It is not so long ago that social media in Egypt teemed with criticism of the Egyptian army and what many saw as its increased role in the economy, a field far removed from its basic role of defending the country. Whether or not this was the opinion of the man-on-the-street is a question Watani is exploring in this story.
It took a taunt from Qatar, in the form of a documentary that directed harsh criticism at the Egyptian army, for Egyptians to stand up in force and defend their Armed Forces. Facebook and Twitter, two platforms which had overflowed with Egyptian criticism for the military, suddenly rocked with support for the army.
So how exactly does Egypt’s public rate its military?
Time honoured military tradition
As far back in time as ancient centuries, the Egyptian army has been the pride of Egyptians. Even during the times when Egypt was occupied by foreign powers such as the Romans, Egypt’s military enjoyed a reputation of valour; an example is the Theban Legion of the third AD century which was part of the Roman army. During medieval times, the Egyptian army led by Saladin defeated the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin in 1187.
In the 19th century, the Egyptian army saw a glorious revival under Muhammad Ali Pasha who is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. He transformed Egypt into a regional power, waged war on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II in Arabia and Greece, then independently in the Sudan and the Levant, and ended up fighting the Ottoman army itself with a view to gaining independence for Egypt. But at this point (1840) the European powers intervened and the Egyptian army had to withdraw.
In modern times, Egypt was defeated in the 1948 war against Israel in Palestine and again in the June 1967 Six Day War, but the Egyptian army made a turnaround with its epic crossing of the Suez Canal and battles against Israel in the Sinai in October 1973. This led to peace talks with Israel and, in 1979, a peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel according to which Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula which had been in Israeli hands since 1967.
The years since 1973 saw no more wars in Egypt in the classic sense of the word. Yet the military, which had in 1952 overthrown the monarchy in Egypt and later declared the country a republic, enjoyed a strong presence on the political and economic fronts. Since 1952 all of Egypt’s presidents but one, as well as the governors of all the border provinces, came from among the military.
Arab Spring and 30 June Revolution
The last days of January 2011 saw Egypt tumble into what came to be termed as the Arab Spring. On 18 February, long-time President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, and a military council took over until a new president could be elected. The army worked hard at maintaining law and order during that time of turmoil and political upheaval. Egyptians, the majority of whom are Muslim, decided to give Islamists a chance to make good on their promise to rule the country righteously and bring prosperity. On 30 June 2012, Muhammad Mursi who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group was elected as President. But the rule of the MB proved to Egyptians once and for all that Islamist authority is anything but righteous or geared towards prosperity. Mr Mursi and the MB imposed hegemony over all authorities in the State, destroyed democracy, worked to impose a conservative brand of Islam which Egyptians rejected, and let the country slip into economic decline. Egyptians rebelled. On 30 June 2013, a massive revolution of some 30 million Egyptians rolled peacefully along Egypt’s streets nationwide demanding an end to Mr Mursi’s presidency and MB rule. With an eye to averting civil war, the army stepped in, and gave Mr Mursi an ultimatum of 48 hours to resolve the crisis. He belligerently rejected the ultimatum and, on 3 July the then Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi gathered a council of representatives of all the sectors of the Egyptian community. They drew a roadmap for the future of a secular Egypt.
In January 2014 Egypt established a new Constitution, in June 2014 Sisi was elected President, and Egypt embarked on a secular era. The army had a new role to play.
Army steps in
Predictably, the army’s prime role is the defence of the country. This was no simple task since it involved defending Egypt against enemies from outside and inside its borders. The Islamists who had been ousted in July 2013 had explicitly vowed to inflict upon Egyptians “terror you never dreamed existed” as expressed by the MB leader Safwat Higazy. The Islamists had turned mountainous cave-riddled Sinai into a jihadi stronghold since the Mursi year and, to this day, the Egyptian army’s battles with the jihadis have cost Egypt the lives of scores of its sons. To the West is Libya, large swaths of which were turned, in the wake of the Arab Spring, into battlegrounds where the Islamist militias hold upper hands. The jihadis have attacked Egyptian targets close to the Egypt-Libya border. To say nothing of the countless terrorist attacks that have targeted Egyptian police and civilians. All along, Egypt’s army has been strongly defending the country.
The army also gained a reputation for promptly stepping in to aid the police when a strong hand was needed to restore the rule of law and order which had, in the wake of the Arab Spring, been replaced by lawlessness. Today, however, law and order have been restored, and the army is seldom needed on this front. But it is needed elsewhere on entirely different levels, as will be revealed here.
In war and peace
In its issue of 2 March 2014 Watani International printed an article by Injy Samy under the title “An army for war and peace”:
“Residents of Heliopolis, especially, feel the difference. The eastern Cairo upper-middle-class suburb has been suffering from crushing traffic congestion that escalated to gridlock level throughout the last years. Any trip or errand through the district practically became a veritable piece of hell. Yet recent projects that seemed to have miraculously cropped up overnight have alleviated the problem to a point undreamt-of by eastern Cairenes. Roads have been widened, squares and roundabouts upgraded, overpasses erected, and new exits and entries added. The result has been stunning; life became instantaneously easier.
The secret saviour? The Egyptian Armed Forces.”
The story went on to list a plethora of projects by the Engineering Authority of the Ministry of Defence. The projects aimed at providing services for the public in various regions in Egypt. Giza on the west was being given a new set of periphery roads, highways and bridges to the tune of several billion Egyptian Pounds which come mainly from the military budget.
