CAIRO — Egypt’s parliament on Tuesday approved the government’s nomination of a retired army general for the country’s new supply minister, a key post tasked with the distribution of subsidized food items on which the majority of Egypt’s 91 million people depends for survival.
The appointment of Maj-Gen. Mohammed Ali el-Sheikh, who retired from active service about 18 months ago, underlined the Egyptian military’s growing role in the running of the country under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a career soldier elected a year after he led the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, whose 12-month rule proved divisive.
El-Sheikh, who will be sworn in by el-Sissi on Wednesday, replaces Khaled Hanafi, who quit last month amid corruption allegations involving wheat procurement. Hanafi has not been charged with any crime.
Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer and the Supply Ministry is in charge of both importing it and running the country’s massive state food subsidy program.
Before he retired, el-Sheikh was in charge of the military’s supply network, which oversees the distribution of food, water and fuel to all units. After retirement, he took over the military’s department running hundreds of outlets selling food items at discount prices to the civilian population, a network that has recently been expanded to counter double-digit inflation.
More than any of his predecessors, el-Sissi has turned to the military to rebuild Egypt’s ailing economy and has launched mega projects to upgrade infrastructure, reclaim areas of the desert, build roads and housing projects, with civilian companies mostly working under army supervision.
The military’s growing involvement in economic projects — from importing livestock to running gas stations, to hotels and, most recently, a private school — has come under fire by critics in recent days, with some demanding that what they describe as the military’s economic empire be placed under government oversight.
“We must not forget the role of the armed forces in reducing prices through the relevant departments that import livestock, frozen meat and poultry without middle men and at lower prices,” el-Sissi said in an interview last month.
In a weekend statement, the military also signaled its latest incursion into commerce, saying it would together with the Health Ministry work to break the “greedy monopoly” of baby formula importers and directly import the item. The announcement followed a series of small but significant rallies by young mothers, crying babies in their arms, who protested over the acute shortage of the heavily subsidized formula.
Egypt’s economy is battered after five years of turmoil following the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. With its vital tourism sector decimated, its currency losing value and inflation and unemployment in double digits, Egypt last month initially secured a $12 billion loan over three years from the International Monetary Fund in exchange for what is thought to be an ambitious and politically risky reform program that could see, among other things, subsidies gradually removed and the local currency devalued or floated.