Last week, the managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm's internet portal and I received an unexpected invitation from the director of the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI), Lieutenant General Hamdy Wahiba, to visit the organization, after the portal published two articles I wrote on the AOI as a military-run economic organization that saw spates of labor protests over the year that followed the 25 January revolution.
It was a rare kind of invitation extended from someone in a position of power to some angry citizens. It reflected what I saw as a sincere desire on the part of Wahiba not to have his name dragged in the mud some day.
I went to visit the AOI with a million scenarios running through my mind. Since the topic of the military-industrial complex was the concern of the whole nation, we asked a delegation of human rights lawyers and political researchers to accompany us on the visit.
As political science students, we were taught that in any democratic regime the military should generally submit to the wishes of civilian decision-making institutions, except when it comes to planning defense tactics. They also taught us that the intervention of the military in politics negatively impacts their skills and readiness to engage in war.
Our professors additionally elaborated on the experiences of Latin American countries that remained under the hegemony of military regimes, which rose to power through successive coups. After decades of military rule, Latin American countries finally purged themselves of those regimes and replaced them with civilian ones, establishing governments whose primary concern is the people's welfare. We were told that problems arise when the military rules.
We arrived at the organization's headquarters on the Cairo-Suez Road. Suddenly, it seemed like we had delved into mid-twentieth century Cairo. With the small colored machines and the archaic glass windows used to display the products, everything at the organization — only established recently — seemed to take us back to the Nasserist era. Upon our arrival, a skinny soldier in a khaki uniform opened the gates.
Wahiba received us in a meeting room equipped with a video screen. Also in the room were a group of managers, both civilian and military, who brought along their dossiers to clear their names of accusations of corruption and to prove how fair the organization’s policies are to its employees.
Contrary to common stereotypes of old-fashioned military officers, Wahiba was gracious and good-humored. He answered all of our questions in detail, even though most of them were accusatory.
Wahiba said the organization voluntarily amended its salary structures before the breakout of the 25 January revolution to provide wages above the minimum stated by law. He also said they provided their employees with means of transportation and a family medical care program with no cost ceiling.
He accused the press of inaccurate reporting in reference to news that 15,000 workers at the organization protested last year. The total number of workers who protested at four of the organization’s twelve factories did not exceed a few hundred, he said.
Wahiba said the AOI ended the first strike staged at its air jets factory in February 2011 by contacting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which dispatched 20 soldiers from the military police to disperse the protest.
The discussion grew tenser when we asked why he, as a military officer, was managing the factories that could be more reasonably managed by engineers, particularly since 70 percent of its products are non-military related.
"The military produces the best managers," Wahiba said, adding that military officers get training that makes them better qualified for senior positions than their civilian counterparts. He insisted that military officers do not permeate positions of power, despite claims to the contrary.
But a quick glance at state institutions shows that there are retired military personnel everywhere, in positions they are not qualified to handle. Military officers are employed at the Holding Company for Water and Waste Water, bus companies, the telephone authority, the Suez Canal, petroleum companies, the Omraneya and Dokki districts and even the Misr al-Makkasa football club.
They are in the place of engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and even plumbers, drivers, sellers, football players and telephone operators.
The military started permeating positions normally occupied by civilians in the 1950s, but the rate increased considerably towards the end of ex-President Hosni Mubarak's rule. After the military occupied almost all positions of power under Nasser, Sadat started replacing the military ministers, governors and public sector managers with civilians.
This policy was reversed at the end of Mubarak's rule, when he decided to go ahead with plans to transfer power to his son. In order to satisfy the military, Mubarak appointed a large number of retired generals and colonels to various positions across the country. When the military rose to power after the 25 January revolution, its officers appointed themselves to positions here and there, exploiting the fact that former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri had limited powers, eventually seizing most positions at economic and governmental institutions.
Do you, Lieutenant General Wahiba, know that the head of the Holding Company for Water and Waste Water is Major General Nasser Arafat, and that other retired generals control the company's branches in the governorates, such as Major General Amr al-Wahsh, the chairman of the company in Giza, Staff Brigadier General Mahmoud Zaki Assad, the chairman in Luxor, Major General Hamdy Abdeen the chairman in Sharqiya and Major General Mohamed Badry, the chairman in Assiut?
Workers staged protests against those generals to express their rejection of managerial failure and low salaries.
Since the armed forces’ interest in "faucets and sewers" seemed quite odd to me, I wondered why the Holding Company for Water and Waste Water was so important to the military institution. I learned that subscriptions have turned it into a lucrative company. However, it’s quite obvious that this company’s revenues are not used to prevent sewage flooding or to prevent recurrent water cuts.
