Revisiting Egypt’s civil-military relations

Will Egypt be able to establish a balance between the civilian state and the military establishment?

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's victory in the presidential elections will endanger the balance of power between the civilian state and the army, writes Elmenshawy [Reuters]

As former Minister of Defence Field Marshal Abdul Fattah el-Sisi prepares to assume his duties as Egypt’s new president, the debate about Egypt’s civil-military relations will be brought to the fore. Egypt’s modern history demonstrated the inherent difficulties in achieving equilibrium between the historically powerful military and an ever-evolving civilian society. Conversations concerning the nature of the military’s role in politics and the civilian government’s level of oversight and authority over the armed forces are still considered taboo.

Both sides are apprehensive of a public discourse on the subject, but for different reasons. The military does not want a public debate, ostensibly out of fear that exposing military details would undermine its national security efforts. The military leadership is also wary of any shift that could reduce its influence over politics or threaten its extensive economic network. Conversely, the civilian side believes that even opening a discourse would signal its acceptance of the military’s dominance over political life and would legitimise the military’s position.

The military took a more active role in political life after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser established a regime dominated by military officers. Since then, the military has acted as a deposer, kingmaker, and powerful political and commercial entity. Today, the Egyptian armed forces occupy an unprecedented position in the country, and their influential position is only likely to be strengthened with Sisi’s presidency.

State vs military?

The military has historically felt reassured by the presence of a political leadership with a military background. Only weeks before his resignation from the armed forces in order to become eligible to run for president, Sisi took the title of Field Marshal, the highest Egyptian military rank. The support of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for Sisi’s candidacy illustrates its inability to remain neutral during political competition, and the ultimate election of Sisi to the presidency will only increase this military partisanship.

Without exception, both military and civilian forces claim they desire the realisation of democracy in Egypt. Yet it is common knowledge that one of the main pillars of a functioning democracy is the balance and separation of powers. In practice, this means that while several authorities hold power in the state, none of them dominates its political, executive and legislative affairs.

Inside Egypt – Egypt in transition: presidential election

Two factors contribute to the imbalance of this separation of powers in regard to civilian-military relations in Egypt and make it difficult for the civilian polity to achieve a balance with the military forces.

The first is that the weakness of Egyptian civilian institutions and society’s ideological fragmentation make it difficult for civilian political forces to present a strong, unified front and achieve a more balanced relationship with the military-security establishment.

The second involves regional complexities and conflicts following the Arab Spring, such as the Syrian civil war and the fragmentation of Libya. In the midst of such turmoil, there is a need for the military to keep the country secure. Thus, the military has been given greater power.

Egypt’s recent constitutions have bestowed exceptional privileges upon the military establishment, allowing it to draw power away from the government’s legislative, executive and judiciary branches. For example, the latest constitution requires that SCAF approve the appointment of the defence minister (who must be a military officer) for a period of two full presidential terms.

The constitution does not mention how to initiate a process to replace the defence minister, if necessary.  Thus, the president cannot appoint the defence minister without offense’s’s approval, nor can he remove the minister without practice’s consent. This gives exceptional power to the military over state matters. 

The new constitution also states that civilians may be tried in a military court if the alleged offense involves military officers or property or if it was committed in an area under military jurisdiction. This vague definition has been broadly applied, and can be interpreted to justify trying a civilian in a military court for almost any real or perceived offense.

Furthermore, the defence budget is to be discussed only by a National Defence Council made up of top state and military officials. The constitution does not specify who has the power to approve the defence budget, meaning that in practice there is no oversight.

Egypt clearly suffers from a structural imbalance in its relations between the state and the military, which is a key issue for any transitional roadmap to democracy. A balanced relationship between the civilian and military forces of a democracy is built on the basis of civilian non-interference in military decisions, such as the manufacturing and purchasing of arms. Additionally, civilians should be prohibited from intervening in military job promotions, with the exception of the defence minister and the chief-of-staff. Civilian politicians also need to resist the temptation to politicise the military or to involve military institutions in party conflicts and political competition.

At the same time, military interference should be prohibited in political affairs at all levels, and military institutions must demonstrate professionalism and maintain political neutrality.

This is a difficult balance to strike, especially in a country such as Egypt, where the armed forces have played an important role in politics at certain points in history, and when so many of its modern rulers have come from the armed forces. Nevertheless, it is a balance that must be reached if Egypt is to avoid another authoritarian regime dominated by a convergence of political and military forces.

There are positive examples that Egypt can learn from. During Indonesia’s successful democratic transition, the military lost representation in parliament as a result of a constitutional amendment. The Indonesian army is still involved in politics to a certain extent: It is inevitable for the military to retain certain powers that are not democratic in nature in order to move the democratic process forward. However, with every election Indonesia is moving away from its military-dominated past and observing basic principles of democracy and pluralism.

In Egypt’s case, the election of Sisi is a step back and only time will show whether the country will be able to establish a strict balance between the civilian state and the military establishment. 

Mohamed Elmenshawy is the Washington Bureau Chief for Egyptian Daily Al Shoruok.

Follow him on Twitter @ElMenshawyM