The Egyptian Army: The Great Unknown

Egypt's transition to democracy will be overseen by an institution that worked closely with the now deposed regime. But the military has also long been integral to Egyptian society as a whole.

A soldier prays on a tank last month in Cairo
A soldier prays on a tank last month in Cairo
Cécile Hennion

CAIRO - Silence and discretion: this could be the Egyptian army's motto. Despite its integral role in Egyptian society, the country's military remains largely a mystery. Considered the major pillar of the regime since Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers Movement took power in 1952, the army was always one step removed from politics during the three decades of Hosni Mubarak's rule.

Since Mubarak's resignation on February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in command, with the temporary mission of overseeing the democratic transition. The sudden flurry of headlines about the military in both the Egyptian and international media does not actually offer any real clues as to what the army has in mind for the future, or what its real role was in the radical changes Egypt has gone through recently. Almost everything regarding this institution is a State Secret.

The number of soldiers has never been officially disclosed – it is estimated between 350,000 to 500,000. As long as Egypt had a President, the army only answered to him. Since 1952, all the presidents have come from its ranks and in return have personally dealt with military matters. Its budget is neither voted on, nor actually known, by the Parliament.

According to Jane's International Defense Review, the Egyptian defense budget, which has been on the rise in recent years, reached $4.56 billion in 2010. That's the biggest budget in Africa, but still a far cry from that of Israel or Saudi Arabia. Egypt also receives $1.3 billion a year in American military aid. Many Egyptian officers study in foreign military academies, mostly in the US but also in France and Pakistan. "Like all salaries in Egypt, military pay depends on the chief's good will. A general can make 5,000 Egyptian pounds – $850 – or up to 50 times more," says Tewfik Aclimandos, a researcher at the College de France. "Their salaries haven't progressed as much as we think because promotions to higher ranks have slowed down."

A major economic player

The peace agreement signed in 1979 with Israel, followed by the economic revolution launched by President Anwar Sadat, triggered major changes in the army, which slowly became a major economic player in the country. The Arab Organization for Industrialization (AIO), which was supposed to finance military technology when it was created in the 1970s, turned to civilian technology (plastic, electric appliances, cars). The weekly Al-Youm al-Sabia estimates its sales revenue at 2.7 billion Egyptian pounds ($470 million) for 2007-2008.

The army also invested in the food industry and acts as an engineering company, building bridges, roads and even winning telephone line installation contracts.

In an interview with the daily Masri el-Youm on March 27, 2010, General Tahir Abdallah gave concrete examples of the army economic activities. It deals with infrastructure, service, natural disaster management, rescue missions (after the 2004 attack in Taba on the red sea), the destruction of landmines and touristic development. Construction and development of sports infrastructure, including soccer stadiums, is also a top activity.

The army also plays a role in building low-rent housing as well as luxury real estate. It participates in urban planning, in Luxor for example, builds Bedouin villages in the Sinai desert and Nubian houses in Upper Egypt. The army is an important landowner but no one knows how much property it really owns.

Aclimandos says that the military has long been under close watch to prevent it from being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other form of radical Islamism. "As soon as a soldier starts going to a suspicious mosque or library, he is released of his duties," Aclimandos explains. "The regime and the Brotherhood agree that the religious group isn't currently represented in the army. The Brotherhood knows that it's a red line." But, he adds: "no security plan is perfect."

The military and the regime had an unspoken agreement that the army would stay silent, obedient and well removed from politics as long as the leadership of the state came from its ranks. It seems that Mubarak may have broken the deal by trying to place his banker son as his successor. The anger and determination of the protesters may have just been the trigger the army needed to decide to take matters back into its own hands.

Photo - Iman Mosaad

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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