The political tensions 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 at the National Centre for Middle Eastern Studies last week, they launched an initiative to form a National Security Council and submit it to the presidency for approval, as the general consensus at 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 Walid Abdel-Nasser told the participants at the meeting that Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi had submitted a full proposal for the creation of a National Security Council (NSC) to the former head of the interim ruling military council Hussein Tantawi.
However, Tantawi told El-Arabi, who at the time was serving as Egypt's first post-revolutionary foreign minister, that it would be better to wait until after presidential elections before submitting the proposal to the new president.
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. The concept of “Egyptian national security,” in spite of its crucial importance, is missing in the awareness of many Egyptians, he said.
It was quite an eye-opener when he proceeded to relate: “I worked in the 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 on how to handle it. Even at the time when President Sadat formed a National Security Council, which was subsequently dissolved, there was no clarity about the idea.”
But the tasks of forming and structuring this council raise 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 a panoply of economic, cultural, social, agricultural, food sufficiency, public health, environmental and other dimensions as well.
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,” he said.
Salem added: “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.”
Composition & prerogatives
As the proposal currently stands, the NSC 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 the GIS.
The latter would serve as secretary-general, who would keep the council's documents, which should be kept classified. The council would have the right to include in its meetings other ministers connected with the issues 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 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 respective 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 Ahram Online, General Mohamed Megahid El-Zayat said that he had studied a collection of strategic and policy papers that had set the course of Egypt’s US policy during the past 20 years. “Egypt urgently needs documents and an agenda of this sort,” he said.
He 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 the GIS in the NSC.
In the course of his many years of intelligence experience, that agency had never intervened in foreign policy affairs unless diplomatic channels were totally blocked. The GIS coordinates with the foreign ministry and only intervenes in the event of a looming threat.
In any event, in the proposed NSC, the roles and functions of the GIS and other agencies will be clearly defined in accordance with set rules and procedures so as to avert the types of problems that have arisen in the past.
The concept of the 'citizen state'
Discussing the economic dimension of national security, Taha Abdel-Alim, advisor 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 concept 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 are open to all strata and segments of society, including the Egyptian entrepreneurial class, as long as the latter 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.
He added: “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 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,” Abdel-Alim continued, “Egypt must build an open economy capable of maximising opportunities, gains and capacities and minimising restrictions, losses and 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,” he went on, “the state must have the power to take a 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 and finally,” Abdel-Alim concluded, “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.”
Economic & energy security
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 is 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 at 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,” Abdel-Alim said.
In his presentation to the conference on the proposed energy unit, Yusri Abu Shadi, a leading expert at 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 economic deterioration and security breakdowns since the revolution. He also revealed that the tender for the construction of the Dab'a 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.
Abu Shadi 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 Dab'a 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 its 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 and solar power to 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 their foreign counterparts due to conditions related to the warranties on 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, which, in turn, precipitated another crisis in the form of spiralling energy subsidies that have climbed to $115 billion per year.
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 is whether they will receive the official green light, which – in the opinion of many sources – does not appear to be forthcoming.