Al-Monitor speaks to Zeinab Abul-Magd, an Egyptian academic who focuses her research on Egypt’s military. She says the upcoming presidential election will put an end to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ (SCAF) interim rule as expected, but not to the army’s control of the country’s economy and politics — a situation, she says, which is likely to leave millions of disgruntled voters with a bitter taste in the mouth and a growing appetite for resuming the revolution. Abul-Magd is a professor of Middle East history at Oberlin College and assistant professor at the American University in Cairo.
Al-Monitor: Should one be concerned that the SCAF will fail to return Egypt to civilian rule after the May 23-24 election and the projected run-off on June 16-17?
Abul-Magd: I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. The SCAF made sure to vet the contestants so they didn’t pose any threats to military institutions. They excluded potentially problematic candidates such as [former intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman, the Brotherhood strongest candidate Khairat al-Shater and Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafi preacher with a large following.
Al-Monitor: You mean that the 12 contestants left are more docile?
Abul-Magd: The candidates have avoided the big elephant in the room: none of them have dared talk about the power the military retains over the economy and politics in Egypt, as has been the case over the past 60 years [since the 1952 military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohammed Naguib]. And considering who is running, whoever is elected will never raise the issue of the army’s economic and political privileges.
Al-Monitor: Can you give us examples of the army’s economic and political grip?
Abul-Magd: Regarding their control of the economy, estimates vary between 10 and 40%. What can be established for sure is that military firms dominate key sectors from food to cement and gasoline, to electrical appliances, vehicle production and construction. We know of three big conglomerates. The ministry of military production owns eight factories and produces civilian consumer goods as well such as televisions, stoves, etc. Then the military controls the Arab Organization for Industrialization, one of the largest firms in Egypt with twelve companies whose production is 70% civilian. Finally, the military owns the National Service Products Organization with 15 companies with several branches each and farms. You have to bear in mind that these companies are exempt from state taxes and taxes on exports and imports. And it doesn’t stop here; the army controls most of Egypt’s land, maybe up to 90% as well as the Suez Canal and its income. A retired general heads the Suez shipping company. The state-owned oil and gas sector is in their hands too.
The amount of control within the bureaucracy and over state property is almost infinite. Eighteen of the 27 governors of Egypt’s provinces are retired army generals and they head the most lucrative governorates — not to mention most districts in Cairo — in Upper Egypt, north Sinai and Alexandria, all the Suez Canal provinces, two Sinai provinces, sometimes Alexandria, and major Delta areas — meaning that they control the provincial economy as well. Surely, most cabinet ministers have been historically civilians but it is a lure, many positions within ministries are staffed with retired generals and active army personnel. The ministers are the presentable face of government.
Al-Monitor: So the election of Egypt’s next president will not change this situation?
Abul-Magd: The winner will make sure that the military has what it wants in the future constitution. A few articles of the interim constitution were leaked by the SCAF over the past two days [Egypt’s military council is expected to make changes to last year’s constitutional declaration in order to define the role of the president before Wednesday’s election], and we can see that the military budget, for example, will be controlled by the military with an oversight by the parliament’s national-defense and security committee, which is headed by a retired general who ran under the Muslim Brotherhood banner. It is problematic because secret around the military budget has in fact little to do with national defense but more with the enormous profits the army accrues from the production of civilian goods and services. The president will be authorized to declare war but only with the military’s approval. As long as the parliament, which is elected for a four-year term, continues to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nur Salafi party, the military can be sure its privileges will be protected. [A 100-member committee to draft a new constitution was disbanded last month after half of its members walked out in protest of Islamist domination of the body. A new committee will be to have to be designated after the election].
Al-Monitor: Will Egypt’s voters accept a country still dominated by the military?
Abul-Magd: Even before the second round takes place, Egyptians will be in for a surprise. I suspect that on June 2 when the verdict is due, [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak will be cleared of all charges. The charges against him are jokes considering he spent the past 30 years ruining the country! Even the police officers that killed protesters were cleared — at the least the commanding officers. My hunch is that Egyptians will take to the streets again if Mubarak is cleared on June 2. I already know of people that will travel from all over Egypt on that day.
Al-Monitor: Could the army stage a coup?
Abul-Magd: No. They won’t go through that amount of trouble. They have tried direct power over the past few months and failed. They want a civilian government and [to] run things from behind the scenes as they have always done. They won’t go through the trouble of rigging the election either. They already made sure that the candidates were no troublemakers. What I can say is that the revolution is not over. The president won’t last, the parliament won’t last. Egyptians will soon realize that the army is still in control.
Sophie Claudet, Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, is covering the Egyptian election on location in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @sophieinparis