With Sisi at the helm, the Egyptian military has tightened its grip over the economy and politics, but the president’s hold over the country is still a matter of debate.
“Egypt is a praetorian state: a state in which the military has the potential of dominating the political system,” Professor Amos Perlmutter said in Egypt: The Praetorian State.
Perlmutter went on to add that “its political process favours the development of the army as the core group and as a political ruling class since Egypt’s political leadership is primarily recruited from the army.”
That was forty-six years ago. Fast forward to 2020 and much the same can be said of the autocratic rule of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi.
Since taking power after a coup against the country's first democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Sisi has been strategically placing members of the military into his cabinet and tasking them to run increasingly large swathes of the economy.
Sisi’s reliance on a military that catapulted him into power has not gone unnoticed, least of all by the incumbent who oscillates between dependence and paranoia in relation to the army.
“Since the military coup, Sisi has been working to consolidate his power in the military establishment,” said Dr Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based Middle East political analyst.
“Firstly, he sidelined those he constituted a threat or a future rival to him in the military establishment and secondly he worked on changing the members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which ruled Egypt briefly during the 2011 revolution,” added Bakeer, speaking to TRT World.
In 2018, when a former member of Egypt’s supreme military council, Sami Anan, decided to challenge Sisi in the presidential elections, it was a sign that all was not well within the military and hence the direction of the country.
Sisi shot back by arresting Anan ultimately ensuring no serious opposition could emerge during the elections. Since then, he has sought to bring new military figures to power.
“His main aim is to guarantee loyalty from the new appointees,” says Bakeer.
Since 2013, however, there has been a marked change in army dynamics, says Dr Osama Rushdi, a former member of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.
“From the first moment, Sisi controlled the general intelligence services and the military, he restructured the military and placed his loyalists in positions of power,” said Rushdi speaking to TRT World.
“Furthermore, the army maintained control through its economic arms and the economic projects in various fields until the army became a semi-state parallel to the Egyptian state.”
While the army was seen as one of the big winners following the 2013 coup, consolidating its image as a strong institutional power, some have questioned whether, in the long run, such dominance is sustainable.
The Sisi regime has gone cap in hand with the IMF, the Gulf and even its own people in order to prop up the faltering economy. However, the dependence on money from the Gulf, in particular the UAE, has exposed the country’s military to foreign influence like never before.
“By depending on Gulf countries to prop him up economically in the aftermath of the coup, Sisi undermined the real impact of the Egyptian military by exposing the military establishment to outside influence in particular from the UAE,” says Bakeer.
In exchange for the money provided, the UAE has attempted to draft the Egyptian army to fight in its wars in Yemen and more recently in Libya.
There are tensions between Sisi’s need for international legitimacy, and the Egyptian army’s maintenance of its cohesiveness - it has all become a difficult balancing act.
“[Sisi] had to pay out the forces supporting him,” says Dr Rushdi.
“He granted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the two strategic islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which controlled the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. Although he claimed that these territories belonged to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this is proven to be false.”
“Additionally, Sisi has abandoned Egyptian gas fields including the Leviathan gas field in its Eastern Mediterranean territories, which is now Israeli controlled.”
Many of these agreements have resulted in the waning personal popularity of Sisi. The military, however, has always been prepared to sacrifice one of its own if it should mean preserving the wider institution, says Sami Hamdi, a Middle East analyst based in London.
“The army is still the winner. The policy of the army has always been that when the heat increases on the institution, they sacrifice the public face and replace him with another, creating a sense of separation between the ‘leadership’ and the ‘army’ which, in real terms, does not actually exist,” he said speaking to TRT World.
Sisi is acutely aware of the possibility of this, and it may give some explanation as to the way he has regularly quashed any sign of opposition to him in the military.
‘No credible alternative’
In the aftermath of 2011, when former President Mubarak was toppled, a plethora of political alternatives emerged that appealed to different cross sections of Egyptian society. After taking power, Sisi has made no qualms of going after anyone who may threaten his grip on Egypt. He has become the last man standing in a bleak political environment.
“While many lament the current economic situation and the political crackdown, there is a perception that there is no credible alternative,” says Hamdi.
“The Muslim Brotherhood no longer enjoy the support they once did and appear a spent force even in the eyes of sympathisers within Egypt. The liberals are seen as indecisive after having supported Sisi’s coup only to reverse course and insist on freedoms and democratic processes,” added Hamdi.
Sisi’s grip on power rests on an unstable cocktail of fear that the country is threatened from abroad; internal polarisation; and the drumbeat of jingoistic nationalism extolling the virtues of the Egyptian nation.
“For a population historically used to leading the way...a sense of nationalist superiority that has proven to be effective in maintaining enough support for the army to remain in power for decades,” adds Hamdi.
The Egyptian army’s direct assumption of power doesn’t come without risk to its long term authority and standing, while also exposing Sisi’s governing failures.
Scenes of uniformed soldiers selling subsided cucumbers and cooking oil on the side of the road may show that the military is there when the people need it, but it’s also crowding commercial enterprise.
"We are facing a military institution which has a clear political dimension and started ruling directly after the 2013 coup and since that day and for the last seven years until now we have been facing an expanding institution which is growing at an unimaginable and unprecedented rate in the sphere of economics,” said Ayman Nour, one of Egypt’s few political centrists and currently in self-imposed exile in Istanbul.
“The army is one of the institutions that the Egyptian people view with respect for a long time,” added Nour speaking to TRT World, however, with the hand of the military increasingly pervasive in society the time may come where it is blamed for the increasing problems in the seemingly unruly country.
“Over the coming years in the next phase, I see a diminishment in terms of the political role of the army. This experience has been painful and negative and ultimately hurts the image of the army,” added Nour.
What that means for the shaky hold Sisi has on Egypt, is anyone's guess.