“Egypt’s old guard is back?” It’s a constant question in Egypt: it reminds us about the political, institutional and economic role that the Egyptian armed forces (EAF) – the “glorious army” – play in the history of the country.According to Zeinab Abul-Magd, “the Egyptian military managed to weather many fundamental transformations in the country, including socialism, neo-liberalism, and recently mass uprisings, and successfully adapted to change in order to amass power and expand its profitable business enterprises. In order to reach such hegemonic status, the “adaptable officers” switched alliances between various socioeconomic groups, and deployed a nationalistic rhetoric".
Beyond national defence and all related issues (deterrence, military modernization, achieving military self-sufficiency), the Egyptian armed forces (EAF) pursue other important goals at a domestic level (such as maintaining a positive image with Egypt’s population, influencing the political process and serving as an engine for national economic growth and development) and in foreign affairs, supporting a pragmatic Egyptian regional role. These peculiarities have shown how the role of the Egyptian army is an unicum in the Middle East: its power remained unchanged until the Arab Spring, in 2011, as well as de facto during the government of Mohammed Morsi. After Morsi’s fall in 2013 and the election of the former field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as new president of Egypt in 2014, the EAF and other entrenched bureaucracies managed [manipulated?] social transformations, contributing to the atmosphere of repression in the country (whether in the form of quelling popular protests or supressing violent extremism).During the second post-revolutionary transition in 2013, one of the biggest challenges was reform of the security sector (SSR), in order to facilitate reconciliation and promote good governance for the purpose of preventing riots and consolidating control over almost all aspects of the state apparatus.
In this way the military has exploited social unrest and radical transformation demands to reconfigure itself, expanding its prerogatives into civil society and politics, alongside the vital economic dimension. The EAF and President al-Sisi promoted a wider process of “normalization” – basically a counter-revolution – with the aim of watering down reforms, shifting the goals and behaviours of the military. These political actions included: the EAF’s control over the judiciary system (resulting in an increase in military trials for civilians), the introduction of a new anti-terrorism law, which specifies sentences for various terrorism-related offences and protects the police from penalties for “proportionate use of force”, extending Law 136 (2014), which granted the military the authority to protect public and state facilities. No less important are other measures: the re-introduction of a semi-permanent state of emergency, the call for the reform of religious discourse or the reform of the police and the armed forces – in particular their opaque decision-making processes and the authorities that oversee them (Ministers of Interior, MoI, and Defense, MoD).
All these measures must be viewed from the standpoint of a secular-Islamist divide, aimed not only at ensuring stability but also at tackling home-grown and cross-border jihadist violence that threatens the safety of people and property in a number of regions (especially in the Sinai peninsula), and has already led to serious damage, with a rise in the number of attacks. In the meantime, any hope for SSR was put on hold by the rise of the counterterrorism agenda. In fact, central authorities opted for the importance of security-related matters, focusing their strategy on fighting terrorism as the top priority for Egypt’s stabilization, notwithstanding the growth of authoritarian, undemocratic stances towards the Muslim Brotherhood, liberals and journalists. These practises became necessary tools for al-Sisi and the EAF to build a new narrative: in this way, the Egyptian authorities depict an inverse theory where the pretext of combating terrorism is necessary for national stabilization.
Despite everything, Egypt is now more autocratic than in 2011, the EAF remains in command and no military reforms have been implemented yet. Basically, the central authorities have exploited the country’s numerous structural and unresolved problems to politicize any proposal of SSR, in order to exacerbate the competition between different institutions and internal security apparatus (especially between the national police, military intelligence and élite special forces), leading to the fragmentation of the security sector and again exploiting the political arena to acquire the role of “guarantors of national integrity. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that stratocracy will take any decision that could threaten the military’s interests; it is impossible to assume that any authority could be responsible for crisis management or reforming the security apparatus without a deep and total transformation of Security Sector Governance (SSG) or a reorganization/renovation of the relationship between different security actors in the MoI and MoD.
The EAF show structural problems in managing threats or crises: the attacks against Copts, the worsened situation in the Sinai peninsula, the rise of instability in the neighbourhood (Libya and the Gaza Strip, in primis) and their possible spillover into Egyptian territory. In this sense, the dramatic situation experienced by tribal populations in the Sinai is a symbolic fact of extreme importance: since January 2011 an escalation of violence has afflicted the northern part of the peninsula. Most of the attacks turned Sinai into a new “hotspot” for global jihad and these phenomena pose a serious problem for Egyptian security. For the purpose of containing Wilayat Sinai (the Islamic State branch in Egypt) and other Sinai-based armed groups, as well as security threats linked to the illicit trafficking in the cross-border region, Egyptian and Israeli authorities both increased domestic security measures. Egypt has adopted draconian counterterrorism packages, while Israel has built another defensive fence along its southern borders and Israeli intelligence services are unofficially cooperating with the EAF, even though the results have not been satisfactory so far. All the additional measures taken by the state – mainly retaliatory counterterrorism operations or sacking several top officials – are in fact insufficient and merely cosmetic: they don’t focus on review of the overall approach and practices of Egypt’s security sector. The government should fill the lack of counterinsurgency skills, implementing the level of cooperation and intelligence sharing within their institutions and other foreign agencies, promoting a professionalization of the armed forces – also further increasing joint military exercises with regional and international partners – and eradicating military bureaucracy.
At the moment, there is no hope for the success of security sector reform in Egypt if the democratic transition doesn’t take place. Moreover, looking at the failure of the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy in the country (mostly in Sinai), the “adaptable officers” now seem unable to update their epic.
Giuseppe Dentice, PhD Candidate, Catholic University of Milan and ISPI Associate Research Fellow.
Z. Abdul-Magd, Egypt’s Adaptable Officers: Power, Business, and Discontent, ISPI Analysis No. 265 – July 2014, in AA.VV., The Armed Forces in the Muslim World, ISPI Studies, Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
During the continuous protests guided by the youth movements in June-July 2013, protesters chanted slogan in favour of the EAF, such as “the army and the people are one hand”.In November 24, Egypt suffered its worst terror attack in the history, when jihadists killed more than 300 people in a sufi mosque in al-Rawdah, a small village near a Bir al-Abed, in the North Sinai province.