Sleepwalking Into World War III
Trump’s Dangerous Militarization of Foreign Policy
Egypt’s presidential election on March 26-28 will effectively be a theatrical performance, staged by the regime to contrive a popular mandate for strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s second term. Sisi, who as defense minister led the 2013 coup against the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, has forced out every credible electoral contender—including two prominent challengers from the military establishment, Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan—using threats and even imprisonment. Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who entered the race at the last moment to play Sisi’s token opponent, is an obscure politician and an avowed supporter of the president who is thought to have long-standing ties to the Egyptian security services.
What is more, the vote is being held against the backdrop of a vast crackdown under Sisi. Tens of thousands of people are in prison on politicized or fabricated charges. Civil society organizations are hounded by the police, and the regime has been buying up privately held media organizations and punishing those outlets that dare to diverge from the state’s Orwellian narrative. With the security services unleashed, the incidence of torture has increased dramatically and, in a frightening tactic new to Egypt, hundreds have “disappeared” from the streets or their homes. A state of emergency has further eroded Egyptians’ meager rights. Any balloting held under such brutally repressive circumstances reveals very little about Sisi’s standing with the Egyptian public.
Nevertheless, the way in which Sisi has managed the election, ratcheting up repression and angrily and ruthlessly quashing military-linked candidates, demonstrates that his hold on power depends in large part on the military’s loyalty, or at least its acquiescence. The fact that challengers even emerged from the military establishment in the first place suggests that such support has declined, a trend that has rattled Sisi.
The armed forces remain Egypt’s most powerful institution, and Sisi became president in 2014 with their strong backing. But he must be acutely aware that the military could turn against him. After all, the military removed Sisi’s immediate predecessors, Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, once it came to see them as a liability to its own interests.
In some ways, Sisi may be even more dependent on the armed forces than Mubarak was, as he came to power through a military coup and has not built up alternative bases of support outside the institution. By contrast, while Mubarak also came from the military, as president, he spent years cultivating constituencies in the business community and the state bureaucracy, especially the security agencies. (There are signs that some within state institutions harbor misgivings about Sisi, who has strong-armed the security services, shown frustration with Egypt’s bloated but influential civil service, and curtailed the judiciary’s independence.) Mubarak took the additional step of mobilizing these interest groups and spreading patronage through the establishment of a loyal ruling party. Sisi, who disdains civilian politics, has declined to create such a party, and by increasing the role of the military in the economy, has crowded out opportunities for important private-sector players. Arguably, he has also alienated other potential constituencies through his unbridled repression.
Sisi’s political survival will depend primarily on whether he can keep the perceived costs of his removal higher than the costs of his remaining in power.
Although it is notoriously difficult to get a clear picture of politics inside the Egyptian military and regime, there have been episodic, if somewhat cryptic, signs from the military of discontent with Sisi, and even of potential dissent. Rumors of dismissals and purges within the officer corps have circulated periodically during Sisi’s rule. In 2015, 26 serving and retired military officers reportedly were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the regime. Sisi’s controversial 2016 decision to hand over two Egyptian Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, his regime’s main patron, was privately opposed by top military figures, including Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy, and was widely unpopular among Egypt's political class.
More recently, in October 2017, Sisi abruptly fired Hegazy (whose daughter is married to one of Sisi’s sons), and put him under house arrest, reportedly because Hegazy had pushed back against some of Sisi’s policies. In the last several months, pro-Sisi figures have floated the idea of amending the constitution to remove presidential term limits. In addition, some reports have hinted that Sisi also may change the constitution to allow him to remove the defense minister, who is currently appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This implies that Sisi does not fully trust Sobhy and that he cannot count on the SCAF to fire him.
That two high-profile challengers with military backgrounds tried to step forward for the 2018 presidential election, however, provides perhaps the clearest sign of disaffection in parts of the military. Former prime minister and air force commander Shafiq, who narrowly lost Egypt’s 2012 election and remains popular with some Egyptians, announced in November that he intended to challenge Sisi. In January, Anan, who was chief of staff from 2005-2012 (and Sisi’s army superior), declared that he planned to run.
