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Civil-Military Relations in Sisi’s Egypt

The fundamental logic of civil-military relations under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remains the same as it has in Egypt for decades, although that may be changing.

The president must accommodate a large corporate military and sate its organizational and economic interests to retain its support and his latitude to govern. Given the considerable challenges facing Egypt, however, whether Sisi can keep his end of that bargain is uncertain. Perhaps for this reason, he may be seeking to upend the basic formula of Egyptian civil-military relations by increasing his personalist control over the military and security forces, a strategy that carries considerable risk.

Independent Authority to Govern

Sisi’s long military career and leadership roles, including in military intelligence and a stint as Egypt’s defense minister under former president Mohamed Morsi, mean that he understands and shares the basic worldview of those running the military today. Nevertheless, as president, Sisi’s interests do not fully coincide with those of the military. Unless he wants to remain a puppet or passive register for his generals’ interests, he has to maintain independent authority to govern and, potentially, a support base in state and society to balance his reliance on the coercive sector.

Indeed, Sisi’s reliance on the military’s favor was clear from the start, even before he received its approval to run for president in 2014. For example, the military leadership built into the constitution that was drafted in late 2013 checks on who the president could choose as defense minister by requiring that appointments be approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for two terms. Later decrees issued by interim president Adly Mansour also made the defense minister head of the SCAF, not the president as in the past. Although Sisi has since hired and fired many military leaders, including his defense minister, those constitutional provisions are reminders that he maintains such prerogatives and ultimately his position at the behest of his generals.

To manage relations with the military, Sisi has relied upon proven tactics of ceding the military control over large parts of the economy. It was under former president Anwar Sadat that the pattern observed today of exchanging military loyalty for a slice of the economy began to take form. With the demilitarization of the Sinai and other changes required of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Sadat sought to compensate the military (and provide its personnel jobs) by expanding the military’s role in the civilian economy under the auspices of the National Service Projects Organization. Under former president Hosni Mubarak, especially when Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala was defense minister, the military claimed even larger slices of the economy. Sisi has since overseen a steady expansion of the military’s role in commercial enterprises and embarked on new infrastructure projects. These enterprises remain unmonitored and unchecked by the legislature or civilian bureaucracy, free from taxes, and often able to exploit conscript labor.

Expanded Regional Role

Sisi has also sought to expand the armed forces’ regional role. The Egyptian Navy has coordinated with its Emirati, Saudi, and U.S. counterparts on missions in the Red Sea, while Egypt’s air force and army special forces have operated in Libya to support the General Khalifa Haftar–led Libyan National Army (LNA). Recently, Sisi has ramped up threats of further military intervention in Libya in opposition to growing Turkish involvement and losses by the LNA. While Sisi cites Egypt’s national security interests as the motive for these actions, they also conveniently appeal to the military’s organizational interests—and its officers’ perception that Egypt has a professional military focused on external threats—while also keeping officers at least somewhat distracted from domestic politics.

Sisi’s foreign activism also enhances Egypt’s role as a regional power broker, a role that it has long aspired to play and that also likely finds much support within the institutional military. Sisi, however, has not always been successful in ingratiating himself with his generals through his foreign policies—his decision to cede two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia rankled them considerably.

Revolving Door in Leadership

Sisi is also managing the coercive sector by using a proven technique of autocratic civil-military relations: rotating and firing military personnel in order to position like-minded and loyal officers in key positions—tactics he employed even before he became president. His prior experience in military intelligence has helped him orchestrate this revolving door of military officers in and out of leadership positions.

Sisi is not the first president to employ these methods. Sadat regularly rotated and fired military commanders, such as those that opposed his limited war plan in the October 1973 war. In the 1980s Mubarak sidelined Abu Ghazala, fearful that the charismatic general could potentially displace or sideline him. After that,

Mubarak preferred using the corollary tactic to induce loyalty—entrenching uncharismatic sycophants, like naming the decidedly uncolorful field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi as minister of defense.

