Despite the insistence that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ after the COVID-19 pandemic, currently there is more continuity than otherwise in various issues around the world. The Italian mafia made newspaper headlines by distributing food to people and loans to shopkeepers in need in the early stages of the pandemic to showcase what is essentially political power. Since prisons risked contagion, mafia groups also basked in the opportunity of having their criminal trials come to a halt and some of their imprisoned members being released.[i] In Lebanon, before the explosion and political implosion this past August, political parties and non-state actors were busy exploiting the public health crisis to consolidate their respective constituencies and widen existing sectarian boundaries.[ii] Even the Taliban in Afghanistan was utilising their medical abilities and expertise to fight the corona virus more ably than the Kabul government.

Central governments did not sit idly by either. State intelligence agencies found an open playground to use technology to track people in the name of battling the pandemic. Governments from Hungary to Egypt used this opportunity to ramp up pressure on media, banks, business groups, non-governmental organizations to toe the government line or else face consequences. In Pakistan the military remains as powerful as ever despite recent revelations about the personal wealth of the former head of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) for the army.[iii] The army was able to grab a front seat in developing national policy to address the pandemic when PM Imran Khan wavered and back-pedalled.

Authoritarian actors exploit crises to advance their own interests. This is equally valid for a political army as Egypt’s in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The pandemic did very little to re-incentivize western actors to demand political reforms in the region in general and Egypt in particular. It has in fact made the opposite impact: the pandemic allowed a predator army such as Egypt’s a new excuse to expand its economic and political power.

Early in the pandemic, governments from Italy and Spain to Lebanon and Morocco turned to their armies to enforce lockdowns, transport dead bodies from hospitals, build field hospitals, open existing military hospitals to civilian use, and do testing. While this role remained strictly temporary in places such as Italy, where the military is controlled by civilians (the prime minister is the commander of the armed forces), and therefore has little potential to empower armies politically, it only contributes to ongoing problems for countries such as Egypt.

When the pandemic began spreading outside of China, Egypt had already been boiling with revelations of deep corruption involving the military in late December 2019. A former private contractor for the Egyptian military, Mohamed Ali, revealed while exiled significant corruption and urged people to the streets to topple President Sisi. Though following protests were unsuccessful in that goal, they exposed the military as the linchpin of the regime. Thousands of people were detained, many were tortured, and security forces clamped down on the political opposition. More importantly, the regime mobilized a counter group of people chanting for Sisi government in order to prevent protests from giving domestic and external constituencies an image of weakness of the regime. Having seen and used the destabilizing force of popular demonstrations to effect a coup d’état back in 2013, the regime decided to embrace a strategy of pouring its own supporters into the streets to neutralize the impact of any anti-regime protest.

Then the pandemic came and inevitably hit the Egyptian economy hard. Tourism revenue has declined steeply. Remittances from Egyptians working abroad, especially in the Gulf, have fallen giving rise to unemployment and fueling economic grievances. Falling energy prices and collapsing revenues from Suez Canal due to reduced traffic will shrink government resources. This has already required Egypt to go to the IMF for the second time since 2016. The IMF agreed to provide another financial help package.[iv]  Notwithstanding this national financial contraction, the Egyptian army continues to prey on Egyptian society regardless of the pandemic.

When self-sufficiency in agricultural needs, especially cereals, became a chief objective of Egyptian agricultural policy in the mid-1980s and early 1990s[v], the Egyptian military exploited that concern by expanding its mission and entering into food production. After the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, the Egyptian military had increasingly assumed non-military missions and economic activities such as land reclamation, road and bridge construction, and food production.[vi] The Egyptian army gradually became a giant economic actor. It is therefore no surprise that the army would now use the COVID-19 pandemic to peddle itself as a responsible and competent actor while simultaneously exploiting the crisis to either penetrate or consolidate its sway over producing pharmaceuticals, medical tools, and designing public health policies. The army announced immediately that it started to produce masks and medical supplies to meet urgent demand.[vii] Army troops could be seen washing downtown Cairo streets. President Sisi used militarized language describing doctors as a ‘white army’ all the while ignoring calls from genuine medical personnel for protective equipment.

