Egypt VS Coronavirus: Military’s excuse to extend economic control?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Will Egypt find its way out of the pandemic?

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Tuesday, 16 June 2020 12:15, updated on Tuesday, 21 July 2020 15:32

When the name of the game is consolidating military power, a crisis can be good news. In this third story of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt, we look at whether the pandemic will allow military control to be strengthened.

This is part 3 of a series. 

Egypt has spent most of the last 40 years under various states of emergency, usually based on the need to combat terrorism. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army has become an autonomous actor that can shape markets, policy and investment strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the military new justification to extend its control over economic life.

READ MORE Coronavirus: How is Egypt navigating the economic fallout?

Military-owned companies are among those receiving disproportionate funding from the government as a result of COVID-19, says Callee Davis, an economist specialising in Egypt at NKC African Economics in South Africa. She gives the example of military affiliates being used to produce protective gear during the pandemic.

  • “This will burden the taxpayer in the long run”, as businesses under the control of the Egyptian armed forces are exempt from various state taxes, she says.

Soldiers, at best, make “good engineers, but bad economists,” according to research in 2019 from Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. The surge in public infrastructure and housing under military responsibility “is generating significant amounts of dead capital and stranded assets, diverting investment and resources from other economic sectors,” Sayigh argues.

  • Egypt’s military is involved in such humdrum activities as producing basic consumer goods like food and household appliances, manufacturing industrial chemicals and importing commodities.
  • Retired officers take up senior public and private sector posts, writes Sayigh.


Some argue that outside perceptions have exceeded the realities on the ground. Outside of the cement sector, the role of the military in the Egyptian economy is often “highly exaggerated,” says Allen Sandeep, director of research at Naaem Holding in Cairo. He does not believe that the military poses any kind of obstacle to post-pandemic economic recovery.

  • “The economy is functioning and the policy response has been calculated,” he argues. “We did not over-react” to the pandemic.
  • Still, Sandeep says, there has been no audit of the military in the last half century.

The transparency needed for public understanding of the course and consequences of the pandemic has likewise been lacking. In March, a journalist with the British newspaper The Guardian was told to leave Egypt after suggesting, on the basis of research by infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto, that the number of coronavirus cases was being understated.

Neither is there transparency on the economic impact of the pandemic.

  • The government’s announcement of its intention to stick with outdated economic estimates until the effects of the pandemic become clearer is “slightly unrealistic”, argues Davis.
  • “The ministry should plan on more realistic revenue figures to account for these various challenges or risk a massive budget blowout.”

Military control will complicate post-pandemic economic recovery. The army’s dominance of the economy “crowds out the private sector, making the business environment complicated and discouraging foreign investment,” says Francois Conradie, senior political analyst at NKC African Economics. “It also impedes growth in the tax base, which is very important as Egypt’s debt stock grows.”

tREAD MORE Thank you Jack Ma! But where are Africa’s billionaires?

Long-term sustainable growth will require “making the environment more welcoming for private enterprise, but unfortunately we think that the military will maintain its dominance, and in fact extend it thanks to measures taken in response to COVID-19”, says Conradie.

Bottom line: The military may be an effective tool of damage limitation in crisis, but economic recovery after the pandemic will require more freedom for the private sector.

 Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

Click here for part 4.

Click here for part 5.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Egypt VS Coronavirus: Banks take stimulus cash but don’t onlend

Egypt, with one of the largest economies in Africa, also has one of the largest populations at nearly 100 million. The social and economic hit it has taken from the coronavirus is beginning to become more apparent. In the first part of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt, we look to see if its banks are strong enough to weather the pandemic slump. The challenge is to increase their lending to the private sector, and especially small business.

Egypt VS Coronavirus: The pound faces a war of attrition, not crisis

Financing from the International Monetary Fund and a successful eurobond issue look sufficient to ward off the “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the Egyptian pound. In this second part of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt, we examine if its reserves are strong enough to prevent a currency crisis.

Egypt VS Coronavirus : Cotton’s never-ending roller coaster

There is no question on how important cotton is to Egypt’s textile industry: it contributes to around 3% of the country’s GDP, employs 2.25 million- one third of its industrial labour force - to meet its demand of 180 000 tons. But after years of trade wars between US and China, and now a global pandemic, the cotton industry in Egypt will need time to recover from its losses. In this fourth part of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt, we see how its prized 'white gold' will fare.

Egypt VS Coronavirus: Tourism blow creates domino effect

Tourism was one of the first and hardest hit industries when the coronavirus entered Egypt. And strongly attached to tourism is the informal sector and the ensuing domino effect. In this fifth part of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt, we take a look to see if there’s any light at the end of the tunnel for the vast industry of tourism.