Since 2011, the Egyptian armed forces have played an unusual political role, at the center of Egyptian governance on a very wide range of matters. The set of crises imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping — and even diminishing — parts of that role in some ways that are subtle but still very clear from the public record. The result is the emergence (or re-emergence) of a wider field for the cabinet and civilian technocrats.
A new era of direct military oversight of the political system began In February 2011 when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced the departure of Husni Mubarak as president. The SCAF effectively asserted its place as interim president and even as the body possessing interim constituent authority — able to author interim constitutional documents — until a permanent political system could be designed. The SCAF formally withdrew upon the election of President Mohamed Morsi in 2012, but it stepped in again on July 3, 2013, leading a coalition of state institutions and political actors to depose Morsi. This time the SCAF held back from direct rule, but it did take a leading role in writing a new constitution for the country and reconstructing the Egyptian political system — and it sent its leader, AbdelFattah al-Sisi, to the presidency in 2014. Since then Egypt has been governed by the presidency, but the military, along with the extensive set of internal security bodies, has played a very prominent role in decision-making.
This has been a partial departure from the past. While it is common to refer to pre-2011 regimes as military in nature, the military as an institution never ruled directly. Even when the monarchy was overthrown nearly seven decades ago (1952) and a body called the “Revolutionary Command Council” (consisting of a group of officers who had led the overthrow) governed Egypt, the military as an institution remained formally outside of politics. The military was far from politically irrelevant — all of Egypt’s presidents had military backgrounds, but they had left their uniforms by the time they took office. Other former officers held important positions in the government and in bureaucratic bodies, though their dominance receded a bit over time — especially in the last decade of Mubarak’s long rule, 1981-2011. The military remained a powerful institution, but to describe the pre-2011 political system as “military rule“ is not only an exaggeration; it also obscures the variation over the years in the political role of the military as an institution and of officers in politics.
In one sense, the presidency of al-Sisi restores some of these characteristics of Egyptian regimes since 1952 — but with a much stronger military face and presence. Since 2011, the public role of the military has been striking in a manner that seems unprecedented - at a minimum one would have to go back to the first half of the 1960s to find such a prominent role for the military in public affairs. And it is not merely its public prominence but the scope of its apparent mandate - it extends to widespread economic activities, shaping the public discourse on politics through ownership (direct or indirect) of public media, and even the training of civilian state personnel in matters of national security. In recent years, almost all critical decisions have had strong military fingerprints.
When it became clear that Egypt would be exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was therefore not surprising that the military stepped forward to play a strong role. It very publicly called out its soldiers, for instance, to disinfect major thoroughfares in Cairo and other big urban centers. But for variety of reasons, the military quickly stepped back — not merely stepping behind the scenes, but actually allowing much of the civilian structures of the Egyptian government to set policy within their respective realms. The Ministry of Health provided medical guidance; the Ministry of Education adjusted school hours, testing, and pedagogy; the official religious establishment provided more leadership; and leading civilian officials provided information — including the public health advisor to the president and to the citizenry and imposed a series of restrictions on public life in the name of public health. The prime minister emerged as a leading voice for policy, and the cabinet, along with a newly formed civilian task force, became the places where policy was coordinated. Egyptian medical syndicates – which are officially charted bodies but not generally seen as part of the state – have been able to step forward, advocating very forcefully for their members in an environment in which political activity of almost any other sort is suppressed. Individual doctors and journalists have been treated harshly if their words were deemed too critical or irresponsible, but the regime’s monopoly on the provision of public information is partly broken in the resulting environment.
There were five apparent reasons for the shift. First, the scope of the required response very clearly exceeded military resources and expertise. Second, the menu of policy options before Egyptian officials resembled that of most other states in the world – meaning that those with international professional networks in fields like epidemiology, public health, and even education were likely to provide far better guidance than the military or security bodies could provide on their own. Third, very early on in the crisis, senior officers themselves were exposed to the virus, making very clear not simply to the public but to the country’s senior leadership the gravity of the threat. Fourth, the sort of resources that the military was able to bring to bear on other kinds of problems – those requiring massive mobilization of manpower, material resources, or the ability to cut through the bureaucracy - were clearly insufficient or inappropriate to meeting the challenges posed. Finally, precedents of past involvement of civilian structures in decision-making in Egypt — especially in the last years of Mubarak’s rule — were evoked within the government and public discourse. They helped empower civilian officials and technocratic experts to take the center stage.
The pandemic has led to a new phase for Egyptian governance: one in which civilian bodies make, explain, and implement policy – and are the primary sources for information. Military and security forces participate, to be sure – they have seats in the cabinet after all – but their public role in facing a pandemic is quite limited and their voices in effective decision-making seem limited as well.
It is not yet clear whether this marks a real evolution in the nature of the Egyptian regime. Some of the developments of the past year may have lasting effects as Egyptians learn who to trust and who was able to provide services and expertise through an extraordinarily difficult period. But the newly emergent civilian officials and technocratic government bodies, precisely because they are technocratic, lack organized constituencies to press for their continued political prominence. They may be edged out when the challenges posed by the pandemic eventually recede. And the changes in the nature of Egyptian governance, while significant, are clearly evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature: the same regime and rules of the political game that have governed Egypt since 2013 are still very much in force. But the development should not be dismissed as mere window dressing: it is clear that as the Egyptian state and society face one of the most vexatious challenges imaginable, it is civilian expertise rather than a military command structure that seems to be leading the way forward for now.