To say that the challenges facing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s likely presidency look insurmountable is a huge understatement. As the next president, Sisi will have to contend with a sluggish economy, an energy crisis, a water crisis, vanishing tourism and foreign currency reserves, political instability and political violence. All the while, he will have to deal with voter expectations like those US President Barack Obama faced in 2008, and a potentially fatal backlash if he doesn’t deliver on them. It doesn’t help that so far, there have been very little specifics shared as to what his program will actually entail, with what’s released so far seems an over-ambitious plan that can not possibly be followed in the current economic realities. The truth is that while the Egyptian presidency has always been a poison pill, at no moment in recent history has the position been less enviable than it is today.
The best starting point for Sisi to tackle all of these issues is the operational reform of the Egyptian state. A bloated bureaucracy, the state's over 6 million employees are not known for their efficiency, work ethics or financial honesty. It is powered by a labor law that makes it virtually impossible to fire anyone who works for the state, by-laws that guarantee the delay of any project or urgent decision for months, if not years, if one official simply fails to sign a piece of paper and an operational structure that allows, if not outright supports, bribery. Each of the ministries acts independently, and in very few cases has there been successful inter-ministry cooperation of any kind. The Egyptian bureaucracy is an unmoving and unmovable behemoth, an albatross around the neck of every government that the previous regimes appointed.
The last government appointed by deposed President Hosni Mubarak, that of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, tried to side-step these issues by having every minister create a mini-ministry inside his office that would expedite matters, circumventing the bureaucracy by letting the private sector deal with them directly. While this plan yielded results and drove the 7% annual growth rate that marked the Nazif government, it also created a new layer of corruption on the ministerial level and made the ministers the enemy of the state employees and agencies who had benefited from the old way of doing things and no longer received their usual cut. It also aggravated the military, which saw the Nazif government as a bunch of businessmen who were treading on the economic interests of the armed forces, and made sure to delay or prolong any procedure that required their approval for any government initiative.
The intergovernmental infighting between the military camp inside the Nazif government (including former Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, former International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul Naga and former Oil and Gas Minister Sameh Fahmi), and the camp of Mubarak's son Gamal and other businessmen (including the ministers of finance, investments, telecommunications, external trade and industry and the prime minister himself) led to the delay and sometimes stoppage of many foreign and local investment projects that would have been a boon to the Nazif government. In other words, on every level, the Egyptian state has actually acted against the economic interests of the country by promoting its own interests.
Sisi cannot afford to have the state, especially its public-services sector, operate in business in the usual manner. He needs to limit waste and corruption, ensure that subsidies are not stolen or wasted, improve the efficiency of the different ministries, move long-delayed projects forward and prevent further delays for new projects or initiatives, while at the same time not antagonizing the state by firing excess or corrupt government employees. His solution to all of this is very simple: He would need to integrate the military further in the civil state and utilize military exceptionalism to get things moving.
It’s a solution he already used to solve the issues facing a group of Gulf investors by appointing two generals to resolve their issues with the civilian government. The generals brought in representatives of the ministries and by direct order got them to resolve the vast majority of those investors’ problems throughout the past year. Take this example and apply it to every issue that investors or interest groups have with the government, and you can see why he would use it. This is his only way out: to turn the military — the only aspect of the state that functions somewhat efficiently — into the state.
This solution, to work on the scale of the Egyptian state, would require the military to assign officers on every level in every ministry to ensure things are working as they should. While this is a nightmare for anyone against the further expansion of military power or influence in the civilian state, this, curiously, has three main benefits. The first two: It would get that unmovable machine moving, which would show the government is getting its act together and provide marginally better services to the citizens, and it would make life easier for current and future investors, who would now have a way to cut through the bureaucracy and receive their permits and approvals faster.
Would this work? Sure, in the short term, but it will come with a price. On the one hand, it would eventually antagonize the civilian state structure, which might not respond to military exceptionalism after a while, and on the other hand, it would overextend the military almost to its breaking point. The military, which would suddenly be responsible for internal and external security and the running of the state on the most basic level, would find itself severely overstretched in terms of personnel and resources, which would lead to the third benefit: the reform of the state. The military would eventually realize that it is much easier to simply change and simplify the bylaws and bureaucratic procedures of the state than to waste time constantly cutting through them.
That being said, there is one flaw in this plan. The state employees' resistance to such a change would lead to a different kind of institutional infighting. Different government sectors might strike, refuse to comply or even sabotage the projects that the military wishes to see come to fruition. A clash between the military personnel and the civilian government employees would occur sooner or later, and the latter should not be underestimated. They brought deposed President Mohammed Morsi down, and Mubarak with all of his power couldn’t make them work any better even when he wanted to. Whether Sisi can succeed where they failed will be clear soon enough.