During two years in office, Egypt’s general-turned president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has sought to impose a military-style discipline on Egypt after he led a military coup in 2013 against the first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.
The Egyptian public had viewed the military general as the savior after the political turmoil that followed January Revolution in 2011 as they thought he would end years of instability after January 25 revolution in 2011.
Al-Sisi has used the armed forces to help rebuild the deeply damaged economy to a degree unseen in more than 50 years. The Associated Press said in a report titled: “Demanding order, el-Sisi turns to military to rebuild Egypt” that al-Sisi has turned to the military to have a leading role in building the country.
“The military has taken the lead in carrying out a string of major projects, from building roads and overseeing housing construction to providing cheap food to the public,” reported AP.
But the flip side has been a heavy emphasis on secrecy and lack of transparency, leaving observers unsure how al-Sisi plans to tackle an economy struggling under high inflation, unemployment ,and a tumbling currency.
Al-Sisi has frequently sought to impose secrecy on politicians over issues that usually would be open for public discussion. “In June, he said some of his planned projects cannot be announced, without explanation, “reported AP.
In the same context, when his electricity minister said on live TV in May that the Aswan Dam was taken off the electricity grid temporarily, el-Sissi angrily cut him off, saying, “Let us not talk about these details.” When his oil minister, again on live television, showed a map of a proposed oil pipeline during a power point presentation, al-Sisi ordered the slide removed.
Moreover, al-Sisi’s decision to give away Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia wasn’t announced to the public except after the agreement was issued between al-Sisi and King Salman. Even al-Sisi stated it was taken behind closed doors – intentionally, he said, to prevent media attention. The two Red Sea islands cession led to massive demonstrations against that were the strongest since his reign.
“In a televised meeting with politicians and editors, al-Sisi defended the decision and demanded no one to discuss the subject again. He brusquely shut down one lawmaker who attempted to speak to him, saying “Excuse me, I did not give anyone permission to speak,” reported AP.
Al-Sisi doesn’t address the people except in one condition when he calls on Egyptians to sacrifice. In an emotional speech Sunday, he said Egypt is crying out for its people to take care of it. “So, does that mean we don’t eat? Fine, we don’t eat. Does that mean we don’t sleep? Fine, we don’t sleep. Anything, so that Egypt can take its proper place.”
In this context, it seems that al-Sisi is governing Egypt as if it were a military camp where orders are held nonnegotiable. Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert with the New York-based Century foundation said, “He wants to run the country like the military,” adding “In that world, it is a question of order and execution, it is not a place for discussion, transparency or politics. They don’t want politics.”
Egypt’s presidents came from the military throughout 64 years since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup. Under Hosni Mubarak autocratic regime, a former air force chief, the armed forces held its own economic empire, including factories, stores and companies. AP reported, “But private businessmen took the lead in the economy and investment projects in general, gaining a powerful say in politics and Mubarak’s ruling party – often to the military leadership’s dismay.”
After Mubarak’s ouster in the 2011 pro-democracy revolution came the first civilian president, Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who won Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections. But al-Sisi led a military coup as they won’t stand to be governed by a civilian and an Islamic president as the Egyptian military is secularly-oriented. In 2014, al-Sisi was elected as president in controversial elections, a landslide victory by Egyptians drawn to his promises of stability and prosperity.
Hisham Kassem, a veteran human rights advocate and political analyst, said al-Sisi initially sought the counsel of economic experts. But “he decided there was too much talk and little action, so he sought the help of the military.”
Even when he wanted to expand the Suez Canal, that supposed to take 36 months to be built, al-Sissi ordered it finished in a year. “With the military’s help in the work, the timetable was met, with the new 45-mile length opening last August to great fanfare,” said AP.
The Suez Canal chairman Mohab Mamish, a retired navy admiral, recalled in a recent TV interview, “We in the military have learned that when an order comes from the supreme commander or the presidency, we respond by saying ‘yes, sir’.”
But the canal also demonstrated the downside from the lack of debate. Some economists questioned the immediate need for the $8.5 billion expansion, and despite officials’ promises that increased traffic would rake in millions in new revenue, canal revenues have remained about the same or dipped because of sluggishness in global trade.
In fact, al-Sissi argues he is racing against time and his style is the only way to bring Egypt out of turmoil, fix and expand dilapidated infrastructure and satisfy the needs of a population of 91 million.
In late February, al-Sisi said up to 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) of roads, 113 bridges and three airports were being built since he took office.
The military is taking the lead in a program with private companies to build housing for the poor. The armed forces’ engineering corps acts as trouble-shooters, using its resources when projects are behind schedule. AP reported, “When al-Sisi toured one of the latest housing complexes, a senior military engineering officer was by his side.”
In addition, the military expanded its network of outlets selling food at discount prices, currently running 400 across the country as the inflation rising to 12.35%. The military has stepped up direct distribution of aid to the poor. It has upgraded hospitals and allowed civilians access to more military hospitals.
But despite the military role to resolve the country’s crisis, the impact has been limited given the heavy damage to Egypt’s economy. “Tourism and remittances have declined; foreign investment dried up, though it is gradually returning. The Egyptian pound has slid dramatically,” said AP.
In March, the Central Bank devalued the pound by about 13%, but the rate remains lower on the black market, and economists say more devaluation or even free-floating of the pound is needed. Large subsidies still weigh down the budget, but the government is wary of lifting them. However, lifting the subsidies would have negative repercussions on the Egyptian public who live in very harsh conditions.
“No one is really dealing with the problem. They are dealing with a crisis here and a crisis there,” said a Cairo-based Western economist who agreed to discuss the economy in return for anonymity for fear of hurting relations with Egyptian officials. He continued, “No one knows who is advising the president on the economy, and that’s a source of serious concern.”
Egyptian officials often justify the need for secrecy in terms of national security. This derives from the military tradition embedded in al -Sisi regime which makes him in view any criticism as a threat to the country’s national security. Al-Sisi has called them before in his talks “evil people” who are plotting against Egypt.
In this context, the Egyptian authorities have thousands of crackdowns against Islamists and secular democracy activists.