Sisi, however, has in some ways taken this practice to a new level, ot only by putting allies in key positions but also by potentially using this new influence to domesticate the military as a whole. An example is the case of Mahmoud Hegazy, who was chief of the armed forces from March 2014 until Sisi removed him in December 2017. Sisi had family ties through marriage to Hegazy, and there was no outward sign of disloyalty. While the firing occurred in the aftermath of a deadly ambush of police by insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, it seems likely that Hegazy’s main fault was that, like other institutionalists in the military, his first allegiance was to the military, not to Sisi. Sisi was revealing himself to be a keen student of dictatorship, flexing his prerogative to fire people in order to deter others from dissenting to his rule.

Transforming Civil-Military Relations

Indeed, Sisi may be aiming to transform the foundations of Egyptian civil-military relations, adopting methods commonly observed in regimes that exhibit a more personalist flavor, such as in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. He has appointed family members to key positions in the security apparatus, including one of his sons, who in turn has helped orchestrate purges and dismissals. In addition, Sisi has used rivalries between different forces to keep the security sector in check.

Sisi, however, has yet to take the next step in these sorts of personalist civil-military relations, creating new military units or paramilitaries headed by those with close (and potentially family) ties that are recruited from and operate outside the military chain of command. Corporate militaries like Egypt’s tend to be highly suspicious of affronts to their organizational integrity, so efforts to create new, well-equipped, well-funded, and autonomous counterbalancing security units of this kind could cause a serious rupture with the military.

Indeed, while tensions rarely come into public view, there are occasional signs of dissatisfaction with Sisi’s leadership. One notable example is the failed bid by former military engineer Colonel Ahmad Konosowa to run for office against Sisi, which he announced in a YouTube video in November 2017.

Need for a Social Base

For the moment, Sisi is still beholden to the institutional military and has been willing to cede its remarkable influence to maintain its complicity in his rule. Yet simply relying on the military or constituencies within the security sector as his political base leaves Sisi vulnerable and potentially expendable as the country’s political leader. Support from Gulf countries acts as a surrogate support base by providing money for massive infrastructural projects and the like. But that is not the same thing as having a power base among the elite or in society.

This is a lesson that Sisi’s predecessors well understood. Former president Gamal Abdel Nasser created the Arab Socialist Union in 1962 in part to mobilize his support base among the working and lower middle classes and to build up his defenses against Abdel Hakim Amer, the defense minister and one of Nasser’s chief rivals. Sadat empowered the bourgeoisie through his policy of economic openness (infitah), which also created a class of intermediaries between the state and the private sector. He also sought to strengthen his position through political liberalization and overt appeals to religion, measures that coincided with the rehabilitation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. Mubarak relied on the National Democratic Party (NDP) and, via his son Gamal, built up a younger generation of business elites alongside the older generation. He also channeled funds and elevated the political status of the Ministry of Interior to check the influence of the military, to the great dissatisfaction of many of its generals.

Conundrum of Control

A natural step for Sisi, therefore, in consolidating his control over the military is to establish a constituency outside of it. That presents a bit of a conundrum. There is little with which to build that constituency with the economic challenges facing the country and the coercive sector sucking up the country’s productive resources. Perhaps for this reason, Sisi prefers to suppress rather than cultivate civilian constituencies. Under his rule, the independence and resources of formerly influential actors and institutions—from the NDP, the business elite, the media, and universities—have withered. Egypt increasingly resembles a police state, absent the ruthless efficiency with which they are often associated.

Sisi thus seems to be relying on his ability to keep the military happy to maintain his position, while relying on his capacity to manipulate and control competition within the coercive apparatus. This formula has risks. It creates discontent within Egyptian society, which renders Sisi more reliant on coercive threats—and the purveyors of those threats—in turn, shifting power to the security sector. Sisi must then sate the military’s growing appetite for resources and the emboldened factions within it. That is hard enough, but he must do it while also maintaining the political stability that the military values and that underpins its economic empire. If Sisi falters, the generals could collude to replace him. Alternatively, some cohort among them might seize the initiative and build its own bridges to the elite or society, marginalizing or ousting Sisi along the way. Either way, Sisi might find it increasingly difficult to stay atop Egypt’s increasingly powerful and encompassing coercive sector.

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