Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Combating security threats

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s interview to mark two years in office and Sunday’s meeting of the National Defence Council were the focal points of political developments in Egypt last week, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

During a TV interview marking the middle of his first term President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi addressed a number of crucial issues. His primary focus was on Egypt’s capacity-building drive through defence enhancement and national mega projects, as well as the ongoing struggle against what he termed the “forces of evil”.

These “forces” extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood and opponents of the current regime to include everyone who harbours ill will towards Egypt.

Given the extent of risks and threats at home and abroad many political analysts and commentators argue that strengthening civilian-military relations is essential. “Safeguarding the capacities of the state requires a military force capable of doing so,” says former director of Military Intelligence General Talaat Moussa. “There are indications forces hostile to the state and to the regime are escalating attempts to undermine the development of our capacities. This requires a counter-escalation.”

During the interview Al-Sisi spoke of the need for a domestic front strong enough to prevent the infiltration of forces that seek to undermine society and the state. This, and similar concerns, were foremost in the minds of participants at the National Defence Council (NDC) meeting.

While one political scientist at Cairo University argued that “the government is intent on displaying manifestations of the strength of the state even if this yields no concrete returns”, other commentators believe it would be better to develop strategies to avert any potential for damage caused by the “forces of evil”. They argue economic, social, political, human and civil rights indexes are more important gauges of the strength of the state than military arsenals.

In its meeting on Sunday the NDC discussed four topics. Two were directly related to military and security affairs: the 2016-2017 military budget and related bills that are to be submitted to parliament, and the situation in Sinai.

A statement released by the presidency reported that there was a presentation of a plan to tighten security during the month of Ramadan and, also, to contain any fallout from the “secondary school exams leak” scandal.

Final exams on religion had to be cancelled after a Facebook page leaked questions and model answers in what the authorities say is an attempt to agitate the parents of more than half a million students.

The other two topics discussed by the NDC meeting were government measures to regulate prices and combat attempts to exploit consumers, and foreign policy, with an emphasis on the recent Paris peace summit. Concerning the latter, the foreign minister delivered a presentation, a new departure of an NDC meeting.

Moussa observed that the remit of the NDC is to consider issues that have a national security dimension. This is why participants at Sunday’s meeting addressed the exam leaks and rising prices for, says Moussa, such phenomena entail threats to social peace and stability.

“This naturally brings us back to the military level and unconventional confrontations against terrorism,” he said.

“We are now in the third phase of the Martyr’s Right Operation. The Armed Forces have accumulated expertise during the first two phases. Accordingly, the NDC is reviewing strategic assessments regarding the current phase and developments in planning and tactics. The current phase requires tactics of a special sort since the other side has begun to grasp certain aspects of combat. Those who have survived the military confrontation have fled to more secure and fortified places such as Gabal Al-Halal. They have also made advances in satellite communications and there are fingerprints of foreign elements undertaking specific tasks for the terrorists. This makes it important that we develop our own response, and at diverse levels.”

A new element — the cultural and ideological dimensions of the Sinai conflict — has been introduced into discussions of the subject.

“Dealing effectively with culture and ideology is itself a weapon,” Deputy Minister of Culture Sabri Said told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Psychologically balanced societies in which diversity in culture, sciences and the arts form part of the general awareness cannot be Islamic State-like societies. Islamic State ideology infiltrates culturally impoverished societies which are prey to intolerant ideologies. A vibrant culture and arts scene is a sign of social stability and health.”

On the possibilities for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement Tarek Fahmi, an expert at the Middle East Studies Centre, told the Weekly: “The Palestinian cause will be the fulcrum of President Al-Sisi’s foreign policy drive in the coming period. It is a national security priority of the first order.”

In Fahmi’s opinion there is a tendency to write off the summit in Paris and assume Egypt will move directly to a plan in which Cairo plays a pivotal role.

“Egypt needs to act against a number of factors, including the factional divides in Palestine and adversarial regional powers,” says Fahmi.

Of particular concern is “the role of Turkey, its growing relationship with Israel and the conditions Ankara is seeking to impose by building a port and artificial island. Ultimately, the idea is to turn Gaza into a statelet in order to perpetuate Hamas’s power and impose a de facto reality in Gaza. This will have a detrimental impact on the Palestinian cause.”

“There is also the role Iran is playing with Islamic Jihad, and Qatar’s regional role, with all its negative implications for Arab causes.”

Discussions of rising prices and the need to regulate the market set another precedent for the NDC. In the past such issues were left to parliament or other public forums. That the NDC decided to broach them is indicative of a growing awareness of the link between national security and food security and social stability.

“There is a crisis to which we need to respond urgently through the intervention of sovereign state agencies,” says Ibrahim Al-Ghitani, an economic researcher at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

“Sovereign state agencies”, he says, have taken the initiative to respond to problems in the markets by developing outlets for goods in an attempt to counter excessive price increases.

Al-Ghitani believes other measures may be required, including intervention in the exchange rate.

But can “sovereign agencies” succeed where the government bureaucracy has failed? Regulating prices is a difficult process and Egypt’s legal structure provides few effective tools to do it. There is good reason to believe that the declining value of the Egyptian pound is not solely responsible for rampant inflation. Other factors are at play, not least the exploitative tendencies displayed by many merchants.

Concerns have been raised that the move by “sovereign agencies” into the retail market could result in them developing a permanent commercial base. Al-Ghitani responds that what we are seeing are initiatives aimed at offsetting a crisis rather than developing a permanent foothold in the market. As for the efficacy of these initiatives, Al-Ghitani says: “We have figures on the size and number of outlets… there is a clear problem with distribution with goods failing to reach the intended beneficiaries.”

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