Cairo, Egypt – With Egypt’s presidential elections fast approaching, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the country’s military chief, has not yet formally announced his candidacy – but the establishment he heads is strengthening its political position at every turn.
In February, interim President Adly Mansour announced the reconstitution of the most powerful body in Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), expanding its membership and restating that the defence minister, not the president, will remain its head. The defence minister can now only be appointed upon SCAF’s approval for at least the next two presidential terms, according to the country’s new constitution. And another presidential decree issued by Mansour stipulates that the defence minister must be chosen from among the country’s most senior generals.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s National Defence Council (NDC), a powerful body capable of approving the deployment of the army, was also legally reconstituted. Unlike SCAF, Egypt’s president heads the NDC, but a majority of its 14 members are military officials.
A statement issued by the official armed forces spokesperson, Ahmed Ali, stressed that these recent laws were a result of constitutional changes approved by Egypt’s electorate in January with an overwhelming majority. But such changes formalise the growing strength of the military over civilian authorities, according to Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East programme.
“The military has decided to strengthen its role as the power behind the throne, providing the military with additional protection against any attempt by civilian authorities to exercise any authority over the military,” she told Al Jazeera.
However, a spokesperson at a major government department said that the military was not encroaching on the government. “There is civilian government and all the departments are run by the country, not by the army,” the official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
On Tuesday, Sisi gave the strongest signal yet that he intends to run in Egypt’s impending presidential elections, announcing that he wouldn’t “ignore the desire of many of [Egypt’s people] or turn his back on their will”. The military chief added that he was expecting to complete official procedures for his candidacy “in the next few days”.
Egypt’s military has been steadily bolstering its power since SCAF overthrew the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in July. The Muslim Brotherhood has been extensively targeted by security forces and was formally designated a terrorist organisation in December.
When former Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi resigned in a surprise announcement just weeks ago, the ensuing government reshuffle saw another SCAF member join Sisi in Egypt’s cabinet. Ibrahim Younis, the new minister for military production, is a major-general himself and chairs the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation, a military-owned group.
A Western diplomat in Cairo, who did not wish to be named, told Al Jazeera: “The armed forces are consolidating their position and ensuring that any president isn’t too powerful to take them on. The main concern for them is that there isn’t too much civilian oversight and that they can basically run their own affairs.”
If people don't say what the state wants them to they are branded enemies. They say they're working for Qatar, or Israel, or Iran. In the worst cases, they face torture.
Meanwhile, the military has also been quietly moving lower-level personnel into governmental positions. A retired general has been re-installed as head of communications for Egypt’s biggest government department, the health ministry. The new health minister, Adel al-Adawy, is a former orthopaedic surgeon who worked in military medical teams, including the team involved in testing the diagnostic capabilities of a device that the armed forces recently claimed can cure the AIDS virus.
According to Ahmed, the director of an Egyptian civil rights group that cannot be named due to security concerns, the increasing power of the military authorities has also led to increased repression.
“If people don’t say what the state wants them to, they are branded enemies. They say they’re working for Qatar, or Israel, or Iran. In the worst cases, they face torture. They’re tortured for a long time and in a very savage way,” he says.
The business elite’s backing
Egypt’s business elite, many of whom were critical of Morsi’s administration, are now firmly backing the military.
Weeks before President Morsi was removed from power, Egypt’s key stock market index, the EGX30, was languishing at 4,641 points. By last week, it reached a high of 8,127 points, up 75 percent since Morsi’s ousting. Egyptian stocks posted their biggest gains of more than a year on the day of Morsi’s removal. Investment experts told Al Jazeera that general investor optimism, along with cash injections from the Gulf, was primarily driving the stocks’ price growth. In recent months, both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch rating agencies upgraded Egypt’s outlook from negative to stable, citing Gulf cash injections and the military’s growing strength as stabilising factors.
Many Egyptian business leaders have close informal ties to the military establishment – and the fact that some of the corruption charges pursued by the Islamist government against them have melted away under the new administration may be a sign that the military is shoring up its support from the business community. The prominent Sawiris family, which controls Egypt’s largest listed company, Orascom, has endorsed military rule. Egyptian tycoon-turned-politician Naguib Sawiris announced that his companies intended to “inject investment in Egypt like never before” as a result of the military re-taking a central role in Egyptian politics.
Presidential elections will be held within the next few weeks, and are widely expected to see Sisi ascend to Egypt’s highest office. But while Egypt’s cabinet, economy and head of state all remain the subject of uncertainly, the position of the armed forces is steadily growing stronger. The military establishment, with support from its core allies in the Gulf and business world, is consolidating gains won through the new constitution and entrenching their position at the centre of Egypt’s state apparatus.
Due to security concerns amid the ongoing detention of Al Jazeera journalists, we are not naming our correspondents in Egypt at this time.