It is highly unlikely that Shafiq and Anan would have taken the risk to step forward unless they were confident of at least some support in the military. Lest there be any doubt that their candidacies were aimed at repudiating Sisi’s leadership, both men criticized Sisi, directly or indirectly, for his dictatorial tendencies and economic failures. Anan even expressed cautious disapproval of Sisi’s handling of the Red Sea islands transfer and other sensitive national security issues.
Sisi has reacted to these developments with a combination of fury and panic. To force Shafiq to drop his bid, Sisi had him detained for weeks and put him and his family under intense pressure. Anan was placed in military detention immediately after refusing to end his campaign, and his running-mate was attacked by unidentified “thugs” and then imprisoned. In an unusual speech on January 31, Sisi lashed out against “anyone trying to undermine Egypt’s security” and, staring menacingly at the defense minister, declared that an uprising like in 2011 would never be repeated. Following Anan’s arrest, there have been unconfirmed reports of more military reshuffles and purges.
It is hard to know if these embryonic signs of dissent will grow into more significant military opposition to Sisi, much less support for his eventual removal. The Egyptian military is generally a risk-averse institution, and would be especially reluctant to act against one of its own. As we saw in 2011, the military did not remove Mubarak until it concluded, after 18 days of mass grassroots protests, that it had no other option. And so far, Sisi has been able to snuff out any burgeoning discontent within the military.
Yet, as the 2011 uprising also demonstrated, there are conditions under which the Egyptian military is prepared to force a change. The armed forces fear instability above all else, and the possibility of chaos, in the form of sustained large protests or general disorder, can cause it to act. The military’s posture towards Sisi likely will be driven by its assessment of what is riskier: keeping the president in power or removing him. Moving forward, this suggests that Sisi’s political survival will depend primarily on whether he can keep the perceived costs of his removal—such as the unavailability of acceptable alternative leaders and political uncertainty—higher than the costs of his remaining in power, such as the reputational damage that the military could suffer from continuing to support a president who has manifestly lost public support.
Whether the military leadership will eventually move against Sisi may hinge on how it views his management of two main challenges: the economy and security. Should either issue threaten to strain military cohesion—the armed forces’ unity of purpose and respect for the authority of the leadership—senior leaders may be even more inclined to take the drastic step of forcing Sisi out. Sisi must prevent further deterioration in the public’s living standards, which, when combined with popular mobilization around other grievances, has the potential to trigger public unrest that could elicit a response from the military. Most of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people, many of whom have long struggled with poverty, are enduring even greater hardship under Sisi. Egypt’s security establishment has long feared a “revolution of the hungry” in which the economically dispossessed would spontaneously rise up against the political system.
Foreshadowing this possibility, economic grievances were central to the 2011 revolt against Mubarak and shortages in key commodities during the Morsi presidency were exploited by opponents of the Islamist president to build popular support for the July 2013 coup. Should declining living conditions yield full-blown protests or civil disturbances, the military could face incentives to remove Sisi, who would likely bear the brunt of the blame from the public. His ouster could ameliorate popular grievances and distance the military, as an institution, from his policies. Sisi, apparently aware of such risks, has implemented a series of difficult economic reforms, including cutting subsidies and devaluing the Egyptian pound, to improve Egypt’s vulnerable macroeconomic position. These measures have had the immediate effect of harming living conditions for the Egyptian people, most obviously in the form of runaway inflation that topped out last year at 34.2 percent, but many Egyptians seem to have accepted Sisi’s argument that short-term austerity measures are necessary for long-term prosperity.
Popular patience is unlikely to be infinite, however, especially if conditions worsen, and it remains to be seen whether Sisi can translate monetary and fiscal-stabilization steps into better living conditions for the Egyptian people. If past is prologue, the prospects may not be promising. While prior episodes of economic reform in Egypt did help to generate higher aggregate growth, most recently in the 2000s, the benefits of increased economic activity were not widely shared, as reflected in stubbornly high unemployment rates, expanding poverty, and higher wealth inequality. It should be a cautionary tale for Sisi that popular frustration with an earlier period of economic reform and vast corruption among the ruling class formed the background for the 2011 revolt.
