The sad reality of Egypt's vaunted military

An Egyptian expatriate friend asked me recently about the state of the Egyptian military back home.

It's a difficult question. The military has always been mysterious, and that's just as true in respect to its business interests as its military capabilities. The former, however, appears to be more jealously guarded than the latter.

Nevertheless, several events reported recently by the local media may offer some answers, and they aren't encouraging.

This week the Egyptian air force has found itself trying to explain a series of sonic booms in the sky over our cities. The military says it was a live-fire air defense drill. But amid the jokes -- Egyptians always joke -- rumors began to surface that our airspace had been breached by Israeli fighter jets, given that the Air Force never schedules exercises during national holidays. This prompted the Army spokesperson to issue a series of statements rejecting the rumors. In the process he noted that regional instability and the recent bombing of an arms factory in Sudan (possibly by said Israeli jets, which might well have dodged Egyptian radars on their way south) have made it "essential for Egypt's armed forces to be kept in a state of readiness." Regardless of the real reasons behind it, the entire event speaks volumes: Many Egyptians don't seem prepared to believe official statements any longer.

By contrast, there's no doubt at all about two other events that happened earlier this month. "Egypt army amphibious vehicles sink in Suez Canal," reported Al-Ahram on October 11. According to the article, the engine of one of the tanks failed during a training exercise; the soldiers abandoned ship, but an officer was unable to exit and drowned. The other vehicle, somehow, "capsized when the crew tried to assist their comrades."

Then three days later, on October 14, came the following story (originally in Al-Masry Al-Youm, in Arabic): "Army vehicle stolen at gunpoint in Arish." The five-line item informs us that an SUV without license plates effectively hijacked a military vehicle, forcing the car to stop and its passengers to exit. The thieves took off with the vehicle to an unknown destination.

It's a sad state of affairs when the army deployed in the Sinai -- arguably Egypt's most critical and active front -- has such a low level of readiness. The only way for an army to reach the pathetic point where military personnel in a military vehicle are unable to defend themselves from carjackers is through years and years of utter neglect and complacency -- a situation, in short, in which the army upper echelon is more concerned about what's happening in the army-owned pasta factory than in basic training.

This reality feels even more painful in the light of the recent October 6 remembrance celebrations earlier this month. It was in 1973, 39 years ago, that the Egyptian army heroically crossed the Suez Canal during the 1973 war.

Ultimately, the cost of this laxity is borne by the army's rank and file. Like the junior officer who drowned with the armored vehicle; or more dramatically, events like the August attack by militants on a border post that left 16 Egyptian guards dead and stole a tank.

Military operations are continuing in the Sinai as I write this, so I think these are important things to keep in mind. Lives, after all, are at stake.

They are also worth keeping mind when we hear grandiose speeches about Egypt's military might -- and when we hear the occasional rhetorical threat to cancel the peace treaty with Israel.

Not to mention when someone declares that Egyptians should march on Jerusalem....

Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Another case of high-level corruption in Uganda

Recently Ugandans had one small cause to celebrate. The World Bank announced that their country had moved up in the rankings in its annual ease of doing business survey. And not only did Uganda move up -- it also overtook regional rival Kenya, which had long enjoyed a much better rating in this area. The ratings are important, of course, because foreign investors quite understandably prefer to put their money into places where there are fewer obstacles to business.

But that little bit of good news was quickly supplanted by a more ominous story. Ugandan social media have been avidly following last week's revelation that Ireland has suspended aid to the Ugandan government after an audit showed that over 4 million Euros ($5.2 million) had ended up in the unauthorized account of the prime minister.

According to the Irish Independent newspaper, 16 million Euros ($21 million) given directly to the Uganda government for aid purposes has been suspended. The paper adds that aid given to non-governmental organizations will continue.

Ireland is one of the countries that have been supporting the development of northern Uganda. Under the Peace, Recovery and Development Program (PRDP) run by the Office of the Prime Minister, the aid money was supposed to be channeled to the recovery of the war-torn region.

Now a UK newspaper, The Daily Mail, reports that Britain has joined Ireland in suspending aid to Uganda. Although no British funding was affected by the scandal, the country has decided to suspend aid to the Office of the Prime Minister. The article recalls a 2011 controversy when aid money was diverted to buy a $50 million Gulfstream jet for the Ugandan President.

The Office of the Prime Minister's Website explains the origins of the PRDP:

Following the resolution of the conflict in Northern Uganda, the Government, in collaboration with its partners, developed the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) to provide a framework for the post-conflict reconstruction of Northern Uganda.

The PRDP covers 40 districts in the north and east of the country, including those that were covered under NUSAF 1. The Plan, which is in line with the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (now being transformed into the National Development Plan), seeks to strengthen coordination, supervision and monitoring of all development programs in Northern Uganda to achieve better results.

The story of corruption in the Office of the Prime Minister has filled the pages of Ugandan papers over the last couple of weeks. One Ugandan newspaper, The Daily Monitor, documents how officials embezzled money meant to help the needy. The article reports that:

Billions of shillings meant to help Ugandans affected by two decades of war rebuild their lives ended up building mansions for corrupt OPM officials in Kampala and buying luxury vehicles.

As parents in war-ravaged northern Uganda tied their children affected by nodding disease to trees, corrupt technocrats in the ministry were flying off to exotic holiday destinations.

Such was the sense of impunity of those involved in the scam that a cashier whose monthly salary is less than Shs1.5 million ($580) regularly "lent" the government hundreds of millions of shillings, which were paid back to his personal bank account. "Funds advanced to the cashier's personal account were described as a refund of borrowed cash, making it appear as if the cashier lent government money from his personal savings," the audit report noted.

The Office of the Prime Minister has since suspended 17 officials from its office, the finance ministry and Bank of Uganda involved in the scandal. The Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi (shown in the photo above), declined to take responsibility for the embezzlement and met with donors in the capital to apologize and reassure them that the further investigations will be conducted. The prime minister has been implicated in various corruption scandals in the country and has been vindicated by the president each time.

The Ugandan paper The Independent reports on what the president is doing to fight corruption. However, many Ugandans think he is not fully committed to the fight. Social media activity on the embezzlement scandals in the Office of the Prime Minister deftly captures the frustrations the ordinary citizens face.

But the implications of the scandal go far beyond the tarnished reputation of the Office of the Prime Minister. You can hardly expect foreign investors to be thrilled when they hear of such dismal doings. So this story is a good example of how the country as a whole, not just those immediately affected, is damaged by the activities of our corrupt officials.

Jackee's twitter handle is @jackeebatanda