Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Question of national security

Ahmed Eleiba asks whether the proposal to found a national security council will ever get the official green light

Al-Ahram Weekly

The political tensions and impasses that have impeded crucial decisions in a number of vital human security areas (food security, water security, the economy, personal safety, etc) and the consistently poor performance levels of the political authorities since the revolution, which has aggravated all these concerns to alarming degrees, have led a range of political, security, economic and social figures and experts to come together to assess the current situation. Meeting in the National Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, they launched an initiative to form a national security council and submit it to the presidency for approval, as the general consensus in the meeting was that the current president will not take this initiative himself, in spite of the constitutional provision calling for the creation of this body.

Assistant Foreign Minister Ambassador Walid Abdel-Nasser told participants at the meeting that current Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi had submitted a full proposal for the creation of a national security council to the former head of the interim ruling military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. However, Tantawi told Al-Arabi, who at the time was serving as Egypt’s first post-revolutionary foreign minister, that it would be better to wait until after the presidential elections were held and then to submit the proposal to the new president after he takes office.

Subsequently, the proposal was the subject of study by the Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting the new constitution. In spite of the considerable confusion that arose in that assembly over the respective authorities and areas of responsibility of the proposed NSC and the National Defence Council, the proposal was ultimately incorporated into the constitution. Nevertheless, since the constitution’s ratification nothing has been done to put the relevant provisions into effect, “in spite of the urgent need to do so”, Abdel-Nasser said.

Political affairs expert General Mamdouh Salem, who previously served as deputy chief of the General Intelligence Service (GIS), agreed with the urgency. The concept of “Egyptian national security”, in spite of its crucial importance, is missing in the awareness of many Egyptians at present, he said. It was quite an eye-opener when Salem proceeded to relate, “I worked in this area in GIS for 40 years. Throughout that time, we had no clear idea what ‘Egyptian national security’ meant. There were no documents or guidelines to tell us this is where it begins and this is where it ends, and this is what it covers. Everybody had their own interpretation and their own assessment of how to handle it. Even at the time when president Sadat formed the National Security Council, which was subsequently dissolved, there was no clarity on the idea.” 

Salem emphasised the need to strengthen what he felt were the weakening bonds of national affiliation. This would be no easy task in light of the particular character of the “deep state” in Egypt, at present. He explained that around 70 per cent of the staffs in Egyptian security agencies, such as GIS and the National Security Agency, are still connected in some way or other to the former regime. He suggested that this may be a major reason behind the crisis of confidence between the public and the security agencies, which makes it all the more important to bring the National Security Council into being.

But the tasks of forming and structuring this council raises a range of other questions, prime among which is, what exactly does “national security” mean? The concept has evolved considerably over the years to extend well beyond the conventional strategic, military and security dimensions to comprise as well a panoply of economic, cultural, social, agricultural, food sufficiency, public health, environmental and other dimensions. In brief, Salem said, it could be understood as a synonym for the drive to comprehensive development. “This is why the National Security Council is so necessary. Its chief mission is to identify dangers and challenges that our country faces, analyse and break them down into their various facets, and come up with a comprehensive vision with specific recommendations for how to address them. That vision would be set out in a document that we could call the Egyptian National Security Strategy which would be produced regularly every two or three years. The document would clearly delineate the major areas of concern, existing or potential threats and challenges, and government priorities in addressing them, and thereby serve as the general strategic framework for Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies.”

As the proposal currently stands, the National Security Council would consist of the president and his vice president (if one exists), the speaker of the House of Representatives, the prime minister, the ministers of defence, interior, finance and economy, the minority or opposition leader in the House of Representatives, and the head of GIS. The latter would serve as secretary-general who would keep the council’s documents which should be classified as confidential. The council would have the right to include in its meetings other ministers connected with the issues that are under discussion.

The council would have a range of consultative units. Those proposed so far include a water and food security unit that would deal with, among other things, water issues related to the countries of the Nile Basin, an economic security unit to focus on economic strategic planning and potential economic threats, and an energy security unit to develop strategies on energy resource management and sufficiency. The council would meet regularly every six months to discuss the reports and studies submitted to it by the various units, which would be staffed by a limited number of prominent experts and specialists in the units’ fields. It would also convene for emergency sessions if necessary. The council would be subordinate to the office of the presidency which would assign it premises and allocate a set budget.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Major General Megahed Al-Zayat, chairman of the National Centre for the Middle East Studies, said that he had studied a collection of strategic and policy papers that set the courses of US policy during the past 20 years. “Egypt urgently needs documents and an agenda of this sort,” he said. Al-Zayat went on to stress that there was no need for concern over a possible overlap between the proposed NSC and the National Defence Council, because the latter is formed to address special contingencies. He also attempted to allay concerns over the proposed role of GIS in the NSC. In the course of his many years of experience in Intelligence, the agency had never intervened in foreign policy affairs unless diplomatic channels were totally blocked. GIS coordinates with the Foreign Ministry and only intervenes in the event of a looming threat. In all events, in the proposed NSC, the roles of GIS and other agencies will be clearly set out and function in accordance with set rules and procedures so as to avert the types of problems that had arisen in the past.

