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New Political Struggles for Egypt’s Military

Much of the focus on the Egyptian constitutional amendments ratified on April 20-22 has been on those allowing President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to stay in power for an additional eight years and gain full control over the judicial branch. However, little attention has been paid to the amendments affecting the role of the armed forces in politics and their repercussions on the political and economic system, particularly the prospects for a peaceful transition of power.

Article 200 gives the armed forces the right, for the first time, to “preserve the constitution and democracy, protect the basic principles of the state and its civil nature, and protect the people’s rights and freedoms.” This allows the army greater sway than the rest of the state, particularly during major political events. The amendment implicitly gives the army the right to apply its own interpretation of protecting the state rather than that of the Supreme Constitutional Court and to use its monopoly on armed force “to impose the greater national interest.” In other words, the military can effectively trump all other government institutions and political players, including to prevent a civilian from becoming president or favor “one political faction over another.” This option could come into play if widespread protests break out or the army decides electoral results are a threat to the constitution, democracy, the state’s civil nature, or personal freedoms, criteria that lack any clear definition in the Constitution or in Egyptian law.

The military has played this role before, although without any constitutional cover, when it coopted the January 2011 mass uprising and forced former president Hosni Mubarak to hand over power not to the protesters but to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. On July 3, 2013, the military overthrew former president Mohamed Morsi, again coopting mass demonstrations that had broken out on June 30 against Muslim Brotherhood rule. Sisi, the minister of defense, became the de facto ruler before being elected president less than a year later.

The wording of Article 200 does not prevent the military from intervening against a president of military background, including Sisi. Under the amendment, “the armed forces will have the right to immediately intervene at the discretion of their commander-in-chief, the minister of defense—without having to wait for a decision by the president.” The amendment underlines the distinguishing feature of Egyptian politics since the first military coup in 1952—the constant struggle between the president and the army who put him in power.

Article 200 (and related articles in prior constitutions) had typically restricted the role of the army to protecting the country and preserving its security and territorial integrity. The outlier was the 1964 constitution, which added the task of “preserving the socialist gains of the popular struggle.” This wording had been born out of a political conflict between President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his minister of defense Abdel Hakim Amer, whose authority was strengthened by the text. Under the 1964 constitution, the military created the High Committee for the Liquidation of Feudalism, which ended up committing atrocities against civilians. This chapter of the power struggle only ended after Israel dealt the Egyptian army a major defeat in June 1967 and Nasser’s agents subsequently killed Amer. Historians agree that the army’s disastrous meltdown in the 1967 war stemmed from the chronic political struggle within it. This struggle between the president and the army did not stop with Nasser’s death, continuing under his successor Anwar al-Sadat, leading to a coup attempt in 1971.

The October 1973 war extended the power struggle. The president (who is supreme commander of the armed forces) exchanged accusations with some of the top military leadership that the other had committed treason on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. By various means, Sadat was able to push out the popular top military heroes of the October War, only to be assassinated by army officers in 1981 during a military parade in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood, where the army had sole responsibility for providing security. Sadat had named the least politically ambitious army leader, Hosni Mubarak, as his vice president. Upon becoming president, Mubarak used several techniques to smear his minister of defense, Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, who was very popular within the army, including accusing him of sexual misconduct, before firing him. Mubarak replaced him with the head of the presidential guard, Mohamed Tantawi, who—after a record-breaking twenty years as minister of defense—later moved to depose Mubarak in 2011.

Despite President Sisi’s “revolving chair” policy of rotating military leaders out of top positions quickly in order to minimize the threat of “a coup against him,” nonetheless the last two years suggest that the power struggle between Sisi and the military lives on. During the fifteen months between October 2017 and December 2018, Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy, Director of the General Intelligence Directorate Khaled Fawzy, Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhy, Director of the Administrative Control Authority Muhammad Arfan Gamal al-Din, and Director of Military Intelligence Mohammed El-Shahat, and more than 200 other senior intelligence officers were all fired unexpectedly without any reason given to the public. Meanwhile, Sisi appointed his chief-of-staff, Major General Abbas Kamel, as head of the General Intelligence Directorate, and three of his own sons to high-ranking, influential positions within various security agencies.

This conflict peaked in late 2017, when two top retired military leaders announced their intent to challenge Sisi in the 2018 presidential elections—former air force commander Ahmed Shafik and former Chief of Staff Sami Anan—as well as Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, a mid-level active-duty military man. In the end, Shafik was put under house arrest, while the other two were tried and jailed, as were dozens of army officers sympathetic to Anan. The details of the struggle between Sisi and his army differ from those of the Nasser–Amer saga, yet—as with the 1964 constitution, which gave the army greater political sway—Article 200 will likely affect the new power struggle in a similar way.

Nasser exploited the June 1967 defeat to cut the military’s role in politics down to size, while simultaneously carving out more space for the security and police establishment by creating the Central Security Forces. The Central Security Forces expanded rapidly, absorbing hundreds of thousands of draftees, effectively becoming a parallel army. With the signing of the Camp David Accords, Israel stopped being a threat to national security, and the Egyptian army started a process of redefining the “enemy.” Accordingly, since 1973 the army increasingly became a tool to repress domestic dissent. Sadat called on the army to exert control over major cities during the January 1977 bread riots, and Mubarak used it again to crush a rebellion by some Central Security Forces conscripts in 1986. Since Mubarak used the army against protesters in January 2011, it remained in the cities and later became the de facto ruler. The army thus reclaimed its political role it had lost after the 1967 war.

The power struggle will also continue in parliament, where the majority of deputies are either former military or security officers or have well-known ties to the military and security institutions. When the amendments were first presented on February 14, 94 deputies did not even show up to vote on them, and some deputies known for their close ties to the security agencies voted in opposition or abstained. The list of 155 deputies who put forward the proposed amendments remains confidential and is not available even to parliamentary deputies themselves. After shortening Sisi’s term in power 553 out of 596 deputies participated in the final vote on April 16, approving the amendments by a landslide—suggesting that Sisi’s term was a key point of contention within the military and security establishment.

In addition, although Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdel Aal invited 720 public figures, statesmen, former ministers, and the 50-member constitutional drafting committee to take part in what he called a “social dialogue” in parliament about the constitutional amendments, only eleven accepted the invitation. Meanwhile, prominent figures from the Mubarak regime expressed their sharp opposition to the constitutional amendments and questioned the legitimacy of the popular referendum. For instance, Hossam Badrawy, a senior figure from Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, implied in a tweet that such amendments were not the way to achieve “institutional stability” in Egypt.

Since the July 2013 military coup, the army has also become “the primary gatekeeper for the Egyptian economy.” Sisi has focused on empowering the army politically and economically, “generating maximum profit for the military and its various networks” and helping create a broad base of retired military men working in military, security, economic, and civilian facilities or in government agencies.

The officers’ class and their allies might well plunge Egypt into a bloodbath if their monopoly on politics and the economy is threatened. Although the amended Article 200 enshrines the status quo within the constitution, it does not address the chronic political conflict within the military elite itself nor the new types of emerging economic struggles. Conflicts between military interest groups over how to divide the spoils have already begun to surface. However, what most worries the army is not these internal divisions, but rather that it will be responsible for quelling potential widespread popular unrest, at which point the class-based division could lead to an “internal schism” in the army. This also indicates that the struggle could heat up between the current “king” and the kingmakers on what takes priority: protecting the president or protecting the army from internal schisms.

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