The role for the Egyptian military as described in Egypt’s draft constitution is positive. By empowering the military to exercise significant influence over its own affairs, as well as Egypt’s foreign military affairs, the draft constitution creates an institutional framework in which Egypt will continue to perform its important role in regional security. Stability in Egypt’s regional security role will mitigate fears among the Egyptian military, the international community, and the economy of escalating hostilities up to and including war with Israel. Thus, the draft constitution also ensures stability at home by satisfying the institution with the greatest ability to disrupt Egypt’s transition through direct intervention in domestic politics.
In the new charter, the Egyptian military retains significant privileges that do not necessarily comport with the requirements of a fully liberal democracy. The military retains control over its own budget and will exercise significant influence in Egypt’s foreign relations by ensuring that the Minister of Defense is not a civilian and through the formation of a National Defense Council where the military and the intelligence services have majority representation.
Although these provisions represent a failure for those wishing to extend full civilian control over the military, subordinating the armed forces was never a realistic goal. Egypt’s military is heavily invested in numerous sectors of the economy and prioritizes its relationship with the United States, which provides it with approximately $1.3 billion annually. The military is deeply suspicious that Egyptian civilians, if given full control over the country’s foreign policy and security apparatus, would strip it of its economic privileges and implement policies that would put the country at odds with Israel and place U.S. aid in jeopardy.
The military fears a worst-case scenario in which newly empowered elected politicians would be tempted to unilaterally “review” and possibly amend a number of provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, a move that Israel would see as an abrogation. In the case that one side declared the treaty dead, relations between Israel and Egypt would revert to pre-treaty status, leading the former to reoccupy the Sinai Peninsula. Reoccupation, combined with the simultaneous loss of U.S. financial support, would be an unparalleled disaster for the Egyptian military. While unlikely, the scenario is a risk that the constitution makes virtually impossible.
Another more likely scenario is that civilian politicians would take steps short of modifying the peace treaty but still sufficient to cause friction in the region such as choosing to cut back on diplomatic ties with Israel and scaling back intelligence cooperation. The military again could find its American patronage threatened by a U.S. Congress committed to Israel’s security and fearful that such steps would lead to the eventual termination of peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel.
The economic costs of either scenario would be substantial. Growing tension and uncertainty in Egypt’s relations with the United States and Israel would speed up the already crippling capital flight that has afflicted the country since the revolution. Lack of investment would speed up Egypt’s slide into complete insolvency, exacerbating indebtedness, and rapidly depleting the country’s foreign currency reserves that have already taken a huge hit. These and other economic costs of confrontation are distinct possibilities unless Egypt gives clear assurances that drastic changes in foreign policy are unlikely.
This is exactly what the Egyptian military has attempted almost since the moment of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Seeking to put in place a system of institutional guarantees to reassure both the United States and Israel and in order to safeguard its own interests, the Egyptian Armed Forces have, since the revolution, intervened in Egyptian politics on numerous occasions to ensure both continuity in the role that the institution has played in regional security and certainty that it will continue to do so.
Thus, the constitution, by protecting the Military, will mitigate some of the worst fears regarding the future of Egyptian foreign policy and help insulate the country from worsening economic malaise. Regional stability is important not only for U.S. and Western foreign policy goals, but also for Egypt’s ability to address the substantial economic challenges it currently faces. Moreover, the provisions protecting the military guarantee the tacit support and acquiescence of the country’s most powerful institution and the one with the best ability to deploy force to safeguard its interests.