary oversight.

The positions of political power enjoyed by generals close to the regime, are a not-so-subtle indication to aspiring public servants or politicians that their services and initiatives will always have a glass-ceiling.

These are all discussions that should be happening, but since Sisi’s first televised interview as a candidate he instructed the media-and the country- to “leave the military alone.” There is a discussion to be had, but, given the military nature of Sisi’s regime, there is never a “discussion” to be had, only orders to be followed.

An argument could have been convincingly made after the 2011 Revolution that the military was the only stable, cohesive national institution and so must have necessarily seen the country through its transitional phase. Many were happy to see them around Tahrir Square during some of those days, as a sign that the country would not lose the necessary cohesion of its Armed Forces.

However, as time goes by with Sisi at the helm, it seems that the civilians are slowly being conned into living in a country in his image. If history is any guide, this is not a sustainable model of governance. Stability through such institutions, is an illusion.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.