Alongside the need for revitalizing the economy, Sisi must avert a substantial decline in security conditions in the Egyptian heartland. Providing security is central to the military’s image as the defender of the Egyptian nation, and an abject failure to fulfill this duty could provoke public disenchantment with the regime or even seed doubts in the military about Sisi’s ability to cope with the country’s top threats, such as violence from jihadist groups. Although a significant worsening of the security environment is less likely to provoke popular demonstrations than a continuing decline in living conditions, if the military leadership holds Sisi responsible for such a deterioration, they could feel compelled to act.
Concern about the counterterrorism performance of the Egyptian military is not merely theoretical. It appears that the armed forces are failing in the main combat theater of the Sinai Peninsula, though the regime’s control over media reporting has obscured the full extent of its struggles. The security situation in remote Sinai does not affect most Egyptians, however, and the military seems prepared to accept a steady stream of casualties amongst rank-and-file soldiers, who have been sent there to battle the Islamic State’s (ISIS’s) local affiliate.
By contrast, a scenario in which jihadist groups make major inroads in the population centers of the Nile Valley, resulting in the state’s loss of effective control over territory or the collapse of law and order, would present a serious challenge to Sisi’s standing, publicly and within the regime. Unlike in the Sinai, military and security agencies have been more successful in disrupting threats in and around the Nile Valley. And groups like ISIS will probably find it harder to embed in Egypt’s major population centers, where there is a stronger sense of nationalism. But, as a series of lethal, high-profile attacks in the past 16 months demonstrates, the intensification of terrorism in the heartland remains a distinct possibility.
Only time will tell whether Sisi’s response to recent challenges is just another step towards regime consolidation or the beginning of the end.
Sisi’s growing authoritarianism, while on its own is unlikely to disquiet the autocratic military, could exacerbate these economic and security challenges. Egyptians will probably be less willing to tolerate the deprivation of their political and civil rights if their security and economic expectations are not met. To the extent that political repression, when coupled with insecurity and economic hardship, begins to provoke a popular backlash against the regime, the military may have cause for concern. And separate from how poorly his regime treats ordinary citizens, Sisi’s moves to consolidate power within the state could antagonize some in the military.
As other analysts have noted, after his reelection, Sisi is expected to seek to amend the constitution, and we agree that the military’s debate over such a move would provide a more meaningful indicator of support for Sisi than does the election itself. But even if Sisi is successful in expanding his powers, it will not mean that his position is then secure. The coming struggle over constitutional amendments is likely to be an important, though not final, obstacle to his consolidation of power.
This is partly because another test is in the offing—one even more consequential because it directly affects security and economic interests: responding to the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It seems likely that Ethiopia will begin filling the dam as early as this summer, a process that could reduce Nile water flow and result in a cut to Egypt’s already scarce water supply by as much as 25 percent. This could have huge implications for the living conditions of millions of Egyptians, who already have one of the lowest per-capita water shares in the world, and for Egypt’s economy. Owing to Ethiopia’s apparent reluctance to address Egypt’s legitimate concerns, there are few options available to Sisi to mitigate the threat posed by the GERD. He could initiate covert or overt military action against the dam. But, due to the Egyptian military’s limited expeditionary capacity, the prospects of using force to stop or even delay the dam filling are slim, and a high-profile, failed military attack on Ethiopia would undermine Sisi’s security credentials and damage the military’s prestige.
The preceding analysis strongly suggests that Sisi’s hold on power is far from secure, but it does not necessarily indicate that the demise of his regime is imminent or even inevitable. All prior Egyptian presidents who hailed from the military—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, and Mubarak—faced major challenges in consolidating their regimes, which required years to fully resolve. If, in hindsight, these iconic figures’ eventual domination of the Egyptian political scene now seems inexorable, their triumph appeared anything but assured to their contemporaries. For instance, that Mubarak, upon succeeding Sadat in 1981, was viewed in certain circles as a placeholder president is now a distant memory.
To be sure, Sisi enjoys certain advantages in his effort to eliminate threats to his rule: the power of incumbency, his support among some Egyptians (though apparently weaker than when he took power), and the military’s conservatism. Yet, his failure so far to cultivate and organize alternative bases of support outside the military, in contrast to his military predecessors, and his reliance on repression, like his predecessors, may not only leave him more dependent on continued military support, but may also exacerbate the very pressures that could lead the military to act. Ultimately, only time will tell whether Sisi’s response to recent challenges is just another step towards regime consolidation or the beginning of the end.