Egypt’s military barrier to democracy

In an interview with the Egyptian English-language daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Robert Springborg, who has written extensively on the Egyptian military and the politics and political economy of the Middle East, spells out some of the reasons the military ended up supporting the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. They were not siding with the Egyptian people; instead they saw an opportunity to consolidate their own interests.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: A trend in the economy during the transitional phase is the re-nationalization of companies privatized under the Mubarak regime. How much is this in the military economy’s interests?

Robert Springborg: The military opposed privatization that intensified in 2004 under the government of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, and that was overseen by former Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohie Eddin. It was upset at the increased pace of privatization. That said, the military was happy with privatization as long as it ended up [gaining from it]. It didn’t want the government to sell state-owned enterprises to Gamal Mubarak’s cronies. So under the Nazif government, some of the privatization in state-owned enterprises went to the military to mollify its leadership. Its interests in strategic areas, such as port facilities, ship repair and building, increased. The Alexandria Shipyard, for example, is owned by the military, and under Nazif they acquired a competitor company. There was also an unwritten rule under Mubarak that mid-ranking officers and generals would get senior positions within privatized companies. Aviation companies and construction companies do have senior generals working in them.

Al-Masry: How important are their business holdings given that strategic industries, such as cement, are not within their control?

Springborg: Well, they are unhappy about that state of affairs. The military is not strongly represented in energy-intensive industries. The compensation to that is that they do control a lot of land. The total asset value of their land holdings is not clear, but we know that much of the land allocated to the construction and tourism sectors was or remains under military control. Starting from the 1980s, under Mubarak, the military got the land and crony capitalists got the energy intensive production industries.

The military’s biggest interest is in the construction industry. This is because the military has its own, internal construction capacities; because of its influence over the allocation of land; and because construction depends heavily on relations with government, either because it is paying for it or because it must authorize it. Military officers have the governmental connections that facilitate contracts and approvals.

Al-Masry: From the perspective of protecting the military economy, is the military threatened by the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections?

Springborg: Yes. What it wants is a weak parliament and a presidency that will not challenge its authority. As it now looks the parliament will be weak because it will be divided among various political forces and because it will not be based on any definitive constitutional authority. So it will not be strong enough to oversee the military, such as by examining its finances. So, any civilian control of the military by default will fall to the president.

That is why the apparent thinking now of the military is for the president to be someone from the military. The delay of the presidential election is due in part probably to the attempt to prepare the ground for a candidate either from the military or absolutely subordinate to it. In the meantime the military will look to expand its role in the economy, either through acquiring more companies or by assisting officer-owned companies gain more business.

The Washington Times reports: In the eight months since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruling military has postponed presidential elections, extended a controversial emergency law, cracked down on peaceful demonstrators and arrested critics.

Pro-democracy activists and Middle East analysts worry that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is reversing a revolution that toppled the autocratic Mubarak regime after 30 years in power.

“We, the revolution, are not governing Egypt now,” said Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, a Facebook group, and a prominent participant in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations

“The SCAF is governing Egypt. I think they want to keep the power, and they want to make a new regime … depending on the same behavior of the Mubarak regime,” Mr. Maher told the Arab American Institute on a visit to Washington last week.

The ruling council has accused Mr. Maher’s group of being foreign agents.

“The SCAF has made a number of very troubling moves that suggest it is not serious about giving up power,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, said in a phone interview with The Times.

“It has become so clear as to be entirely self-evident that the SCAF is an autocratic force and, in my view, the foremost danger to Egyptian democracy right now.”

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