CAIRO - During two years in office, Egypt's general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has sought to impose a military-style discipline to end years of turmoil and has turned to the armed forces to help rebuild the deeply damaged economy to a degree unseen in more than 50 years.
The military has taken the lead in carrying out a string of major projects, from building roads and overseeing housing construction to providing cheap food to the public. That has provided a needed bit of stimulus and helped keep Egyptians going in hard times. But the flip side has been a heavy emphasis on secrecy, leaving observers unsure how el-Sissi plans to tackle an economy struggling under high inflation, unemployment and a tumbling currency.
El-Sissi has frequently sought to impose secrecy on politicians over issues that usually would be open for public discussion. In June, he said some of his planned projects cannot be announced, without explanation.
When his electricity minister said on live TV in May that the Aswan Dam was taken off the electricity grid temporarily, el-Sissi angrily cut him off, saying, “Let us not talk about these details.” When his oil minister, again on live television, showed a map of a proposed oil pipeline during a power point presentation, el-Sissi ordered the slide removed.
One of his most controversial decisions, to surrender two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, was taken behind closed doors - intentionally, el-Sissi said, to prevent media attention. The move sparked a rare burst of street protests and angry criticism. In a televised meeting with politicians and editors, el-Sissi defended the decision and demanded no one discuss the subject again. He brusquely shut down one lawmaker who attempted to speak to him, saying “Excuse me, I did not give anyone permission to speak.”
“He wants to run the country like the military,” said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert with the New York-based Century foundation. “In that world, it is a question of order and execution, it is not a place for discussion, transparency or politics. They don't want politics.”
Egypt has had presidents who hailed from the military for all but two of the past 64 years since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup. Under longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a former air force chief, the armed forces held its own economic empire, including factories, stores and companies. But private businessmen took the lead in the economy and investment projects in general, gaining a powerful say in politics and Mubarak's ruling party - often to the military leadership's dismay.
After Mubarak's ouster in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising came a civilian president, Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who won Egypt's first post-Mubarak election.
Morsi elevated el-Sissi, the head of military intelligence, to chief of the armed forces and defense minister. But when massive protests spread against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sissi led the military in ousting him in 2013. After a brief interim presidency by another civilian, el-Sissi was then elected president in 2014 in a landslide victory by Egyptians drawn to his promises of stability and prosperity.
Hisham Kassem, a veteran human rights advocate and political analyst, said el-Sissi initially sought the counsel of economic experts. But “he decided there was too much talk and little action, so he sought the help of the military.”
El-Sissi argues he is racing against time and his style is the only way to bring Egypt out of turmoil, fix and expand dilapidated infrastructure and satisfy the needs of a population of 91 million.
He often calls on Egyptians to sacrifice. In an emotional speech Sunday, he said Egypt is crying out for its people to take care of it. “So, does that mean we don't eat? Fine, we don't eat. Does that mean we don't sleep? Fine, we don't sleep. Anything, so that Egypt can take its proper place.”
The building of a new leg of the Suez Canal typified el-Sissi's approach. Originally projected to take 36 months to build, el-Sissi ordered it finished in a year. With the military's help in the work, the timetable was met, with the new 45-mile length opening last August to great fanfare.
“We in the military have learned that when an order comes from the supreme commander or the presidency, we respond by saying `yes, sir',” canal chairman Mohab Mamish, a retired navy admiral, recalled in a recent TV interview.
But the canal also demonstrated the downside from the lack of debate. Some economists questioned the immediate need for the $8.5 billion expansion, and despite officials' promises that increased traffic would rake in millions in new revenue, canal revenues have remained about the same or dipped because of sluggishness in global trade.
In late February, el-Sissi said up to 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) of roads, 113 bridges and three airports were being built since he took office.
The military is taking the lead in a program with private companies to build housing for the poor. The armed forces' engineering corps acts as trouble-shooters, using its resources when projects are behind schedule. When el-Sissi toured one of the latest housing complexes, a senior military engineering officer was by his side.
With inflation rising to 12.3 percent, the military expanded its network of outlets selling food at discount prices, currently running 400 across the country. The military has stepped up direct distribution of aid to the poor. It has upgraded hospitals and allowed civilians access to more military hospitals.
El-Sissi's government has invested $16.5 billion in developing electricity and as a result, there have been few of the long power cuts Egypt previously suffered. El-Sissi also succeeded in partially lifting fuel subsidies without sparking unrest.
Military-led infrastructure projects provide the economy with stimulus and create jobs, say economists.
“The government took the lead at a time when the private sector saw risks,” said Mohammed Abu Basha, a senior economist with regional investment bank, Hermes.
But the impact has been limited given the heavy damage to Egypt's economy. Tourism and remittances have plummeted; foreign investment dried up, though it is gradually returning. The Egyptian pound has slid dramatically. In March, the Central Bank devalued the pound by about 13 percent, but the rate remains lower on the black market, and economists say more devaluations or even free-floating of the pound is needed.
Large subsidies still weigh down the budget, but the government is wary of lifting them.
“No one is really dealing with the problem. They are dealing with a crisis here and a crisis there,” said a Cairo-based Western economist who agreed to discuss the economy in return for anonymity for fear of hurting relations with Egyptian officials. “No one knows who is advising the president on the economy, and that's a source of serious concern.”
Officials often justify the need for secrecy in terms of national security. El-Sissi talks cryptically of “evil people” plotting against Egypt. The country faces an Islamic militant insurgency, but at the same time the government has been cracking down hard on dissent, arresting thousands in crackdowns against Islamists and secular democracy advocates.
“As far as he is concerned, Egypt is facing a multitude of security threats that necessitates less discussion and more empowerment of the executive, whether society agrees or not,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute.