Thursday, August 22, 2013

Egyptian Armed Forces, Inc.: the Middle East's New Janissary Corps

Egyptian officers inspect food produced by the military

The story of the Janissary Corps is well known.  Young boys, first taken as war booty in central Anatolia and later from Christian families in the Balkans, were trained to become an elite fighting force fiercely loyal to the Ottoman Sultan.  What can the the rise and fall of the Janissary Corps tell us about the Egyptian military and what is the relevance of its history to the current crisis in Egypt?

The Janissary (yeniceri or "new soldier") Corps, established by Sultan Orhan in 1383, was responsible for many of the Ottoman Empire's major victories in the 15th and 16th centuries, conquering Byzantium, North Africa and then the Balkan Peninsula extending into Hungary.

As the European Industrial Revolution led to new developments in weapons technology and the Ottoman advances into Europe ground to a halt, the Janissaries, an infantry unit, became largely militarily redundant.  Increasingly, members of the Janissaries converted their military status into high level positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy.  Paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries show wealthy rotund Janissaries, now thoroughly detached from their original military mission.

The power of the Janissaries was such that they prevented successive sultans from modernizing the Ottoman military.  Often they allied with the Shaykh ul-Islam to depose sultans who failed submit to their demands not to introduce new armaments and training by European military advisers.  The Jannissaris became increasingly corrupt - in effect, a state within a state.  Janissaries not only received high salaries and were exempt from taxation, but they developed partnerships with prominent merchants further enriching themsleves.

Finally, in the early 19th century, Sultan Mahmud II was able to convince the religious clergy that the Janissaries constituted a serious threat to the continued viability of the Ottoman Empire, soon to become known as the "Sick Man of Europe."  In 1826, Mahmud announced, in an attempt to provoke the Janissaries, that he was reforming the Ottoman army.  When they mutinied, he had them destroyed and their property confiscated.  The Tanzimat or Reforms of the 1830s were subsequently implemented, but by then it was already too late for the Ottoman Empire to prevent its subordination to Europe.

The Egyptian military parallels the Janissary Corps.  It should really not be referred to as an army but rather as a military force that functions more as a large multi-national corporation.  The Egyptian military entered Egyptian economic affairs with land reform in 1952.  However, real economic control began in 1956 when the government nationalized properties and businesses owned by the Jewish, Greek, Armenian and Italian minorities.  It justified the seizure of minority businesses on the basis that the invasion of Egypt by Great Britain, France and Israel in October 1956, after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, put these groups' national loyalty in doubt.

Between 1961 and 1964, the regime of Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Gamal Abdel Nasser) nationalized all large domestic banks and industry, creating a huge public sector.  When Egypt experienced serious economic problems following the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as Suez Canal cities were evacuated and Egypt lost revenues now that Israel forces occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula, pressure mounted to invigorate the stodgy and inefficient public sector.

After the October 1973 War, President Anwar al-Sadat, one of the Free Officers who had overthrown King Farouk in July 1952, announced his new "Open-Door" Policy (al-Infitah) with great fanfare.  From afar, it appeared as if Egypt was in the process of liberalizing its economy and opening it up to market forces.  Quite the opposite occurred.  Foreign investors were allowed to partner with Egyptian officials and businessmen closely allied with the state.  The effect was that the public sector grew rather than contracted.  

Of course, the main beneficiaries in 1956 and after were military officers, many still closely tied to the Free Officers Movement of 1952, and their attendant civilian political elite.  Many public sector firms used raw materials that were ostensibly designated for public consumption, e.g., cotton fabric, wheat flour, sugar,and so on, to develop and spin off family firms that appropriated much raw materials that was intended to produce subsidized goods for consumption by the less fortunate of society.

The plot thickened after the Camp David Accords of 1978.  As a reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel and to help offset its isolation in the Arab world, Egypt became a large recipient of US foreign aid, the second largest after Israel.  Most of the aid, whether for military (the bulk of the aid) or civilian use, required Egypt to use it to purchase American manufactured goods.

Once Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israeli in 1979 and decided to reduce the size of its army, it established the National Services Products Corporation (NSPC) which was intended to allow now  retired army officers to develop business and financial enterprises that were exempt from most Egyptian commercial laws.  As a result, many officers, who feared that the peace treaty with Israel would undermine their wealth and power, found new opportunities to expand their control over the Egyptian economy.

In 1991, Columbia political scientist Timothy Mitchell wrote an excellent article,  "America's Egypt," which was prescient of the myriad problems to come as a result of US aid to Egypt.  Mitchell demonstrated the manner in which US aid distorted Egypt's economic development.  For example, Egypt was required to use agricultural aid to purchase expensive tractors and farm machinery from the Allis-Chalmbers and Caterpillar corporations which were expensive to purchase and maintain and of little benefit to most Egyptian farmers whose tilled small plots of land.

