The Egyptian military and its top brass reigned supreme over Egypt in the months following their landmark decision to force long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11, 2011.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body of 25 senior Egyptian military officials, has decided to step in and openly support the revolution against Mubarak, which began on January 25 of this year, exactly 10 years.
Since the 19th century, the Egyptian military has played a disproportionate role in the governance of the country and, in many ways, has acted as the ultimate authority in the country. This was particularly evident in 2013, when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi in a military coup.
In the years that followed, the military’s involvement in the country’s politics and affairs only increased, signaling that the institution will continue to dominate Egypt and retain its power base, regardless of all control.
Yet this may not be the case.
While el-Sisi, who was defense minister when he ousted Morsi before becoming president the following year, was one of them, he has taken important steps in recent years to increase his own power and threaten the independence of the army and the SCAF.
This is in part a recognition that, with popular dissent effectively being criminalized, the main threat to the al-Sisi regime may possibly emerge from the same army that brought it to power.
In recent years, al-Sisi has endeavored to put figures close to him, especially by blood ties or ties formed during military service, to important positions in the military and intelligence apparatus.
This includes the appointment in 2018 of its Chief of Staff, Abbas Kamel, as head of the Directorate General of Intelligence, replacing Khaled Fawzy.
The latter had been part of the 2013 coup plot but has always been removed from his post.
El-Sisi also appointed a new defense minister in 2018 without SCAF’s public approval, despite the then constitution stipulating that the appointment could not be made without her.
The examples are part of a general trend that has seen al-Sisi replace more than 130 senior state and military officials since 2017. In addition to those mentioned above, this is the minister of ‘Interior and the Chief of Staff of the Army. El-Sisi’s sons, Mustafa and Mahmoud, have also been appointed to high-level intelligence posts.
The constant reshuffles have not spared the military leaders who participated in the coup, with only two – Mohamed Farid Hegazi, the chief of staff of the armed forces, and Mamdouh Shahin, a deputy minister of defense – not having been removed from their functions. The persistent tremors have allowed few military and intelligence figures to build up a power base that could potentially threaten al-Sisi in the future.
“Sisi knows he came to power through a military coup and he’s like any other Egyptian president – to some extent he’s afraid of the military,” Mohamed Mandour, Egyptian researcher at the Project, told Al Jazeera. on Democracy in the Middle East (POMED). .
“Sisi doesn’t want to [the military and intelligence] independent institutions, even the way they were under Mubarak, with numbers like [former army chief Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi and [former intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman in powerful positions for a long time. Sisi will not allow the same to happen, fearing that rival power bases could cause problems for her reign and longevity.
Crucial military role
The army has always been popular in Egypt, especially in nationalist circles, with the military playing an extremely important role in the country’s history.
In 1952, a group of officers – including a future president, Gamal Abdel Nasser – overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and inaugurated a republic. Despite the army’s poor performance in the Six Day War against Israel in 1967, protesters spoke out in favor of Nasser after he offered to resign, and the army’s more positive performance in the war. of October 1973 left many Egyptians with a sense of pride.
This continued until the 2011 revolution when the chant “the people and the army are one-handed” was among the most popular, especially after the army ruled out the use of force against it. protesters and declared that she respected “the legitimate rights of the people. “.
Furthermore, the strength of the military in Egypt can be assessed from the fact that every non-interim president of Egypt except Morsi has military training.
Perhaps this is why al-Sisi sees the military as the institution with the most potential to end his reign, even though, currently, the president seems to have few examples of real opposition from the military. .
“We lack clear evidence of opposition within the military,” Yezid Sayegh, a senior member of the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.
“It is more useful to think of this in terms of a different emphasis on priorities and perceptions about whether military involvement in politics and the economy is good or not for one’s professional development.
“The military has always had cliques of officers and informal networks based on personal connections or loyalty to different branches of the service, and some officers may therefore be unhappy with Sisi’s promotion of other officers they consider. like competitors. My point is that this is not an opposition.
El-Sisi’s tactics in dealing with the small opposition that has arisen appear to be based on a carrot and stick approach.
Former senior military officials who raised their heads above the parapet and directly threatened his reign were quickly crushed.
This was particularly evident in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, when two former senior military officials, Ahmed Shafik and Sami Anan, attempted to run against al-Sisi.
Shafik, a former Air Force commander and prime minister who was the military-backed candidate in the 2012 election Morsi won, disappeared from his home in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after his announcement.
Months later, he posted on Twitter to confirm that he would not, in fact, challenge el-Sisi.
Anan, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, was arrested after announcing his candidacy in January 2018 and was not released until a year and a half later.
The punishment was even worse for Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, an army engineer who was sentenced to six years in prison after uploading a video in which, dressed in a military uniform, he announced that he would challenge El- Sissi in the elections.
But al-Sisi has also passed the carrot to the military in an effort to encourage membership of the institution and to encourage new elites who owe their positions and wealth to him.
Since 2013, the military has expanded its business interests by selling everything from televisions to cement to chickens.
It is also heavily involved in major infrastructure projects, including the construction of new roads and bridges, as well as the expansion of the Suez Canal and a new administrative capital.
“It’s not just an economic relationship,” Mandour said.
“When the military deals with business and large infrastructure projects, it moves away from becoming Sisi’s competitor and is distracted from issues of governance and politics.
For now, the army appears to be subordinate to el-Sisi. And yet, a closer look reveals that the institution will remain an important power broker in Egypt for years to come.
Egypt’s new constitution, adopted in 2019, effectively gives the military formal recognition of its supra-constitutional status.
“The military has the unilateral right under the 2019 constitution to determine whether it should intervene in politics and government,” Sayegh said.
“It is not explicitly linked to the president’s approval and therefore the army is not entirely subordinate to him. Of course, the armed forces obey Sisi but they will play a central role in selecting future presidents and have reserved the power to remove any president or government they dislike.