Discussing the economic dimension of national security, Taha Abdel-Alim, adviser at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and former head of the State Information Service, put his finger on the root cause of the current instability that is preventing economic recovery: the non-implementation of the concepts, of the citizen state, an inclusive polity and the rule of law. A state based on the concept of equal citizenship must be open to all its diverse political trends, from the socialist, Nasserist and liberal left through the Islamist trends, as long as they are sincere in their espousal of Islamic values, do not exploit religion for political ends, and free themselves of ideological rigidity, and open to all strata and segments of society, including the Egyptian entrepreneurial class as long as it fulfils its responsibilities towards the state, society and the needs of development. The citizen state is the “minimum platform” on which all forces of society converge in the interests of the pursuit of the higher welfare of the nation.

One of the foremost tasks of the citizen state is to ensure the realisation of the economic rights of the Egyptian people. “This means safeguarding the nation’s economic security, which entails enhancing Egypt’s economic competitiveness and protecting our national economic sovereignty,” Abdel-Alim said during the meeting. “However, to do this we must, firstly, work to rise to the challenge of economic globalisation and catch up with the knowledge economy. Secondly, if we are to increase Egypt’s share of global wealth, we must establish fair and equitable foundations for the assimilation of our economy into the global economy and in order to meet the challenges of GATT. Thirdly, in order to increase Egypt’s prospects from globalisation, we must work to bring home the skills, talents and investments of Egyptians abroad, rather than exporting them. Towards these ends, Egypt must build an open economy capable of maximising opportunities, gains and capacities and minimising restrictions, losses and the threats posed by the knowledge economy and globalisation, which will entail the formulation of regulations that protect the national economy from the risks of deregulating the financial sector and the flow of capital into and out of the country. In other words, the state must have the power to take the strategic decision with respect to the nation’s economic and social system. Fourthly, building fair and equitable foundations in the global economic order requires both the transfer of knowledge and technology and direct foreign investment in accordance with the national development priorities that Egypt sets. Fifthly, in view of the current economic straits, Egypt does not have the luxury to refuse Arab and foreign aid, albeit on terms that do not infringe on its national sovereignty, and, given the current urgency, it should accept funds available from Arab funding sources or the World Bank.”

In Abdel-Alim’s opinion, the post-revolutionary constitution should have included an article in the section on the state and society, stipulating that the government must remain committed to the protection of national economic security, and another article in the section on security and defence stipulating the creation and functions of a national economic security council. He was dismayed by the current lack of political decision and direction at this crucial time. “Egypt has the infrastructure to build an economic security studies unit in the NSC. It is to be found in the Organisation of Industrialisation, the National Research Centre, the National Centre for Water Research, the National Energy Agency and other such bodies.”

In his presentation to the conference on the proposed energy unit, Youssri Abu Shadi, a leading expert in the International Atomic Energy Agency, revealed that Egyptian officials have been misleading in the information they have been giving the public with respect to the energy situation. In fact, he said, Egypt has been gripped by mounting energy crises due to the economic deterioration and security breakdowns since the revolution. He also revealed that the tender for the construction of the Dabaa nuclear energy plant, which had been scheduled for the week when the revolution began, had to be postponed and that a year later inhabitants in the vicinity destroyed and occupied the site for the project. He said that he had undertaken an experiment in collaboration with Alexandria University’s college of engineering on a miniature model of nuclear reactors and submitted to the president plans demonstrating that the projected Dabaa plant would not have to use the entire area of land that had been originally designated for it. In addition, talks were underway with the people of that area to persuade them that the project would be safe. The presidency has expressed his interest in the project, said Abu Shadi who also urged the creation of an Egyptian nuclear energy ministry.

Abu Shadi went on to present an overview of Egypt’s energy production, furnishing a range of statistics on available resources, production figures and subsidies. According to his studies, alternative sources of energy from water, wind or solar power or organic sources will not be sufficient to meet Egypt’s energy needs. Egypt’s sole solution is to produce nuclear energy, he said, stressing the urgency of the need to move in this direction as soon as possible in light of the fact that many foreign technicians who had been responsible for the maintenance of electricity plants have left the country as a result of which 30 per cent of these plants had to stop generating. He pointed out that Egyptian technicians could not replace the foreigners due to conditions related to the warranties on the machinery and to the refusal of foreign companies to train Egyptians and include them in the necessary maintenance operations. However, this was not the only cause of the mounting energy crisis during the past two years, he said. In its rush to forestall the electricity crisis, the government opened generating plants that relied on natural gas or oil that, in turn, precipitated another crisis in the form of spiralling energy subsidies that have climbed to $115 billion.

As the workshop drew to a close, it was clear that a thorough and comprehensive proposal for a National Security Council was ready to be taken off the drawing board and put into practice. Although it still may require some fine-tuning, its architects’ chief question at this stage whether they will receive the official green light which, in the opinion of many sources, does not appear forthcoming.

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