The military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s leadership is seeking to rebuild the Nasserist bully state, which was itself in many ways a reconstruction of Muhammad Ali’s version of the same. Maybe it will be a case of third time lucky, but that is unlikely, and not only because military state building has twice failed. The constraints on military state building in 2015 are much greater and the opportunities much fewer than in 1952, to say nothing of 1805. Projection of Egyptian power into the region is not only far more difficult, but as polls show, now opposed by the majority of Egyptians, at least as regards sending expeditionary forces into either Libya or Yemen.
Assertion of a breast-beating independence à la Nasser is similarly difficult for Sisi when the national economy is kept afloat by the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. Flirting with Moscow now seems weak rather than bold. Rumors of discontent with Sisi’s leadership within the military grow as the economy flounders and the political system remains in deep freeze. There is and can be no equivalent to the Nasserist ideological agenda. The officer republic has so hollowed out civilian state institutions that they barely function.
In way over its head, the military is simultaneously trying to manage the economy, reconstruct the political system, conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, modernize its own forces, and devise a consistent foreign policy, all without substantial civilian input….Visibly in charge of the state, the economy, public security, and indeed, everything, the military will be held to account for the ever more evident shortcomings. As state decay under military tutelage progresses, onetime terrorists are morphing into insurgents, claiming to be inspired by the Islamic State’s dream of establishing an alternative to the Egyptian state, an unthinkable proposition even for the radical jihadis of the 1990s, to say nothing of the Muslim Brothers.
More than two centuries of Egyptian state building is now under threat. External support for the Egyptian military only perpetuates the inappropriate model it has perpetrated, further encouraging it to dismiss civilians and to pursue rents rather than to attempt to build a state based on a ruler-ruled relationship that both generates economic surplus and legitimates its extraction.
The relationship between the Egyptian military and state is turned on its head, with the latter reporting to the former rather than vice versa. The task facing Egypt is thus to reverse this relationship and so terminate once and for all the national myth of military as state builder.