Despite delays due to financial constraints, the Egyptian military is also at the forefront of the government’s project to build an entirely new capital city away from Cairo to house government buildings and military headquarters. Under normal circumstances, moving military barracks and headquarters away from the capital implies trying to keep a political army at a distance, aiming to watch its movements more closely, and preventing them from taking over in a coup. In Egypt the opposite is happening, as the military regime fears the people and seeks to keep them at a distance. As opposed to governments ‘counterbalancing’ their praetorian armies through a mix of tactics of purges, promotions, and creating alternative security forces, here in Egypt the military regime is counterbalancing its people by creating a new capital city to be filled with ‘privileged’ people loyal to the regime.

At the same time, with a new law recently signed by President Sisi, the Egyptian military will have representatives in the executive councils of governorates to ‘oversee development of new projects, coordinate with civilians in the implementation of these projects, and carry out developing curriculum of military education in high schools’.[viii] In effect, the army, unaffected by the pandemic, is injecting itself into capillaries of the system to indoctrinate those young minds that it has not yet put in prison in the normalcy of a militarized state.

Finally, COVID-19 has had no impact on how external actors influence the Egyptian army’s political role. U.S. engagement with Egypt has gone back to being security-centric, military-to-military, and transactional, which means the United States no longer conditions military aid on political reforms. Even expansion in Russian-Egyptian and Egyptian-Chinese political, military and economic ties does little damage to U.S.-Egyptian relations. To the contrary, in the emerging constellation of regional actors and U.S. unwillingness to militarily involve itself in the region, there are expectations for the Egyptian military to awaken from its post-Camp David slumber[ix], to come back from its ‘strategic hibernation’.[x] It is also the case that the number of non-regional actors anxious to develop security relationships with the Egyptian military has only increased. Both China and Russia join the United States in working with the Egyptian regime.

It seems that Egypt is expected to provide a counterbalance to Iranian and Turkish military activities in the region, especially in Libya. President Sisi recently urged the military to prepare to be deployed to Libya. However,  domestic and external actors are turning a blind eye to the Egyptian military as an insatiable business group while encouraging it to become a deterring force and provide security to the region. Yet these two aims may be at odds with each other. The military has been so preoccupied with its economic empire, consolidating its rule in the political system for so long, that it remains a mystery if they can effectively and willingly fight abroad. Whether they do and subsequently get defeated is the question they will have to reckon with.

Endnotes

[i] ‘Mafia distributes food to Italy’s struggling residents’, The Guardian, 10 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/10/mafia-distributes-food-to-italys-struggling-residents; ‘Mafia set to profit from Italy’s coronavirus devastation’, The Local, 29 March 2020,

https://www.thelocal.it/20200329/mafia-primed-to-feast-on-italys-virus-devastation

[ii] Jamil Mouwad, ‘How Lebanon’s political parties are using coronavirus to seize back control’, Middle East Eye, 13 April 2020,  https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/lebanon-coronavirus-extension-political-civil-war

[iii] Tom Hussain, ‘Pizza corruption scandal risks dragging China into Pakistan’s domestic affairs’, South China Morning Post, 5 September 2020, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3100328/pakistans-pizza-corruption-scandal-risks-cheesing-top-ally-china

[iv] ‘IMF Executive Board Approves 12-month US$5.2 Billion Stand-By Arrangement for Egypt’, 26 June 2020, https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/06/26/pr20248-egypt-imf-executive-board-approves-12-month-us-5-2billion-stand-by-arrangement

[v] Sadowski, p.147

[vi] ‘Egypt After Mubarak: the Succession Question’, CIA, February 1987, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP88T00096R000500570001-5.pdf; Sadowski,17

[vii] ‘Will Egypt’s military corner the coronavirus market?’, Al-Monitor, 6 April 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/04/egypt-army-selling-medical-masks-shortage-coronavirus.html

[viii] ‘Appointing military advisers to oversee civil life in Egypt stirs anger
Read more: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/08/egypt-law-military-role-civil-life-ministries.html#ixzz6Yf6FtnaP’, Al-Monitor, 9 August 2020, https://marsad-egypt.info/en/2020/08/09/appointing-military-advisers-to-oversee-civil-life-in-egypt-stirs-anger/

[ix] ‘Robert Springborg and F.C. “Pink”Williams, ‘The Egyptian Military: A Slumbering Giant Awakes’, Carnegie Middle East Center, 28 February 2019,

 https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/02/28/egyptian-military-slumbering-giant-awakes-pub-78238

[x] Sydney Wise, ‘Re-Engineering Regional Security’, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 21 June 2020, https://www.thecairoreview.com/midan/re-engineering-regional-security/