Ten years ago, protests swept across Arab nations that changed the course of history.
The Egyptian military and its top brass reigned supreme over Egypt in the months after their historic decision to force longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down on February 11, 2011.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body of 25 senior members of Egypt’s military, decided to step in and ostensibly support the revolution against Mubarak, which began on January 25 of that year, exactly 10 years ago.
Since the 19th century, Egypt’s army has played an outsized role in governing 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 since, the military’s involvement in the country’s politics and business has only grown, signalling that the institution will continue to dominate Egypt and retain its power base, independent of oversight.
Yet that might not be the case.
While el-Sisi, who was defence minister when he overthrew Morsi before becoming president the following year, was one of their own, he has made significant moves over the past few years to increase his own power and threaten the independence of the military and the SCAF.
This is partly an acknowledgement that, with popular dissent effectively criminalised, the main threat to el-Sisi’s rule may eventually emerge from the same military that brought him to power.
In recent years, el-Sisi has worked to put figures close to him, especially through blood ties or bonds formed during military service, in important positions in the military and intelligence apparatus.
This includes the 2018 appointment of his chief of staff, Abbas Kamel, as head of the General Intelligence Directorate, replacing Khaled Fawzy.
The latter had been part of the 2013 coup plot but was still removed from his position.
El-Sisi also appointed a new minister of defence in 2018 without the public approval of SCAF, despite the constitution at the time stipulating the appointment could not be made without it.
The examples are part of a general trend that has seen el-Sisi replace more than 130 high-ranking state and military officials since 2017. In addition to those mentioned above, these include the interior minister and the army chief of staff. El-Sisi’s sons, Mustafa and Mahmoud, have also been appointed to senior intelligence positions.
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, an assistant defence minister – having not been dismissed from their positions. The persistent shake-ups have ensured that few figures in the military and intelligence have the ability to build up a power base that could potentially threaten el-Sisi in the future.
“Sisi knows that he got into power through a military coup and he is like any other Egyptian president – to a degree afraid of the military,” Mohamed Mandour, an Egyptian research fellow at Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told Al Jazeera.
“Sisi doesn’t want [the military and intelligence] institutions to be independent, even in the manner that they were under Mubarak, with figures like [former army chief Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi and [former intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman in powerful positions for a long time. Sisi won’t allow the same thing to happen, in the fear that rival power bases could cause problems for his rule and longevity.”
Crucial military role
The military has historically been popular in Egypt, especially among nationalist circles, with the army playing a hugely important role in the country’s history.
In 1952, a group of officers – including a future president, Gamal Abdel Nasser – overthrew Egypt’s monarchy and ushered in a republic. Despite the military’s poor performance in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, demonstrators came out in support of Nasser after he offered to resign, and the military’s more positive showing in the war in October 1973 left many Egyptians with a sense of pride.
This carried on to the 2011 revolution when the chant “the people and the army are one hand” was among the most popular, particularly after the army ruled out the use of force against protesters and declared that it respected “the legitimate rights of the people”.
In addition, the power of the military in Egypt can be gauged from the fact that every non-interim president of Egypt, with the exception of Morsi, has had a military background.
This is perhaps why el-Sisi views the military as the institution with the most potential to end his rule, even if, currently, the president appears to have few instances of real opposition from the army.
“We lack clear evidence of opposition in the military,” Yezid Sayegh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.
“It is more useful to think of this in terms of different emphasis on priorities and perceptions of whether military involvement in politics and the economy is good for its professional development or not.
“The military has always had officer cliques and informal networks based on personal relationships or loyalty to different branches of service, and so some officers may be unhappy about Sisi’s promotion of other officers who they regard as competitors. My point is that this does not amount to opposition.”
El-Sisi’s tactic in dealing with the little opposition that has arisen appears to be one based on a carrot-and-stick approach.
Former senior military figures who have raised their heads above the parapet and directly threatened his rule have found themselves quickly crushed.
This was most evident in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, when two former senior military figures, Ahmed Shafik and Sami Anan, tried to run against el-Sisi.
Shafik, a former air force commander and prime minister who was the military-backed candidate in the 2012 election that Morsi won, disappeared from his home in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after his announcement.
Months later, he posted on Twitter to confirm he would not, in fact, be challenging el-Sisi.
Anan, former chief of staff of the armed forces, was arrested after he announced his candidacy in January 2018 and was released only 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 jail after uploading a video where, dressed in military uniform, he announced he would challenge el-Sisi in the election.
But el-Sisi has also dangled the carrot before the military in an effort to encourage buy-in from the institution and to foster new elites who owe their positions and wealth to him.
Since 2013, the military has expanded its business interests, selling everything – from televisions to cement to chickens.
It is also heavily involved in large infrastructure projects, including the building of new roads and bridges, as well as an expansion of the Suez Canal and a new administrative capital.
“This isn’t just an economic relationship,” said Mandour.
“When the army busies itself with business and big infrastructure projects, it moves away from becoming Sisi’s competitor, and is distracted from issues of governance and politics.”
For now, the military does appear subservient to el-Sisi. And yet, a closer look reveals the institution will remain an important power-broker in Egypt for years to come.
Egypt’s new constitution, passed in 2019, effectively gives the military formal acknowledgement of its supra-constitutional status.
“The military has the unilateral right under the 2019 constitution to determine if it should intervene in politics and government,” said Sayegh.
“This is not explicitly linked to the president’s approval and so the military is not entirely subordinate even 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 do not like.”