As most of US aid went to the military, its economic fortunes blossomed still further.  Many high ranking military officers became much more interested in their economic bottom lines than Egypt's military preparedness, paralleling a transformation of the Janissary Corps centuries earlier.  US military aid not only tied Egypt's military to American arms manufacturers, but even led to co-production of the M1A1 tank production.  Already in 1993, a  GAO Report raised questions about significant cost overruns and questioned the program's military efficacy.

"Queen" pasta produced by the military
But the military has branched out significantly since the 1990s.  It now produces pasta, canned foods,  mineral water, butane gas cylinders, plastic table covers, as well providing gasoline station services through its "Wataniya" company. It purchases and sells  real estate for the state, and offers domestic cleaning services via its company known as "Queen".

It also rents cabins at the resort of Sidi Karir along the Mediterranean, It is heavily involved in the Egyptian livestock industry, including managing slaughterhouses.  The military owns restaurants and soccer fields and many officers possess large land holdings (despite the Nasir regime implementing land reform in the 1950s limiting the size of agricultural holdings). 

The military also uses conscripts as cheap labor on its farms where they are forced to tend to livestock and collect eggs and other agricultural products.  In the notorious "Military Factory 99" in the city of Helwan to the south of Cairo, workers went on strike and beat the military officer running the factory after some of their colleagues died in 2010 when they were asked to test butane gas cylinders, which they had been trained to handle, that exploded.

Meanwhile, the US military is frustrated that the Egyptian army continues to want to purchase what it considers unnecessary weapons systems, such as US Apache attack helicopters.  Efforts to have the Egyptian military improve border security, increasingly important now that a low-level insurgency is underway in the Sinai Peninsula, and the military's failure to establish a meaningful counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency program, are seen as serious failures in developing Egypt's military preparedness.  Egypt has promised to develop a logistics and mechanical support network for its armed forces but has yet to do so.  Flying time for its pilots is so low that Egypt has the worst record of any country in the world with a F-16 based air force.

Not only is much US taxpayer money going to enrich current and retired military officers while promoting massive government corruption, but this comes at a time when the Egyptian economy faces a dire future.  Although Egypt's military brass and their families live in upscale Cairene suburbs and gated communities far from the grinding poverty of Cairo's slums, Egypt's GDP growth has stagnated over the past 3 years.  The touristy industry has collapsed and foreign investment is drying up.  The IMF is not about to offer the military junta the large $4.8 billion loan requested by the ousted Morsi government as Egypt's foreign currency reserves hover at dangerously low levels.

Like the Janissaries, the Egyptian military has created a state within a state where the emphasis is less on national military preparedness than on lining the pockets of the officer corps and the corrupt political elite that cooperates with it.  Does US support for the Egyptian armed forces, which a number of American analysts have referred to as a "Realist" strategy, constitute the "only option" available to the US?

What will happen once the military has disbanded the Muslim Brotherhood and forced it underground?  Will that make Egypt's huge youth population - both the large, highly educated would-be middle class sector and the poor workers and peasants - any happier when they still are unemployed?  Will those who work in the tourist industry - over 12% of Egypt's labor force - be any happier with no work and little hope for the future?  Will Egyptian businessmen not part of Egypt's  military industrial complex be any happier as foreign investment dries up and the Egyptian pound loses even more value?  Will the military itself be any happier now that it will have to tow the political line of its Saudi and Gulf benefactors, with the EU and soon the US cutting off aid?

Egyptians are as politically savvy as any other people.  They know that the reason it's prohibited to speak publicly about the military's industrial, commercial and financial holdings and the fact that the military's budget is secret is due to corruption and the lack of civic commitment by any meaningful sector of the military.

There will be no Sultan Mahmud to appear as a deus ex machina to rescue Egypt from its corrupt and profligate military.  The appropriate metaphor here would be the establishment of a civilian and democratic government that will curtail the military and place it under civilian control, as the AKP has done in Turkey (although frequently, unfortunately, flouting the rule of law in the process),

The so-called "Realists" who argue that, in the Middle East,  tous ca change, tous c'est le meme chose, are the same people people who advocated support for authoritarian regimes ruled by the Shah of Iran, the Turkish generals, Husni Mubarak, Zine al-Din Bin Ali, Ali Abdallah Salih, and even once he agreed to end his nuclear weapons program in 2004, Muammar al-Qaddafi.  These regimes are all now part of the dustbin of history just like the Janissaries.

In my next post, I will argue why dictatorships can no longer prevail in the Middle East.  I will contend that US support for them neither promotes stability nor American national interests, and thus should no longer be refered to as a policy of "Realism."

1 comment:

Income Protection Insurance Redundancy said...

Let's all hope for total peace in the middle east so it's counties' economy will emerge.