The Egyptian military has never endeared itself to NGOs and rights groups, but the situation in recent months has been particularly discouraging. At the end of December, the military raided and closed the offices of 17 Cairo-based NGOs on the grounds they had received illegal foreign funding. In February came the infamous travel ban on 43 NGO workers, charged with receiving funds illegally from abroad and also fermenting unrest. The incident triggered the biggest diplomatic spat between the US and Egypt in decades, threatening some $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt receives each year.
Why would the military risk such bold (some might argue foolish) action in this period of political and economic uncertainty? Particularly in light of the good will and positive press it received in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolution?
The Egyptian military is a true political and economic leviathan. The stakes associated with maintaining its primacy are immense—not only in terms of political influence but also Egyptian pounds.
As Stephen Gotowicki wrote in a 1997 paper, “The Role of the Egyptian Military in Domestic Society:”
“In the late 1970s, plagued with overcapacity, falling oil prices, rising government deficits, falling per capita income, a requirement to offset the military’s diminished role resulting from peace with Israel, and with a continuing interest in self-sufficiency, the Egyptian military converted large portions of their military production capacity to the production of civilian goods. This initiative was conducted under the auspices of the National Service Project Organization (NSPO), a Ministry of Defense subsidiary established to control projects in the exclusively civilian sectors of the economy and reorient the military toward national economic development efforts. Military facilities now manufacture a wide variety of products such as washing machines, heaters, clothing, doors, stationary, pharmaceuticals, and microscopes.”
Fast forward to 2011. In the midst of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, NPR’s All Things Considered produced a podcast titled “Why Egypt’s Military Cares About Home Appliances,” estimating that the Egyptian military could control anywhere from 5 to 40 percent of the country’s economy.
Surely preserving these business interests is a top priority for the military officers who have benefited from the system over the years, not to mention those who aspire to benefit in the future. They would undoubtedly view a healthy civil society (and civilian-led economy) as direct competition. Hence, as a 2008 diplomatic cable referenced in the NPR story observes:
“[A source] pointed to efforts from the top of the regime to penetrate the civilian bureaucracy with retired senior military officers. He highlighted officers filling top civilian jobs, such as governors, and chief of staff positions and other senior slots at the Information, Transportation and Education ministries. Other contacts noted their anecdotal experience with military officers running civil society organizations and charities. [One contact] remarked that [a particular literacy campaign] recently retired a retired military officer to run its operations. He told us [one charitable society] recently hired a retired general as its director, believing that the general’s competence, experience with bureaucracies, and network of colleagues and contacts in the ministries would serve the charities well.”
A prerequisite for Egyptian civil society to develop and flourish is that the military’s tentacles be trimmed back from many facets of what should be civilian life. This process will be neither quick nor easy, and its success depends largely on both the agendas of newly-elected MPs and the willingness of the Egyptian people to force accountability through protest (as they have done on several occasions since the initial revolution). They must also have the courage and good sense to look past military accusations of “foreign meddling,” which seem to play well with the street.
Without ongoing political activism at the ground level, it will be impossible for NGOs and civilian politicians to challenge the military’s traditional dominance of political and economic life in Egypt.
Nick Lewandowski is a freelance writer who has lived in Germany, Spain and Egypt. In addition to writing professionally for both print and the web, he blogs at http://cursorblink.blogspot.com.
(Image by Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr)
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