The infinite number of local crises instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic renewed the old debate on the political and economic role of the armed forces, within the civil state. This ongoing debate has been exploring the sweet spot of balance between the two political principles of “the democratic control of armed forces” versus “the untraditional roles of armed forces.” That is the question of the legitimacy of the Armed Forces’ involvement in political and economic activities, without upsetting the quality of the civil government work in the public sector, and without hurting the market economy and competitiveness among private sector businesses.
The current dynamics of the unique relationship between the military institution and civil government in Egypt is an excellent arena to explore this debate. The vast scope of political power and economic autonomy enjoyed by the military institution did not delay the state’s quest for democratic development, as much as it contributed to enhancing the mission of the civil government to provide citizens with basic goods and services while crushing threats to state’s security and welfare. Armed forces’ state of autonomy, at least in Egypt’s case, has proven to be a safety valve in times of crises and a parallel vein for economic growth in times of affluence.
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, in Egypt, in late February, the government has spared no endeavor to contain the biological crisis and reduce its economic and political consequences on the lives of ordinary citizens. In contrast, the private sector businesses failed to aid the government in managing the crisis. They deliberately abused the state of panic among the people to increase their profits by practicing monopoly over basic medical and food commodities. Even worse, some famous businesspersons blamed the government for forcing a lockdown to preserve people’s lives. One Egyptian business tycoon said in a recent press interview that he would rather “see some people die than see the country going through bankruptcy as a result of the economic paralysis.”
It did not take long for the armed forces to intervene to settle this clash between public and private sectors and reassure the panicked citizens. In the first week of April, President El-Sisi met with senior leaders of the armed forces, and the meeting was broadcast live on national television. The purpose of the meeting was to showcase the measures taken by the Armed Forces’ National Service Projects Organization (NSPO) to assist the civil government throughout this crisis while halting private sector monopoly over food and medical commodities. At the end of the meeting, President El-Sisi, addressing his speech to the public citizens, stated that the purpose of this review is to “explore the readiness of the armed forces to assist the civil government in this crisis, and to assure the Egyptians that there is a ‘parallel arrangement’ ready to satisfy people’s needs.”
This is not the first time for the armed forces to intervene to save Egyptians in times of economic or political crises. Some examples, to list a few, are the military bias to people’s political will in the 2013 revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, and in the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime. Even before that, under the long decades of Mubarak’s rule, the military played a tremendous role in keeping strong ties with international allies outside the diplomacy of the dictator's regime, and in providing economic relief for the people, in compensation for the failure of the corrupt government; as for example, in the 1992 crisis of a rare earthquake and the 2008 crisis of the lack of bread.
Also, this is not the first time for the private sector businesses to abuse national crises in manipulating the market for their profit. In the early days of applying the economic reform plan, in 2016, the private sector doubled and tripled the prices of commodities for no clear reason. As a result, a large number of middle-class families were threatened to lose their purchasing power and fall into poverty. However, the armed forces NSPO intervened, just at the right time, to provide basic commodities to the public for fair prices, saving the majority of citizens from an ill fate caused by private sector greediness.
Rather than appreciating the role of the military institution in enhancing Egypt’s economy, the private sector tycoons and some academic experts indulge in blaming the military institution for the incompetency of the private sector. They claim that the military’s NSPO providing products to the market is putting private businesses’ products in a situation of unfair competition. That is due to the cheaper prices that give NSPO’s commodities a competitive advantage over the private sector’s over-priced commodities. In response, President El-Sisi announced, in November, that the armed forces’ NSPO is willing to offer shares of its affiliated companies, through the Egyptian Exchange Market, for interested investors from the private sector. Instead of seizing the opportunity to refresh their businesses and boost the market, many business owners marked the president’s initiative as an attempt to shed the military umbrella over the private sector.
This ongoing academic, and mostly theoretical, debate on the feasibility and legitimacy of armed forces’ political and economic autonomy does not appear to come to a clear conclusion soon. Likewise, Egypt’s economic conflict of interests between the military institution and civil government, on one side, versus the private sector businesses, on the other side, does not seem to be settled in the near future. However, most of the citizens, in most countries, highly appreciate, through practical experience, the significance of the untraditional roles of the armed forces, alongside the civil government, in times of crises as much as in times of abundance.