By: Gregg Carlstrom & Basil El-Dabh
Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi took off his military uniform earlier this month in order to run for president, prompting the second major reshuffle of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in as many years. His chief of staff, General Sedki Sobhi, was elevated to the post of defense minister; General Mahmoud Hegazy, the head of military intelligence and a relative of Sisi’s by marriage, is the new chief of staff.
Officially at least, Sisi will be a civilian president after his (almost certain) victory next month. However, the military council, which has taken an outsized role in Egyptian politics over the past few years, will remain one of his key bases of support. The SCAF reshuffle and several other recent moves suggest that Sisi will have strong backing from the generals—for a while, at least.
Sisi’s replacement as defense minister is part of a cadre of younger officers believed to have good relations with the president-to-be. Like Sisi, Sobhi was elevated to his prior post in August 2012 by Muhammad Morsi as part of a reshuffling of the military brass that was widely seen at the time as cementing civilian control over politics. Sobhi was the youngest member of the SCAF at the time.
Sobhi came up through the ranks in the mechanized infantry and eventually became the commander of the Third Army, which is based in the Suez Canal cities. He spent ten months at the U.S. Army War College in 2005, a year before Sisi himself attended the same program. Professors at the college describe Sobhi as an “unconventional” thinker. The only public example of his work there is a thesis, submitted in March 2005, which offers a limited window into his thoughts at the time. In the piece, Sobhi called for a withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the Middle East and accused the United States of “erroneously” aligning its regional policies with Israel’s—not-uncommon positions to hear at the time.
Perhaps more pertinently, the paper also touched on political Islam, arguing that rapid democratization could lead to “social and political instability” and “radicalization.” Sobhi cited the example of Algeria, where the “army staged a coup in 1991 forestalling a potentially legitimate political victory of radical Islam, and Algeria descended into a lengthy civil war.”
Other countries in the region could see similar instability, Sobhi argued, unless their own moves towards democracy were homegrown and “based on the premise of strong central governments.” He did not specifically mention the Muslim Brotherhood, but his thesis seemed to warn against exactly the political trajectory that Egypt has followed over the past few years.
In his first publicized speech following his appointment as defense minister, Sobhi hit on many of the same points that his predecessor had in the months leading up to his retirement. Similar to Sisi, Sobhi refrained from directly referring to the Brotherhood in his address to his fellow military men at the Galaa Theater, instead focusing on counterterrorism efforts in Sinai and the relationship between the armed forces and police.
“The Egyptian army will not change its main concern…the interests of its people and country,” said Sobhi. “[The army] does not belong to any philosophical, sectarian, political or religious doctrine.”
Sobhi, who called Sisi a “great, brave hero” in his speech, added that the most important characteristic of the armed forces, one “handed down from generation to generation,” is the strong relationship between leader and subordinate.
The January 25 Revolution effected a break in military tradition, though, in that it permanently changed the SCAF’s official standing and powers in the framework of the Egyptian state. Mubarak’s ouster thrust the council into direct governance of the country, giving it the power to shape and influence the country’s transition. While the military council stepped back from direct governance after 17 months, its more prominent status was by then ingrained in the 2012 constitution (and would be maintained in the amended 2014 document). The SCAF now has the power to choose the Minister of Defense during the first two post-Morsi presidential terms and must be consulted before declaring war in the absence of a parliament.
A new law modifying the military authority’s structure was passed by interim President Adly Mansour in March, expanding the SCAF’s membership. The new legislation put forth by Mansour also guaranteed the SCAF’s influence over the National Defense Council, a body that existed in the 2012 and 1971 constitutions and is responsible for discussing the armed forces’ budget, which is incorporated in the state budget as a single figure, behind closed doors. The 2014 constitution details the makeup of the council, which consists of both civilian and military leaders.
The military council, in other words, has sought to preserve much of its autonomy even as one of its former members heads for the presidential palace. For now, their interests seem to coincide: the SCAF gave Sisi its blessing in January, calling his run for the presidency “a mandate and an obligation.”
The former top general announced both his retirement from the armed forces and his candidacy for president in the same speech on state television, expressing his political aspirations—and effectively delivering his first campaign address—while wearing military fatigues. He removed his uniform the following day, but if and when he wins the election, he will indisputably be seen as the military’s man in office.
Sisi has not articulated much of a governing philosophy, but the career military man will undoubtedly turn to his former colleagues for help in many areas. One of Sisi’s flagship economic development activities will be a $40 billion, million-unit low-income housing project. The project is being managed by Emirati contracting firm Arabtec in close coordination with the army, which is providing the land on which the facilities will be built.
Before retiring, Sisi also created a hand-picked commando unit tasked primarily with counter-terrorism operations. The army has shown little interest in trying to assert control over the interior ministry, and the police seem to be operating with a growing degree of autonomy. Instead of engaging in an inter-institutional tug-of-war, Sisi seems to have chosen a less directly confrontational path, creating an alternative “rapid reaction force” inside the military, which should place the unit more reliably under his control.
Ultimately, though, the question that emerges is how long the Sisi-SCAF cooperative dynamic will last. A President Sisi will have the unenviable task of governing a country suffering from a stagnant economy and a widespread sense of insecurity. The period of military rule in 2011-2012 damaged the institution’s reputation and morale, and the generals are unlikely to want to take ownership of Egypt’s myriad problems going forward. Tellingly, Al-Ahram reported last week that some officers opposed Sisi’s candidacy, fearing it would “bring the military back to the political center stage.
All things considered, Sisi’s impending presidency does not serve as a threat to the role of Egypt’s military order—the military council’s autonomy, as prescribed both by law and the constitution, guarantees its independence years beyond the Field Marshal’s future term in office. If the SCAF holds on to its influence and continues to operate without transparency, it could distance itself from potential government failings and continue to advance its own institutional goals, thus maintaining the overarching power of the military in Egypt’s foreseeable political future.