Do you, Lieutenant General Wahiba, know that the chairman of the Holding Company for Land and Maritime Transport is retired Major General Mohamed Youssef, that Major General Mansour al-Helbawy is responsible for the company's land transport and that several other generals are in charge of Lower and Upper Egypt transport buses?
Do you know that Telecom Egypt has a retired general on its board? Does he know that the heads of the districts of Omraneya, Agouza and Dokki and the head of the township of Armant and the city of Helwan are all retired army officers?
Do you know, lieutenant general, that ex-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf appointed a general as head of Egypt's stock market at a time when we were in dire need of expertise to salvage this sector, and that the same general returned only months later to his position as chairman of Misr for Clearing, Settlement and Central Depository, after failing so badly in handling the crash of the stock market?
Do you know that former PM Sharaf first appointed a civilian to head the General Authority for Industrial Development before replacing him with Major General Ismail Abdel Moneim Nagdy?
Do you know that the head of the Suez Canal Authority is your colleague Lieutenant General Ahmed Fadel, against whom thousands of workers protested in the past two months?
Do you know that the chairman of Petrogas is Major General Yasser Zakaria al-Nakalawy, that his deputy-to-be Major General Assem Mohamed belongs to the Republican Guards, and that the chairman of Petrotrade is Major General Mohamed Mostafa Darwish? And that the list of military officers in the petroleum sector goes on and on …
Do you know that the chairman of the Egyptian General Company for Tourism and Hotels is a major general who succeeded another major general in the same position, in addition to many other generals in the tourism sector as well?
Do you know that the current and two former heads of the Administrative Control Authority were army generals in a country steeped in corruption?
You definitely also know that the vast majority of governors and their secretaries throughout Egypt are generals or retired generals.
All of these men receive pensions from the armed forces, along with the salaries from their new jobs. They use obsolete management techniques, which frustrate their employees.
The AOI might be a great edifice, but it does have a set of pros as well as cons. Some workers have reported their satisfaction with AOI’s policies toward its workers. Yehia Bashir, a senior technician at the Helwan Factory for Developed Industries, said the lowest-paid workers are porters who get LE1,000 a month. He added that the AOI has been paying the expenses for his own treatment of diabetes.
Mohamed Allam, who works in the same department, said his salary has increased by LE300 since the January uprising. The AOI also gives its workers 15 percent of its revenues. But I still wonder why the AOI's head is always a military officer, even though the vast majority of the AOI's commodities are for civilians?
Retired military officers have headed the AOI over the past twenty years, one after the other. If management is all about technical skill, why can't the head of the AOI be a specialized civilian with a military deputy to look after the few military products the AOI manufactures?
As an international entity, the AOI is not subject to Egyptian law, it only answers to its own bylaws, which have been tailored to its needs. Workers at the AOI are not allowed to join in syndicates or resort to state courts if a dispute arises between them and their administration. They address their grievances to a judicial committee with members from the Justice Ministry and the State Council.
The militarization of the AOI has helped it shunt scrutiny and accountability. Information about the AOI's losses and gains are only disclosed to the top-most managers. If the current managers are clean, what guarantees are there that the coming managerial teams will not be corrupt and unjust to the workers?
There are several pages for the AOI on Facebook, around four of which are unofficial and created by workers wishing to share their concerns. On one of these pages, I talked with an angry worker.
“The AOI's problem is its administration,” the worker wrote. “It is a bunch of retired army generals who came to the AOI to get both a pension from the army and a salary from the AOI. The problem with the AOI's bylaws is that they vest all powers to the lieutenant general, as though he was the word of God.”
Lieutenant General Wahiba’s invitation has proved the good intentions he has toward the country, but the whole matter is not about him and the AOI, it's about other issues that concern the whole country.
The issue is that the AOI belongs to a bygone era that insists to linger on, to a time when the military was the top of society. Time has passed and the entire world around us has changed; military regimes have perished, leaving behind only a rather dark memory.
Military personnel are back doing their proper job of defending nations, relinquishing their civil jobs to civilians who come to power through elections and are accountable to people.
I therefore join the ranks of workers, engineers, accountants, technicians and plumbers who reject the militarization of their jobs. I join the ranks of those who call for the handover of leadership to a new generation of specialists with skills in design, marketing, publicity, management and planning in a fast-pace, intensely competitive, open market. We have to abandon the darkness of the past century and embrace the vast opportunities of the new.
Zeinab Abul-Magd is a historian. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.
Translated from Al-Masry Al-Youm by Dina Zafer.