North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: a state serving the military

Since the coup of 2013, there has been a process of structural change within the Egyptian state, where civilian institutions have fallen under the sway of the security apparatus.

Maged Mandour
3 July 2020
The Egyptian flag on the uniform of an Egyptian paratrooper
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Mike Pryor / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

On 23 June, the prominent Human Rights activists Sanaa Seif, was abducted in front of the State Prosecutor’s office in Cairo, by plain clothed police officers. Seif was there to report a violent assault she suffered the night before, as she was camped out in front of Tora prison with her mother and sister, in protest. They were attempting to receive a letter from her brother Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a prominent blogger, who is being held in prison since September 2019.

Seif is accused of joining a terrorist organization, spreading false news, inciting protest and terrorist activities, as well as misuse of social media. Her arrest is not a new phenomenon, however, the direct complicity of the State Prosecutor, an independent judicial authority, is. It is, just one more indicator, of a process of de-modernization of the Egyptian state. Since the coup of 2013, there has been a process of structural change within the state, where civilian institutions have fallen under the sway of the security apparatus. This transformation goes beyond a change in personnel; rather, it is a change in the modus operandi of the state, in a manner that reduced the state functions into two aspects. First, repression of all forms of dissent and second, the appropriation of public funds for the enrichment of the military elites.

The end of the independence of the government watchdogs goes hand in hand with an expansion of the role of the military in the economy

One of the more prominent examples of this process dates back to the case of Hisham Geneina, Egypt`s ex-anti-corruption chief, who is currently serving a five year prison sentence for spreading information that harms the military. The saga of Geneina started in 2015, when he publicly claimed that mass state corruption has cost the country around 67.5 billion USD in three years. In response to the claim, a law was issued that gave the president the power to dismiss the heads of government watchdogs, in a move that many legal experts consider to be unconstitutional. In essence, removing any pretence of independence of these watchdogs, and allowing the presidency to shield mass graft and corruption from attempts to expose it. The law stipulates that the heads of the government watchdogs could be removed for vague reasons, such as “loss of trust” or “damaging the national interests”. Geneina, was swiftly removed from his post and imprisoned.

The end of the independence of the government watchdogs goes hand in hand with an expansion of the role of the military in the economy. Besides a direct expansion of the military economic activities in areas that range from consumer products to construction, the military has evolved into an autonomous economic actor, able to influence government policies, and through an intricate series of regulations it has the power to control economic activity, enriching military elites through the appropriation of public funds.

The state started to act as a conveyor belt, appropriating public funds that moved from the public domain to the pockets of the military.

For example, in 2017, the jurisdiction of the Administrative Monitoring Authority (AMA), Egypt’s main audit agency, was limited to the civilian sector, even though its audit activities over the military involvement in the economy were de-facto non-existent. The same law made the AMA accountable to the president. This was preceded by a presidential decree in 2014 that banned third party challenges to the granting of government contracts. The changes in the legal framework were accompanied by the expanded use of direct order rather than the use of bidding, granting government contracts directly to the military. This list of projects ranges from slum regeneration, financed by International agencies, to road maintenance, housing, and the building of new cities.

There are also cases of outright corruption. For example, the military is believed to levy an informal toll from the revenues of the shipping fees of the Suez Canal. Hence, the state started to act as a conveyor belt, appropriating public funds that moved from the public domain to the pockets of the military.

Since the coup of 2013, the Egyptian judiciary has played a pivotal role in state repression

Another aspect in the process of de-modernization of the Egyptian state is the politicization of the judiciary, as a partner in direct state repression, as well as the erosion of its independence. This does away with one of the primary features of a modern state, namely, the separation of powers, and the independence of the judiciary. Since the coup of 2013, the Egyptian judiciary has played a pivotal role in state repression, through mass trials that lack the basics of due process, and mass death sentences. This also included sham trials for prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most infamous of which is the trial of former president Mohamed Morsi for espionage.

However, the participation of the judiciary in wave after wave of state repression was not sufficient for the regime. Thus, in 2019 as part of a broad constitutional amendment, the regime proposed amendments to a number of articles that eliminated the independence of the judiciary. The amendments enhanced the power of the presidency over the judiciary, giving the president the power to select the heads of the different judicial bodies, in addition to eliminating their budgetary independence.

Finally, there is the relationship between the state and the military institution. As part of the previously mentioned constitutional amendment, article 200 was amended, anointing the military as the guardian of the state, adding “protection of the constitution, democracy, the state and its secular nature, and personal freedoms” to its roles. Hence, placing the military above the state, and opening up the way for military intervention in order to protect the “secular” nature of the state. This effectively introduces a new concept of sovereignty, where power moves from the elected representative, to whom control of the state passes, to the military as the guardian of the state. In addition to that, in July 2018, the Egyptian Parliament approved the Law Concerning the Treatment of Some Senior Officers of the Armed Forces. This law provided immunity to senior members of the military, accused of mass repression or financial corruption. This adds another layer of protection to the leadership of the armed forces.

The classic role of the state as a mediator of social conflict disappears, as it is transformed into a blunt instrument of repression, and a way for a parasitic form of military capitalism to thrive

In addition to launching a massive campaign of repression against the opposition and political parties, the regime has been re-structuring the state apparatus in a manner that has affected the nature of the state. In other words, it is a process that transforms the state into an appendage of the military institution. The classic role of the state as a mediator of social conflict disappears, as it is transformed into a blunt instrument of repression, and a way for a parasitic form of military capitalism to thrive, through the appropriation of public funds.

The consequences of these changes are legion. First, any moderation within the regime itself becomes extremely difficult, since all power is concentrated in the hands of the military, and the president, in a manner that does not allow for competing centres of power to emerge. There are also a number of powerful security institutions that are direct beneficiaries of continuous repression, making it a difficult policy to reverse. Second, and most importantly, in order for a democratic transition to be successful, a complete overhaul of the current state apparatus becomes essential. This would not only involve a drastic change in the military’s relationship to the state, but a complete restructuring of the state apparatus itself, transforming it into a tool for the fulfilment of the popular will.

Finally, the role of the state in the economy also requires a complete overhaul. This can only be achieved through a structural change in the Egyptian economy, away from a model that relies on the allocation of public funds as a way for capital accumulation, to a model that depends on the development of a sustainable economic base, while fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the populace.

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