The Egyptian military accounts for far less of the national economy than is commonly believed, but its takeover in 2013 and the subsequent rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have transformed its role in both scope and scale and turned it into an autonomous actor that can reshape markets and influence government policy setting and investment strategies.
The military delivers massive infrastructure projects, produces consumer goods ranging from food to household appliances, manufactures industrial chemicals and transport equipment, and imports basic commodities for civilian markets. It has expanded into new sectors as diverse as gold prospecting, steel production, and managing religious endowments and pilgrimage. In parallel, thousands of retired senior officers benefit from the military’s powerful political influence to occupy senior positions throughout the state’s civilian apparatus and public sector companies, complementing the formal military economy while benefiting themselves.
The military boasts of superior managerial skills and technological advances and claims to act as a developmental spearhead, but its role comes at a high cost. It has replicated the rentierism of Egypt’s political economy, benefiting like its civilian counterparts (in both the public and private business sectors) from an environment in which legal permissibility, bureaucratic complexity, and discretionary powers allow considerable space for predation and corruption. At best, the military makes good engineers, but bad economists: the massive surge of megaprojects in public infrastructure and housing it has managed since 2013 is generating significant amounts of dead capital and stranded assets, diverting investment and resources from other economic sectors.
The military economy’s entrenchment is detrimental to Egypt’s democratic politics, however flawed. The military economy must be reversed in most sectors, rationalized in select remaining ones, and brought under unambiguous civilian control if Egypt is to resolve the chronic structural problems that impede its social and economic development, inhibit productivity and investment, subvert market dynamics, and distort private sector growth. Nor can any Egyptian government exercise efficient economic management until informal officer networks in the civilian bureaucracy, public sector companies, and local government are disabled.
Rosy assessments of Egypt’s macroeconomic indicators issued by Egyptian officials and their counterparts in Western governments and international financial institutions disregard fundamental problems of low productivity and innovation, limited value added, and insufficient investment in most economic sectors. These officials may be hoping Sisi can somehow build a successful development dictatorship, which would explain why they gloss over the social consequences of his administration’s economic approach and its fierce repression of political and social freedoms and egregious human rights violations. A corollary is the faith that the military is as good an economic actor and manager as it claims to be, and that it will withdraw from the economy as the latter grows. Yet current trends suggest Sisi will remain hostage to key partners in the governing coalition, including the military leading its involvement in the economy to accelerate.
This report is published by the program on Civil-Military Relations of the Arab States (CMRAS) of the Carnegie Middle East Center.