Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian military is tightening its grasp on the economy and strangling civilian politics and society — but this is nothing new. Rather, it reflects a decades-old phenomenon that dates to the 1960s under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yet, while not a phenomenon, under Sisi, the military has significantly increased its roles in commercial enterprises and embarked on new infrastructure projects. Egypt’s civil society and civilian institutions have been crowded out, or deliberately marginalized by the government, displaced by an increasingly assertive and unaccountable coercive apparatus.
These developments in Sisi’s relationship with the military raise important questions. Are the methods on which he relies to ensure the military supports his presidency similar to those of his predecessors, or are they different? Do Egyptian civil-military relations under Sisi represent something old or new?
In fact, there are elements of both in Egyptian civil-military relations today. Sisi is relying on proven techniques for keeping the military loyal, yet combining these tactics in a manner that reflects his personalist, authoritarian approach to managing civil-military relations.
Greed, Power, and Control of the Economy
Certainly, the military’s involvement in the economy is one of the most enduring features of civil-military relations in Egypt. In the 1960s, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, Egypt’s military chief, sought to build allegiances among his officers by expanding military industry and claiming key roles in the state, such as in land reclamation. Those efforts occurred in a time of competition between Nasser and Amer, as Nasser increasingly lost influence over military affairs starting in the late 1950s. Amer’s expansion of the military’s political and economic activities caused tension between them, in part because it allowed Amer to increase the military’s influence within the regime and challenge Nasser’s authority.
The military’s control of the economy thus has dual dimensions in Egypt today. Engagement within it allows the military and its officers to control the country’s wealth for the benefit of the organization and their own private interests. Yet, these roles also enable the military’s accumulation of power in the state and consolidation of its influence within politics more broadly. Structurally, the military’s power in the state grows in concert with the economic reach of the institution. Removing the military from politics also entails restructuring the economy, and vice versa. It is not just greed, but power, that fuels the military’s demand for economic control and influence.
Other aspects of the military’s role in the economy seem to better fit civil-military relations under Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. As research by Zeinab Abul-Magd observes, that is when the institutions through which the military initially expanded into civilian commercial enterprises and role in the economy were established. Sadat sanctioned the military’s expansion into the commercial economy with the creation in 1979 of the National Services Project Organization to compensate the military for the demilitarization of the Sinai and provide jobs to soldiers after he reached the Camp David Accords with Israel. President Hosni Mubarak then built upon this basic institutional framework in the 1980s, under Minister of Defense Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala. In so doing, Mubarak relied on a tactic common among autocrats. Ceding institutional prerogatives and resources to militaries in exchange for their loyalty is a pervasive feature of authoritarian civil-military relations.
Sisi’s methods for accommodating the military are also reminiscent of other tactics that Sadat employed. Sadat frequently rotated military leaders, and played different individuals and factions within the coercive sector against one another. He avoided a potential coup in 1971 involving civilian leftists in the regime and his minister of war, General Mohammed Fawzi, through his deft management of competing factions and interests in security and intelligence agencies. Sadat often fired military commanders, such as those that opposed his limited war plan in the October 1973 war. Sisi has also similarly frequently rotated and fired military commanders and those in key positions. His prior experience in military intelligence has helped him orchestrate this revolving door of military officers in and out of leadership positions. Mubarak, in contrast, preferred to rely on trusted sycophants and entrench them in power. Sisi is much more adept and inclined toward playing a game of divide and rule.
Dual Facets of Political Competition
Despite these similarities, however, there is one feature of civil-military relations in Egypt that seems distinctive to the Sisi era. It is the degree to which the locus of politics has shifted away from civilian society to within and among the intelligence, security, and military apparatus of the state. Today, elements of the security sector vie for influence in Egypt. President Sisi strives to sate their need for new economic opportunities, while managing (and relying upon) competition among the security and intelligence services and the military to secure his position.
There are today two primary axes of political competition in Egypt. One is the military versus civilian society, a competition the autocratic state is soundly winning. The independence and resources of formerly influential actors and institutions, from the National Democratic Party (NDP), the business elite, the media, and universities has withered in Sisi’s Egypt. The elements of the military and security apparatus have so far presented a common front in their willingness to sanction repression of societal and elite constituencies that had at least some room for maneuver under Mubarak.
The other axis centers around the internecine politics of competition within the coercive sector. Elements within and among the military, security, and intelligence stratum each has its own interests in increasing its relative share of resources and authority in the state. While obscured from view, politics within the coercive sector are likely the most vibrant taking place in Egypt today.
Whether and how these two facets might intersect remains to be seen. Lessons from other autocracies around the world suggest they could, at some point. In an effort to get the edge in internal factional politics, elements of the military or coercive sector might at some point forge alliances with groups in civilian society. President Sisi also could rehabilitate or empower new constituencies in civilian society and the elite to balance the influence of the coercive sector. Nasser sought to do so with the creation of the Arab Socialist Union in 1962 and Sadat with the middle class and economic interests that had been suppressed in the 1960s, while Mubarak relied on the NDP and business elites.
Growing Personalism in Civil-Military Relations
There is yet, another alarming and potentially novel feature of civil-military relations in Sisi’s Egypt. In fact, Sisi seems increasingly inclined to rely on men with personal ties and family members to staff key positions in the state. Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, Syria under Bashar al-Assad, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein illustrate the sort of personalization of civil-military politics that can be detected in Egypt today. This is a departure from recent decades in Egyptian civil-military relations. Under Sadat and Mubarak the Egyptian military maintained its corporate identity and aspired to operate as a “professional” force. This emerged in part from the military’s disastrous experience in the 1967 war; a major lesson was that politics and the military do not mix well and undermine military effectiveness. Ironically, during his time attending the U.S. Army War College in the mid-2000s, Sisi seemed to believe that involvement in politics is harmful to the military.
Yet, this personalism in managing the military also is not fully new. Amer often relied on perquisites and favors to establish personal allegiances within his allied cohorts in the military in the 1960s. Today, however, those officers whose identity and loyalty is to the institutional military may resent Sisi for elevating family members to key positions within the military and coercive apparatus — something that Mubarak and Sadat both avoided.
In short, Sisi may seem to be breaking new ground with his management of Egypt’s civil-military relations. Yet, in reality he is not much of an innovator. He is relying on well-established tactics of authoritarian control of the military—methods his predecessors and counterparts in the Arab world have employed for decades.