Since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in July 2013, the role of the military institution in Egypt has witnessed a major upsurge in its already dominant role in the state, posing itself in the place of various state authorities, from housing to supply, and in some cases, internal security.
On the one hand, the military has launched myriad development projects over the past year that have slowly but surely carved out the military’s position in relation to the state. One the other, the country has witnessed a marked surge in military presence on the streets, with military forces often filling in the place of Egypt’s police in the past three years.
Perhaps the largest signifier that the military was launching into a new era of preeminence was President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s announcement last March of the $40bn housing project with the Emirati company Arabtec, aiming to serve low-income sectors of society.
This was followed by Al-Sisi’s announcement and launch of the Suez Canal Development Project, which was awarded to the major international engineering firm Dar al-Handasah – for which the army is a local partner through the Armed Forces Engineering Authority.
But as the military increasingly begins to fill in for the functions of the state, questions have been raised over the efficacy of this model, and the sustainability of the various different projects launched by the armed forces, as well as the sustainability of a military-dominated model of the state on a wider scale.
Experts worry that the benefits allotted to the military tip the scale too far in its favour to give a real chance to private-sector competition in the market, as such creating a major imbalance in the market. Meanwhile, the military’s domination of the political scene since 30 June 2013 creates a similar imbalance in political power and representation.
Development expert and socio-economics lecturer at Ain Shams Magda Ghoneim questions the effectiveness of these military-executed projects, in light of the fact that many of them were conducted without publicised feasibility studies.
Political science professor at Cairo University Hazem Hosny recently said in a television interview on ONTV that the Suez Canal Project has been proven to be ineffective on an economic scale, noting that the capital invested in the project could have best been used to combat more critical problems facing the Egyptian economy.
“After June 30, Sisi had one of two options: to succeed or to succeed. He doesn’t have the luxury of failure, in light of the existing political and security threats,” Magda Ghoneim told Daily News Egypt. As such, he had to take on such wide scale projects in an effort to combat the existing economic and political crisis facing the state following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting the launch of the Suez Canal project and the Long Live Egypt Fund, among other projects.
“One cannot say for sure whether or not the Suez Canal project is truly necessarily or whether it will be lucrative, as there is no transparency and there have been no feasibility tests. There was no study of the opportunity cost,” Ghoneim continued.
“However, when it is declared that 4 million feddans of land will be reclaimed in a country that is already facing water poverty, then one knows for sure that this is untrue,” she said, noting that in Egypt’s current situation, the costs of water for reclaiming this land and cultivating it far outweigh the possible revenue that could come from agriculture.
The military’s dominant role in Egypt’s political and economic landscape is no new development. The military has long occupied a special standing, both on the political and economic scale, as well as in the Egyptian psyche. Since the Orabist revolts, the military has been associated with its nationalist role in liberating the country – an image which became even more deeply ingrained following the 1952 coup.
However, what began as its nationalist role would slowly but surely transform into a system of benefits whereby the military would eventually be handed major trump cards on various fronts in terms of its economic role.
“If we look at Mubarak’s era, and what began timidly during Sadat’s era, and perhaps during Nasser’s too, the equation was changed to give the army lots of advantages to guarantee its loyalty towards the regime,” Ghoneim said.
This fostered an environment wherein the military was granted seemingly unlimited benefits. Exempt from tax and functioning on a free labour-force due to conscription, the military holds a huge advantage over its private-sector competitors in the field, as such fostering an environment of imbalance.
The Guardian recently reported that thousands have been evicted from their homes to make way for the Suez Canal project, despite having lived on this land for over 30 years. However, this is not an unusual case, as Egypt’s military remains as the highest authority land ownership in Egypt.
“The armed forces possess the legal power to confiscate public land at any time for purposes of national security,” Stephen Roll wrote in a research paper for SWP Berlin.
This, along with the military’s economic and political advantage, creates an extremely unwelcome environment for investors.
“There’s a conflict of interest in terms of boosting the economy, because there is no environment that encourages natural competition. The government should have been focusing on removing the many obstacles that investors face in Egypt to foster a truly free market. Instead the army is posing itself as competition with a major upper hand,” Ghoneim said.
“And everything that is happening on the economic front is mirrored on the political front. They’ve passed an elections law that does not enable political parties. If the political parties are week, you need to set the scene to strengthen them,” rather than the military simply assuming all political roles, she said.
Indeed, the new elections law places the majority of the voting weight on the individual system rather than the lists – which many fear gives the upper hand to former members of the National Democratic Party. This, along with the continued postponement of the parliamentary elections (coupled with an unprecedented number of laws passed in the absence of a parliament) has created a power vacuum that prevents the state, and therefore the Al-Sisi administration, from being accountable to anyone.
In the same television show, Professor Hosny had also said: “President Sisi sees that politics are a luxury that Egypt cannot afford, and that we must put politics aside, and rely on the ruler who makes decisions and the Egyptian people must place their faith in one man [the president], and as such must walk in the same line as him without discussion. He sees that political discussion is a divisive form of activity.”
“Even if you look at the Long Live Egypt Fund from a political perspective, he sees that he wants capital at his disposal, to deal with directly, and this should have nothing to do with the state budget. This is not just a harmful policy, he also sees that the entire governmental process and civil laws are obstacles in his way.”
With the military’s budget considered classified information – and one that functions almost as though the military were a sovereign state – as well as the indefinite postponement of parliamentary elections, initially scheduled to be held by the end of the year, many fear that the military will only continue to spread its influence through all the state institutions.
The fact remains, however, that whatever the case, in assuming these projects, the military cannot afford to fail in light of the tenuous position it holds in relation to the growing challenges of managing post-revolutionary Egypt.