The roots of the contemporary Egyptian army go back to the 19th century, when Mohammed Ali Pacha decided to create a powerful body to defeat Ottoman rule. Since then, the Egyptian army has been involved in several important wars, most importantly the Egyptian-Ottoman wars (1831-1833 and 1839-1841), the Six Days War (1967), and the War of October (1973). Egypt’s population is well aware of this important role. During the demonstrations that led to the fall of former Presidents Hosni Mubarak (2011) and Mohammad Mursi (2013), a majority called for the intervention of the army to their side. Today, their quest for a national solution encouraged them to choose a member of the military, Field Marshal Abdelfattah al-Sisi, to head the Egyptian state.
The Egyptian army is composed of 468,500 active frontline personnel, with reservists making up an additional 800,000. Egypt can also rely on a total available manpower of 41 million persons, almost half of them women. Military expenditure has steadily increased, reaching 1.68 percent of GDP in 2012. It remains to be seen whether military expenditures will be finally reduced further at a time when the Egyptian government wants to decrease the budget deficit.
Egypt’s military is organized into several branches that have the duty of protecting the country: Army, Navy, Egyptian Air Force, and Air Defense Command. Nevertheless, it is also deeply involved in economic affairs. There are three enterprises run by the Ministry of Defense that intervene directly in economic prospects:
- The National Service Projects organization, a body created in 1979 that owns at least ten companies investing in different sectors of the economy (e.g., agriculture, construction);
- The Arab Organization for Industrialization, created in 1975, which runs eleven factories responsible for the production of military and civilian equipment as well as being involved in joint ventures with foreign conglomerates;
- The National Organization for Military Production, responsible for producing military armaments and munitions as well as some civilian goods.
The intertwining of the civilian and the military spheres in Egypt, alongside its consequences on economic projects, is problematic. When he was still campaigning for the presidential elections, Sisi estimated that the military’s business empire was approximately two percent of the economy – though 40 percent might be a more realistic figure.
As a former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Sisi kept intact his network and military and economic connections. So far nothing indicates that he would either prioritize the separation of powers or ensure the independence of the civilian sphere. Morsi seemed to have accepted that maintaining Egypt’s stability meant that he had to rely on the army’s loyalty. But this allegiance was dependent on the prospect of high officials continuing to benefit from large “commissions” and a strong involvement in the country’s affairs – a fact readily evident when the army took control of the large amounts of aid coming from Gulf countries earlier this year.
Contemporary history teaches us that countries in transition seldom, if ever, succeed in excluding militaries from the political process. The army remains either in command, be it directly or indirectly, or able to intervene in the country’s affairs at any moment. This is particularly true for a country like Egypt, where security issues only add to economic problems and their consequences on the population at large. Egypt’s fragile situation was stressed in a recent study released by the Fund for Peace showing that the country’s position only worsened in recent years. Egypt is now in the 31st position (out of 178 countries) on the Fragile States Index. The top reasons, cited by the report, include human rights issues, legitimacy of state, factionalized elites, and group grievances.
President Sisi understands that socio-economic issues are a serious concern. But he clearly sees security matters as a top priority. On July 8, 2014, he stated that next to human rights he would seek to balance security and fight terrorism. Sisi’s focus on security matters should not be narrowly construed as simply an example of his authoritarian tendencies. The Egyptian president may be building on his strong popularity by indirectly allowing undemocratic tendencies to prevail, whether in the trials of Muslim Brotherhood members or in the jailing of journalists. At the same time, by insisting on the importance of security-related matters, Sisi coincides with a strong popular demand.
Egyptians are indeed worried that their country could be heading towards further instability. The attacks against Copts and Shiites, the situation in the Sinai Peninsula, the instability gripping neighboring Libya and Gaza, and their possible spill-over onto Egyptian territory are all matters that Egyptians take very seriously. The popular split between supporters and critics of the Muslim Brotherhood is a factor of polarization.
But, when it comes to national security matters, Egyptians agree that the territorial integrity of the country must be preserved. This is where the Egyptian army knows and understands that it can rely on a strong popular backing. Despite the apparent drop of its popularity since early 2011, people do not judge the army based on the conditions of Sisi’s access to the presidency. And the popular backing of the army can only grow when Egypt faces serious security challenges, whether externally or internally.
Security sector reform is needed for Egypt. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that President Sisi will make any decision that could threaten the military’s interests. This is why any belief in Egypt’s capacity to reconsider its authoritarian tendencies has to be put on hold in the short term. Sisi has to satisfy the military’s expectations if he wants a strong commitment from them in return. The more the military gets, the more Sisi’s presidency will be secured. Current and/or looming threats to Egypt’s stability – including national polarization, terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, indirect tensions with the upstream Nile basin countries, further degradation of the Gaza Strip situation, instability in Libya, etc. – only adds to the idea that the army will remain an important player in Egypt’s future.
This situation makes it difficult for Egypt’s Western partners – particularly the United States, the European Union, and some of the latter’s individual member states – to influence Egypt’s prospects. Significant funding from Gulf States means that Egypt can be less receptive to the West’s demands for political openness, transparency, and good governance. Egypt’s push for an arms deal with Russia can only accentuate its ability to keep some distance from any conditionality-based relations with its Western military providers.
Egypt cares about its stability, and so do its partners. This gives President Sisi more room to maneuver. It also only makes it more certain that any reconsideration of civilian-military relations will be left for other times – and most probably for another and undetermined future presidential mandate.
Barah Mikail is a Senior Researcher at FRIDE, specializing in the Middle East and North Africa region.