August 5, 2013
ONCE reluctant to appear in the media, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s top general (pictured), is now very much seeking the limelight, perhaps because he would like to run for president. A recent video of him addressing army officers appeared to be shot for public consumption and duly went viral. His spokesman has said that although the general was not yet standing for office there was nothing to prevent him from so doing if he retired from the army.
Egypt’s press has started comparing Mr Sisi to Gamal Abdul Nasser, the hero-general who eventually became president after deposing the country’s last monarch in 1952. Protesters who helped the army to end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood last month have plastered the streets with posters of the army chief. Many see him as a font of the dignity and security which they feel Egypt has lacked since Nasser’s time. “It is very clear he is entertaining the idea of the presidency,” says Robert Springborg, an expert in the Egyptian armed forces at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
In his politics, the general appears to mix nationalism and Islam. He frequently inserts Koranic verses into conversation and is a more pious man than his predecessor, Hussein Tantawi, who was army chief from 1991 to 2012. During part of this time Mr Sisi was a military attaché in Saudi Arabia. He also studied at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania for a year. Sherifa Zuhur, who taught him, says that one of his daughters wore the niqab, the full face veil, and another wore the hijab, covering her hair, but not her face.
Mr Sisi’s image is tainted by the uproar he caused in 2012 when he was the military spy chief and publicly defended members of the army who had subjected female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to virginity tests “to protect the girls from rape as well as to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusations”.
At the war college in America, Mr Sisi expressed a belief that the army must be above politics. Ms Zuhur remembers having the impression that Mr Sisi agreed that Egypt should gradually become a more pluralist state. “But [he] was also cognisant of all the difficulties that entailed for a population which had not ever participated, at that time, in an open election,” she adds.
Until recently, observers saw this opinion as typical of younger and more enlightened officers. The army “displays little interest in governing, wishing instead to protect privileges,” says a 2012 report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. The generals’ experience of governing during the first year after the Arab spring seemed to bolster this preference. Being in charge brought untold difficulties and undermined popular support for the men in uniform.
Still, the generals acquired an appetite for power. They initially considered having Mr Tantawi elected as president—a non-starter. In the 2012 presidential election, won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, the army leant towards supporting Ahmed Shafik, a former air-force commander who was runner-up.
Following the election, the generals formed an alliance of sorts with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Sisi was appointed defence minister last August and purged the army of dozens of officers closely linked to his unpopular predecessor. He cautioned against interfering in politics, warning that interventions such as that which followed the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 could turn Egypt into Afghanistan or Somalia.
At the same time Mr Sisi shored up his support in the ranks. He handpicked the members of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. “Hady”, an ordinary soldier who declined to be named, says that unlike Mr Tantawi, Mr Sisi stressed decent treatment for conscripts. “The ministry of defence became more serious about any complaint from a soldier against an officer,” he says. “The ministry now seriously punishes any officer who is proved to be abusing soldiers.”
However, as the Muslim Brotherhood grabbed more power and simultaneously lost popularity, the generals’ ambitions as well as their interests led them to revise their pledge to stay out of politics. Following last month’s coup, Mr Sisi made himself first deputy prime minister in addition to his post as defence minister. He did also promise to hold elections quickly and appointed Adly Mansour, a judge, as president, but he has done little to suggest a return to the pluralism of the past two years. Scores of Brotherhood leaders have been detained and it looks as if they will be tried. More than 100 of their supporters have been shot by security forces during protests.
The generals’ long-term intentions are hard to make out. Perhaps even they themselves are unsure what they want. Observers see the top brass as surprisingly inept strategists. Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think-tank in Beirut, says that the Egyptian army has asserted its right to intervene in the political process. That has set it on course for more intervention. But, unlike the Turkish army, it has no real concept of state-building. “They beat the nationalist drum,” says Mr Sayigh, “they talk about fighting terrorism, but none of this is an agenda, none of this is a policy for reform.”
For inspiration the generals seem to look to Pakistan, where officers feed off a vast business empire and pay lip service to Islam and helping the poor—while in reality they line their own pockets and rule from behind a protective shield with the help of pliable civilian leaders. And if the civilians get uppity, the army simply resets the political clock.
But the Egyptian armed forces are not even as able as their chaotic Pakistani counterparts. They reached their peak military effectiveness in the 1980s when memories of their wars with Israel were still fresh. A 2008 cable from the American embassy in Cairo obtained by WikiLeaks cites analysts and former officers as saying that the armed forces were no longer capable of combat. For evidence, look to the army’s failure to quell an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula in the past two years.