Under-privileged areas such as the villages of Kerdassa, Barageel, and Bashteel in Giza were getting bakeries, sports centres, and youth community centres. Fayoum, some 100km southwest of Cairo was getting a new 16,000-unit housing project, Suez bakeries, and South Sinai bridges and medical centres.
More recently, the army stepped in to help resolve a shortage in infant formula; the Armed Forces imported packages to be sold to Egyptians at reasonable prices. It also had its convoys head to various districts in Egypt to hand out affordable packages of foods—meat, poultry, dairy, sugar, and others—that went short or too expensive on the market. The aim was to ease the toll of economic reform on Egyptians.
It was nothing new that the Egyptian army should provide the community with much-needed services or products. The story goes back to the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Nasser worked to strengthen and expand the national army into a regional force. For that purpose he embarked on ambitious projects not only of procuring arms but also of setting up an impressive military production base in Egypt. Some 28 military factories were established in engineering, metal, chemical and electronic industries.
During wartime the military factories focused on military production, but during prolonged periods of peace the huge industrial base channelled its capacities towards producing goods for the community. And so it was that these plants supplied Egyptians with top-notch products that included among others diesel engines, workshop tools, plastics, household appliances, aerosols, pesticides, poultry and dairy products, agri-products, oils, food preserves, radio and TV sets, computers and various electronics.
With its huge resources and capacity, the military diversified into the field of expert services, providing facilities for transport, security and guard services, garage and parking, container rent, environmental services, tourism and hotel management, as well as many others. It also went into the fields of contracting, road building, mineralogical activity, and marine services.
The army also offers medical services of legendary quality by Egyptian standards; even though these services are mainly offered to their personnel and may serve civilians only under certain conditions.
In August 2015, the army completed the digging of the New Suez Canal in record time of less than a year; the time anticipated by construction experts had been three years. Currently, it is performing huge contracting work on the New Administrative Capital. Last August, the Ministry for Military Production signed an agreement with the Health Ministry for Egypt’s first plant to produce cancer medication.
Making life a bit easier
For his part, President Sisi has rejected criticism that the military’s growing economic involvement was distracting it from its core duties. He dismissed suggestions of military mismanagement, saying he and the Defence Minister personally approve all spending. President Sisi said the military could deploy across the entire country in six hours if needed.
The army’s economic involvement, he said, was with the aim of helping to “rebuild” Egypt. This is a role which many Egyptians appreciate, given the austerity measures, dollar shortage and rising prices on account of economic reform.
Watani decided to sound mainstream Egyptians on the issue of the army’s involvement in the country’s economy. A woman in her late forties, who works as a cleaner in one of Cairo’s malls, complained of painful price hikes. “But the rise in prices of commodities is nothing compared to the rise in rents,” she said. “I used to pay EGP300 rent for my flat; now it’s gone up to EGP500.” This brought on the question of where she lived. “In an overcrowded district in Ain Shams (east of Cairo),” she said. “I have five children: two daughters who are married, as well as two others and a son. I make ends meet by saving a little money in gamiya together with my neighbours and friends. We each pay a monthly instalment and get back a good sum of money a few months later. I’m lucky I have a job; others don’t.” How about the army’s role in Egypt? Watani asked. “Oh, the poor young men!” she said. “They stand to lose their lives any minute to the terrorists.” But she also said that she sees the army trucks bringing in affordable foods into her neighbourhood. “For this we are truly grateful,” she said. “It definitely eases matters.”
“We need them now”
Another cleaner who talked to Watani was a younger woman who said she had two children aged five and eight. “The prices keep on rising,” she said. “At times it becomes intolerable.” She said her husband held a reasonable job and, through both their salaries, they could make ends meet. As to the army, she said: “The country was in a shambles after the MB rule,” she said. “The military were able to restore law and order. And they’re helping us meet the cost of living which is getting more intolerable by the day.” So would you like to go back to the MB days? Watani asked. “Never!” was the vehement interjection that came from both women. “The MB had their own interests to serve, and these obviously never included the good of Egyptians.” One of the cleaners expressed a wish that the military would impose more discipline on the markets; she said she was sure this would ‘tame’ prices. She was echoing a concept common among Egyptians that the prices were being manipulated by traders and could be brought down by imposing disciplinary action.
A man in his late thirties who works as a guardsman in a private company replied to Watani’s question on the role he envisioned for the army by saying: “At this post-MB phase, we definitely need the army in control. Only the military can handle the terrorist threats from inside and outside the country. But in the long run, I hope peace reigns and we get a civilian as president. I also hope we get stronger political parties in place of the many current weak ones.” For today, however, he said he highly appreciated the role of the military to build projects and bring affordable foods to the people who need them badly.
A taxi driver in his fifties echoed the complaint of the high prices. Gasoline prices are up, he said, and the instalments on the vehicle are a heavy burden. “This is all the aftermath of the one-year Islamist rule and the terrorism the Islamists are inflicting on us now that they have been ousted. But how long will this last?” he sighed. “So you’re unhappy with the military’s role in the country now?” Watani asked. “Oh no,” he said, “they’re actually doing a good job. But I’m frustrated that they’re doing nothing about the prices.”
The end result is that Egyptians in the mainstream welcome the role the military is playing. For better or for worse, they feel the army is an integral part of their daily lives, not merely a remote body whose presence can only be felt during wartime. Given that Egypt’s army is formed mainly of recruits, the majority of Egyptian families have members who were or are in the army. So the army is, in a way, an extension of the Egyptian family.
According to President Sisi: “This is your army, the army of your country. Your sons. It is not anyone else’s army.”
7 December 2016