The pledge made by the technocratic interim government in Egypt to restore civil peace and political stability and to save the economy seems very appealing, while Egypt suffers a prolonged constitutional crisis and a growing tendency to violence, amid the intensification of social injustice and economic inequality.
Quick financial solutions are now possible thanks to the $12 billion worth of aid granted to Egypt by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait — if this aid is actually provided — and the possibility of a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This will allow the interim government to control the budget deficit, increase hard currency reserves, slow inflation, and enhance investors’ trust in the short run.
However, it is very difficult — if not impossible — to achieve the most ambitious goals, such as combating unemployment, improving standards of living, promoting small and medium enterprises, increasing domestic investment and raising the rates of economic productivity and administrative efficiency in ministries and governmental bodies.
This is not because of a lack of effective policies or remedies, but rather due to the fact that neither the interim government nor the government to be formed following the parliamentary and presidential elections — which are supposed to be held by the end of 2013 — can carry out the necessary administrative and economic measures for solving Egypt’s sustainable structural problems without directly colliding with the broad military networks and interests. These networks are concealed across the huge state apparatus and involved in state-owned economic sectors.
This “republic of the army officers” will undermine the performance of any democratically elected government seeking to achieve a real shift in the administration of the country's economy, regardless of its political or ideological orientation. It is true that the performance of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was characterized by turmoil and unrest, yet in this case the most liberal or secular of governments would have also found their legitimacy eroding, thus rendering them vulnerable to disturbances and dependent on the same institutions — i.e., the armed forces. It is worth mentioning that the infiltration of the armed forces into the state and the economy is one of the major factors contributing to the worsening and intensification of the social and economic crisis.
Morsi’s ouster revealed how close Egypt’s armed forces are to institutionalizing their political sovereignty over the Egyptian state and, consequently, perpetuating the “republic of army officers.” The new constitution, approved by referendum in December 2012, consecrated the total independence of the armed forces from civilian control and removed parliamentary oversight, even formal oversight, of the defense budget and economic and military projects. It also prohibited the prosecution of officers — whether in service or retired — in civil courts, even for matters related to crimes subject to civil penal law. Morsi’s administration approved these provisions, which were not contested by opposition political forces, except for the Revolution Youth Movement and the prominent liberal figure Mohamed ElBaradei.
Moreover, army officers constitute the majority of the members of the National Defense Council (NDC) that the military council ruling at the time brought back to life in June 2012. The NDC is the only authority expressly authorized to review the general items of the defense budget. It also practically authorizes the armed forces to oversee matters related to policies that it deems relevant to national security. The outcome is more restrictions on the powers and jurisdictions of the presidency and the government.
The military authority is effectively represented today by Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, minister of defense and commander of the armed forces. This was clearly revealed in an incident that was subject to little media attention, that is, the dismissal of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Raafat Shehata as the director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate (EGID) on July 5, 2013. Shehata was the first officer to be promoted to that position from inside the directorate, since the position has long been filled by officers from military intelligence. It is worth mentioning that his dismissal occurred only nine and a half months following his appointment, and that there was no stated reason for his dismissal.
However, the matter was deemed of utmost urgency, which prompted interim president Adly Mansour to issue a relevant decree immediately after taking office, replacing Shehata with Maj. Gen. Mohamed Fareed al-Tuhami, a former officer in the military intelligence. Through this move, Sisi emphasized the control of the intelligence agency — which was led by Sisi until he was appointed minister of defense in August 2012 — and that of the armed forces in general.
Tuhami’s appointment is rather remarkable because he was the former head of the Administrative Control Authority, one of the most important Egyptian control bodies that reports directly to the president. Tuhami led the authority during the last seven years of Mubarak’s mandate, while the latter used the committee to punish his opponents and reward his supporters through opening or closing cases pertaining to their commercial and financial activities. Clearly, Tuhami won the trust of Mubarak as his four-year mandate was extended four times, until he was dismissed by Morsi in September 2012 over charges of corruption.
Regardless of the validity of these charges, the way Tuhami emulated the role of the director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate highlights the course of work adopted by the “republic of army officers.” The authority was indeed protecting some parties. In May 2013, and in a straightforward interview that is worthy of praise, the new head of the Administrative Control Authority, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Omar Wehba Heiba, said that “capital had been mixed with power,” which impeded the work of the authority during the Mubarak era, noting that Morsi had done away with any supervision of presidential immunity for the first time in its history. Heiba then mentioned the three sectors most affected by corruption: local rule, investment committees and state-owned holding companies and the departments of customs, taxes and social security.
Regardless of whether Heiba meant to highlight a link between the first two sectors, local rule and the investment committees and state-owned holding companies hire large numbers of retired officers in key posts. The same applies to many sectors of the civil administration, with emphasis on the ministries and the bodies working in real estate — such as the housing authority, real estate administration, public works, agricultural development, land reclamation and tourism. All key officers have a certain sense of feudalism, as every branch of the armed forces distributes positions in the holding companies and public service departments that are under the branch’s technical or geographical competence.
Additionally, the armed forces boast about their capacity to carry out infrastructure projects at a cost lower than private sector companies, and to provide cheap food and industrial goods. They bestow “gifts” upon the Egyptian people, which range from food aid packages for the poor, bridges, water purification plants and more. All of this, however, is based on false economies that disregard the exemption of the armed forces’ project from taxes, the reduction of customs fees on their imports, the prices of hard currency, cheap or free labor, and the subsidized prices of electricity and fuel. The claims of competitive costs and generous donations are misleading since the treasury is paying the real costs through the reduction in tax collection.
The interim Egyptian government announced its will to draw a road map for structural reform. It aspires to invest in infrastructure, privatize some state-owned holding companies and provide better opportunities for the private sector to compete and invest in general. These new aims were on the agenda of the previous governments. However, the governments overlooked the profitable relationship between the republic of army officers from one part and the Egyptian state, the public finances and the economy from another.
This relationship will persist as long as the institution that laid the foundation of the Egyptian Republic in 1952 — namely the armed forces — continues to take advantage of this historical heritage to claim its eligibility in specifying national identity and interest, and to put itself above the state and separate from the legal and judiciary systems that bind citizens and democratically elected civil authorities.
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