Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Feb 1st, 2015

Opinion: “Military economic activity, not necessary for democratization”

Often when discussing Middle Eastern politics and economy, Turkey is left out. Typically somewhat of an outsider, for example in language and identity, there are some  important areas where Turkey can be comparatively studied as a “MENA-country”. In  this article, Opinion Editor Joel W. Abdelmoez explores commonalities in the military economy of Turkey and Egypt, and argues against the increasing impact in their respective societies.

Turkey is a country with a historically strong military, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), with a particularly noted civil presence and importance in civil life. The same is also true for the Egyptian military which, since the election of former Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president, has grown even more influential. For example, President Sisi recently issued a law that allows civilians to be tried in military tribunals.

Military economy refers to the economic impact of military spending by states, both positive and negative. Usually this is studied as a relation between economics and major conflicts, or so called “war economy”, although in cases like Egypt and Turkey there has also been many incidents of military activity on a different scale, such as the Turkish Armed Forces moving into northern Iraq to eliminate bases of Kurdish guerilla groups or the Egyptian military carrying out air-strikes in Libya. Furthermore, Egypt and Turkey are countries where the armed forces has an unusually large non-military activity meaning there is a broader impact of (and therefore a greater need for understanding) military economy. However, it is important to acknowledge that the study of military economy is marked by much debate and little consensus as well as problems of scope. For one thing, economic development is often limited to only encompass economic growth due to the difficulty in measuring “development” in a broader definition than simply through GDP growth.


Not all sources of support for military funding are national or even regional but part of a larger global system.

While Turkey’s military expenditure as a percentage of the country’s GDP is fairly larger than that of Egypt – 2.31% compared to 1.72% – the Egyptian military does have its advantages. First of all, it is important to note that the actual budget of the Egyptian Armed Forces is unknown since the current constitution only allows the National Defense Council to discuss it, with the exception of, as the constitution reads in English; “the head of the Financial Affairs Department of the Armed Forces and the heads of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and the National Security Committee at the House of Representatives”. It should be noted that this is not something new and that the Egyptian Armed Forces have long kept behind a shroud of secrecy. It is therefore entirely possible, and often assumed, that many parts of the military budget is in fact left out. Most important however, is the fact that all numbers should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. Even if all the exact numbers were known, budget, expenditure and revenue is, of course, not everything.

In MENA, there is no observed correlation between military expenditure and GDP growth, be it positive or negative. A higher spending on defense still diverts funding that could instead go to other instances including ones that have documented positive effects on economic growth, such as education. That, however, requires a political will, something that is often lacking, which is why experience tells us that even when defense outlays are reduced, government spending on civil society and welfare does not increase. Interestingly, there is in the MENA-region (and other parts of the world) usually more support for military spending than of other types of spending. It is, thus, not only about political will but because, throughout society, it is easier to justify an expensive army apparatus than projects meant to reduce illiteracy.

Part of the explanation behind wide public support for defense outlays is the typical national pride that comes with having a strong military. This is particularly true for countries such as Turkey where the military has played pivotal role in state formation. There is also the tendency of media, politicians and military officers alike, to play on certain security issues in order to raise support. For Egypt and Turkey this includes, apart from the previously mentioned Kurdish guerilla and Libyan terror groups, the dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus, the unresolved border issues between Egypt and Sudan as well as recent activities by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and the Jihadisit group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Sinai. All of these issues can be referred to as justifications for increased military funding and to be withholding of civilian projects for the cause of security.

Not all sources of support for military funding are national or even regional but part of a larger global system. In fact, it could be argued that even the American led global “war on terror” acts as a justification for governments in MENA to invest in its militaries. This because, through the “war on terror” rhetoric, it has been greatly propagated for the need of military activity to maintain order and regional security in light of terror activity. Furthermore, since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, marking the beginning of America’s war on terror, the annual military aid given to Egypt by the US has increased from 64% to 83.5%, and the so-called military-industrial complex has thrived both in Egypt and Turkey. The Egyptian armaments industry and its American support, however, goes further back than 2001. Having relied on the Soviet Union for economic and military support in the early Cold War era, Egypt managed, in the 1970s, to establish a similar relationship – which grew even stronger under Mubarak – with the US.

It was also during the Mubarak era that the Egyptian military shifted focus towards economic activities and started engaging in civil projects such as infrastructure and cheap manufacturing. This was controlled through the newly founded National Service Products Organization, established in the 1980s. This solidified the army’s role in Egypt and aided its economy. The strengthened military bonds with the US helped Egypt advance in the region, making it possible to assist Kuwait against Iraq in the early 1990s, leading to another influx of foreign investments in the Egyptian Armed Forces. It is this specific history of Egypt’s military participating in economic activity that forms the foundation of recent (last decade) developments in which they have actively competed with and pushed out private actors on the Egyptian market. Having benefitted from tax exemptions introduced in 2005 as well as access to cheap labor through conscription and a lack of accountability towards civil society, the Egyptian military holds a position that is difficult to compete with.

The Turkish military-industrial complex, too, holds a prominent place in the region and employs over 40.000 workers. Similar to that of Egypt, it is heavily reliant on foreign investments (ca 300 million USD annually) and the armed forces have played a crucial role in the formation of the modern Turkish state with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, himself an officer, as its founder. Turkey and Egypt do indeed share a rather similar military history. In the early 2000s, however, the two began to diverge into different paths.

In light of these issues of military economy and activity in Egypt and Turkey, the conclusion inevitably is that this far-reaching and dominant position of the military, in both countries concerned, is harmful for their respective society as a whole. At the same time it is possible to argue that the power struggle between the TAF and AKP, where the former is losing power, is not necessarily good either as it may not be more than merely a shift of military power and control rather than a demilitarization of society or a decrease of the military economic activity. In pure economic terms, however, military rule is neither good or bad for GDP growth, but still forms an unsustainable structure, as military economy in fact relies on rents (and in these cases also on foreign aid). Any other funding is simply diverted from other (civil) entities, which means that even if military spending may be popular it comes at the expense of the people. To sum up, the Egyptian as well as Turkish military have both invested more in strengthening their own positions and becoming inevitable actors rather than building a strong society and a prosperous economy.


About the Author

- Contributor and co-founder of, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. Graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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