Interim President Adly Mansour issued two pieces of legislation related to defence issues in recent weeks.
The first created a new body, the National Security Council (NSC), and the second amended the law pertaining to the line-of-command of defence affairs and the organisation of the armed forces.
The presidential decrees are generally said to be consistent with the new constitution, which was approved by public referendum at the outset of the year.
The first law calls for the creation of a National Security Council headed by the president of the republic and consisting of the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, the chief of the General Intelligence Services (GIS), the chairman of the parliamentary defence and national security committee, and the ministers of defence, the interior, foreign affairs, finance, justice, health, communications and education.
Under the new law, the president is to call for NSC meetings once every three months and whenever is deemed necessary. In the event of war or national disaster, the council is to be regarded as in permanent session. NSC proceedings are confidential, and its decisions are taken by majority vote among those present. In the event of a tied vote, the side on which the president votes will prevail.
The NSC may invite relevant experts or specialists to attend its meetings, although they will not be entitled to vote. The major tasks of the NSC are to develop and approve national security strategies, set policy aims for the various ministries, approve plans for national development and the comprehensive enhancement of national strengths, adopt measures that aim to safeguard the identity and sovereignty of the state, and steer foreign policies and international cooperation in areas of concern to national security.
The NSC will have a general secretariat headed by a secretary-general appointed by the president. He will attend and keep records of NSC meetings but will not have a vote.
The second law adds four articles to the armed forces command and control law in order to bring it into line with the articles pertaining to the armed forces in the new constitution. Under the amendments, the minister of defence is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He must be an officer who has served in the armed forces at the rank of general for at least five years and in one of the key military posts.
Another article states that the president may not declare war, approve a plan for war or send armed forces on a combat mission abroad without obtaining the opinion of the NSC and the approval of two-thirds of the parliament. If the parliament is not sitting, the president must obtain the opinion of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the approval of the cabinet and the defence council.
In all cases, the armed forces may only be sent abroad in the framework of Egypt’s international obligations. In addition, the armed forces can only be sent abroad for a temporary period designated by a presidential decree that also specifies the nature of the tasks to be performed and the scope of operations. This period can only be renewed by following the same procedures for its initial approval.
The new laws have triggered controversy among Egyptian political forces, with some charging that they support a broader scope of involvement for the military establishment in the political sphere or in decisions pertaining to public policy issues. Others feel that the laws are necessary in view of the current political conditions in the country.
General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of national security affairs at the Nasser Higher Military Academy, underscored the urgent need for the laws at this time in view of the challenges and threats facing the country.
In an interview with Ahram Online, Qashqoush said that “at the level of political strategies, the process of creating a National Security Council with such a composition is an important development in the approach to national security as interweaving security, political, military and social developments. This approach differs from the narrow perspective that sees the military establishment alone as the chief and sole player in such issues. As a result of its creation and its tasks it conveys the importance of coordination and collaboration with respect to the portfolios managed by the constituent institutions, all of these having decision power over them.”
Qashqoush said that the concept of national security, when framed in a multidimensional manner that embraced security, military, economic, cultural and social facets, was synonymous with comprehensive development. Rather than being restricted to addressing military threats alone, the concept embraced economic security, water security, science, energy and other critical dimensions of security, he said.
“The NSC will identify the various dimensions of the dangers and challenges that face the country, develop visions for confronting them, and propose the recommendations necessary for achieving them,” Qashqoush said, adding that these recommendations would be set out in a document that could be called the Egyptian National Security Strategy and that would be issued periodically every two or three years.
“The document would serve as the general strategic framework for Egyptian policy domestically and internationally, and it would clearly designate issues of concern and the government’s priorities in handling them.”
The idea of creating a National Security Council and incorporating it constitutionally is not new, a precedent having been set in 1973. However, in practice this did not succeed, as the council formed at that time, headed by general Hafez Ismail, was ignored following Ismail’s resignation on charges that the then president, Anwar El-Sadat, did not abide by the council’s decisions.
Many experts who have studied this experience are of the opinion that the concept was restricted by the circumstances of the state of war that existed at the time and was never given the chance to mature. Such institutions need time in order to develop and solidify into dependable mechanisms, they say.
A number of political research centres close to decision-making centres in Egypt have held discussions in order to lay the groundwork for recommendations concerning the new NSC.
Shortly before the recent NSC law was issued, Ahram Online attended one such discussion organised by the Middle East Studies Centre where Walid Abdel-Nasser, Egypt’s representative at the UN in Geneva, noted that Nabil El-Arabi, the current secretary-general of the Arab League, had prepared a study for the NSC and submitted it to SCAF during the first interim period.
The head of SCAF at the time, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, had held that the matter was something that should be handled by the new president and the proposal was temporarily shelved, Abdel-Nasser said.
However, president Mohamed Morsi who was voted into power in 2012, showed no interest in the subject. “Perhaps the former presidency’s calculations were faulty when it came to creating an institution of such a scope, in spite of the need for it,” said General Hossam Khairallah, former deputy-director of GIS.
Khairallah said that the creation of an institution such as the National Security Council entailed taking into consideration a broad array of issues related to national security in the broadest sense.
“This demands a thorough and conscientious reading [of needs and requirements]. It is not just about structures, composition, areas of specialisation and positions, some of which may be important and others may have little value. There has been a grave danger to Egyptian identity and that danger has threatened the state, for example. A council of this sort was needed to address this at the time.”
Qashqoush added another example to illustrate the need for the council. The problem of arms smuggling along the borders and the coast was not one that solely concerned the army, he said.
“When you look at this problem closely, you realise that it is very complex and involves a range of other problems, such as the problem of poverty which has led some to engage in the smuggling trade, and the problem of Bedouin tribal allegiances which take precedence over allegiance to the state.”
“Can the military establishment alone handle such questions, or do we need to extend the scope of involvement so as to include broader fields of expertise in remedying such dangerous problems?” he asked.
Qashqoush pointed out that the same applied to terrorism, which is “a question related to poverty in education and poverty in development and which the government needs to address with all its institutions working together in an integrated manner so as to uproot this phenomenon at its source, complete with the ideas, environment and elements that feed it. Only then can we eliminate it completely. Such are the matters that need to be discussed at the NSC.”
With regard to the interim president’s second law pertaining to the line-of-command of the armed forces and the cabinet’s defence portfolio, the sources agreed that experiences under the previous government had underscored the need for such rules and arrangements.
“There is an important term that we need to bear in mind when considering the relationship between the army and its political role. Our recent experience compelled the military to intervene in politics on the basis of the national role of the army. History will reveal how the army acted in favour of the nation in the confrontations against both [former presidents] Mubarak and Morsi,” one said.
“In the current climate of hollow analysis, there are some who have suggested that the new laws are intended to create a form of ‘immunity’ to prevent the repetition of the Muslim Brotherhood model or a clash between a president without a military background and the army. True, such factors may be a source of concern. However, what is more important is that we lay the foundations for ‘institutionalised democracy,’ which is needed to give root to the experience of bringing in a civil president with the qualities that enable him to exercise his functions in a manner that averts such fears.”
“As the Egyptian army has demonstrated through its actions that it is a national army, the issue at hand is not about privileging institutions or persons but rather about promoting the idea of building the state, the government and the citizen in a sound manner. Towards this end, we need to create the mechanisms to confront and ward off the threats and dangers that could jeopardise this process in the future.”
*This article was first published in Ahram Weekly.