According to Mr Springborg, the Sinai shows that the army is not equipped for counter-insurgency or peacekeeping—vital roles for a modern army—because neither Mr Mubarak nor General Tantawi wanted that. Instead they have thousands of tanks and 240 F-16 jets that are, he says, “basically useless. The pilots are lousy, too.” The army is the 14th-largest in the world and has a budget of $4.21 billion in 2012. It also has four museums.
The army often treats civilian institutions with disdain and at times thinks it knows better than ordinary Egyptians what is good for the country. When the armed forces build roads, they are referred to as “gifts to the people of Egypt”. In the Nasser era, propaganda murals showed soldiers marching into the future hand in hand with peasants, workers, teachers and intellectuals. Today similar posters show a soldier in combat gear cradling a baby that is meant to represent the people.
In the 1990s other security forces gained ground and seemed to compete with the army. The interior ministry gained more sway over domestic law and order. The army initially regarded the other security forces as a threat but over time inserted its men into their bureaucracies. Since the ousting of the old regime this development has come full circle. The army once again has the upper hand. The current interior minister is a general, Muhammad Ibrahim. He is resurrecting several notorious units dissolved following the Arab spring, including departments dedicated to monitoring “extremism”, religious groups and political parties. He said he would reinstate officials who had been dismissed since 2011. It was interior ministry forces that committed most of the recent deadly attacks against pro-Brotherhood protests. Mr Ibrahim and the army have denied that they used live ammunition, but that is contradicted by video footage.
As a whole, Egypt’s army is far more than a fighting force. Indeed, combat is perhaps its least developed facility. During the three-decade Mubarak era soldiers became involved in civil administration. Senior officers began to crop up everywhere in the state apparatus as well as in the economy. They wielded power not so much explicitly—unlike under Nasser the cabinet was mostly civilian—as by bureaucratic penetration. Officers sat in monitoring and administrative agencies as well as in local government. Since the 1990s, more than half of the regional governors have been drawn from the army. Meanwhile, buoyed by a privatisation programme, the officer corps captured large chunks of the economy. This provided post-retirement careers and financial security.
Today tax holdings amount to a business empire. It generates income that bypasses public scrutiny and ranges from defence manufacturing to consumer goods. Army-owned firms dominate the markets for water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotels and gasoline. Estimates as to their size vary from 8% to as much as 40% of GDP. Army families also inhabit a parallel universe. They mainly live in separate military cities and go to shops, buy fuel at petrol stations and socialise in clubs run by the army. How sure can they be of hanging on to such privileges?
The army relies on support from civilians who are willing to govern alongside it. Without them, the impression of outright military rule would be overwhelming. Following the ousting of the Brothers, political heavyweights such as Mohamed ElBaradei, the former presidential candidate, and Ziad Bahaa el-Din, a lawyer, lent their support. It is too early to tell if they are puppets or wield real influence. But some have already voiced unease. Mr Bahaa el-Din said the new government should not copy the “oppressive and exclusionary policies” of its foes.
Waxing and waning
For the moment, the army remains remarkably popular. A poll in May gave it a 94% approval rating—compared with around 30% for then-President Morsi and the opposition. But Egyptians have short memories. The army was extolled in the wake of the Mubarak uprising as the protector of the revolution, but later came to be seen as working against revolutionary aspirations. A video from December 2011 of soldiers dragging the “blue bra woman” through the streets of Cairo marked a turning point. Today, in the wake of what Egyptians regard as a second revolution, many once again cheer the army regardless of its past abuses. But for how long? Since Mr Mubarak’s fall the army has tried hard to rebrand itself as the people’s friend rather than a protector of the regime. It is more reliant on public support than ever.
Opinions may turn against the army once again if it cannot fix the broken economy. The Brothers, too, were popular when they came to power, only to find that the people expected them to provide jobs and services that never materialised. For the army to do better, it will have to bring about reforms that the Brotherhood and Mr Mubarak shied away from—or get civilians to do so. But that would threaten its own business empire. It is, after all, a beneficiary of Egypt’s restrictive and anti-competitive practices. Mr Sisi may want to sweep these away, but many of his fellow officers are unlikely to see it like that. He could argue that an unshackled and therefore booming economy would benefit all. But lazy rent-seekers will know better. At least that is what Mr Sisi’s predecessors found.