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Egyptian military consolidation

09 February 2018 Jack A. Kennedy

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen a series of removals within the senior ranks of the security forces since October 2017, which are likely to secure his position ahead of the upcoming March 2018 presidential election.

  • Despite evidence of some dissent within the high ranks of the military and security forces, this is unlikely to manifest in a challenge to Sisi’s re-election or a successful coup against him in the one year outlook.
  • Economic programmes intended to reduce subsidies and improve the state’s fiscal position are unlikely to be affected by the election, or in the unlikely event that Sisi is replaced with another figure with a military background.
  • Sisi’s consolidation is unlikely to address grievances of disaffected low- and mid-ranking military personnel. This will probably sustain the trend of small-scale desertions in favour of jihadist causes, raising the risk of more capable attacks against more ambitious security force, tourism, and energy targets outside the Sinai Peninsula.

Lieutenant General (retired) Sami Anan, the former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, was arrested on 23 January, three days after announcing his intention to stand as a candidate. In a televised speech announcing his decision, Anan had specifically highlighted what he said were mistakes by the military and the extent to which it is embedded in Egypt’s political and economic governance. He was arrested following allegations of bringing the armed forces into disrepute and falsifying his candidature forms. The New Gulf news website reported on 31 January that 23 army officers were also arrested since Anan’s arrest. The arrests were reportedly carried out by Military Intelligence, the branch of the armed forces that President Sisi oversaw from 2010–12; the government has not commented on these reported arrests.

Two other potential candidates with backgrounds in the military were reportedly detained in December 2017, after announcing their intention to stand in the 26 March election (see Egypt: 05 December 2017: Reported detention of potential presidential candidate in Egypt indicates military support for government and policy continuity for 2018). A further two civilian candidates withdrew after they were harassed by pro-government media and allegedly threatened with prosecution, according to local media.

Military disaffection

The reported arrests followed a series of reshuffles in the run-up to the election. Sisi replaced the Armed Forces chief of staff in October, as well as senior heads of national security in the Ministry of Interior, following a militant ambush against security forces in al-Wahat al-Bahriya, in Egypt’s Western Desert (see Egypt: 23 October 2017: Sophisticated militant ambush in Egypt’s Western Desert indicates increased jihadist attack capability outside Sinai). These actions indicate that Sisi is aiming to end divisions within the senior cadres of the security services and consolidate his personal authority over the state.

The Director of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Khaled Fawzy – who along with the GID more generally are close to Anan – was also replaced on 18 January with Abbas Kamel. Kamel is a close Sisi confidant and the head of his office. The GID is one of Egypt’s three intelligence agencies, and is focused on foreign intelligence; it also has the authority to monitor the communications of senior government officials. It is in competition with Sisi’s own loyalist branch, the military intelligence. A series of publicised leaks and mobile phone recordings from Sisi’s inner-circle over the past year have served to gradually discredit Fawzy, likely facilitating his replacement by Kamel, whose loyalty to Sisi is far more certain.

Sisi’s certain victory

Sisi formally announced his candidacy on 19 January, and unsurprisingly secured overwhelming parliamentary support – with at least 549 of the 596 members endorsing him, together with the majority of domestic Egyptian media outlets (see Egypt: 19 October 2017:

Parliamentary support increases likelihood of Egyptian president’s re-election, economic continuity likely to focus on banking and hydro-carbon sector privatisations). IHS Markit assesses, given the scale of arrests and political support by incumbent officials and MPs, that the only scenario that could prevent a Sisi victory in the upcoming election would involve his forced removal, either through a military coup or assassination.

In a televised speech on 31 January, Sisi additionally affirmed that he would not allow a repeat of the 2011 uprising, indicating a likely heavy-handed security response to any anti-government protests, and additional measures such as roadblocks around the election intended to prevent mass demonstrations in urban centres like Cairo or Alexandria. Sisi’s comments were also likely intended as a warning to disaffected members of the military who had previously offered support to prospective rival candidates. Despite Sisi’s recent appointment of loyalists across a range of senior military posts, we note that the military’s loss of confidence in the incumbent was the key deciding factor which ended the presidencies of both Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi.

Outlook and implications

Sisi’s successful replacement of senior officers with loyalists, together with the expanded role of the military in economic and political affairs under his stewardship, reduce the likelihood of a successful coup against him in the one-year outlook. Since the decision to float the Egyptian pound in November 2016, Egypt’s foreign reserves have also returned to pre-2011 levels, increasing support for stable military rule and associated economic reform programmes among the broader Egyptian business community.

Sisi’s consolidation nevertheless marks the failure of the 2011 uprising, and risks increasing disaffection among mid- and lower-ranking officers, who do not stand to benefit from reshuffles in senior government and military posts or the military’s expanded economic footprint. Although we assess that a successful coup against Sisi is unlikely, credible reports have already been made that as many as 30 officers from the security forces have deserted to join jihadist groups operating in mainland Egypt during 2017, increasing the terrorism risk. The technical expertise and knowledge of military dispositions which military-trained recruits could bring to such groups is an effective force multiplier, particularly when pitted against the relatively poorly-trained conscripts making up the bulk of the security and policing forces. The risk of more ambitious attacks against harder security force targets outside the Sinai is growing, and to a lesser extent, against tourism and energy assets.

In the unlikely event of Sisi’s replacement, Egypt’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely hold, as the military would be unlikely to significantly vary the current economic programme or obstruct its implementation. A change to the executive would also be unlikely to affect reductions to existing energy and fuel subsidies, or shift the government’s focus away from privatising the domestic hydrocarbon sector, transport infrastructure, and banking sectors.

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