The Egyptian regime is experimenting with a new approach to ensure that emerging leaders understand and are loyal to the state’s mission as the current, security-minded regime defines it. The National Training Academy (NTA) and affiliated youth conferences have been designed to identify and cultivate talented youth, train them, and inculcate its conception of national security. Most of the programs are modest, consisting of administrative development and education that take place far from the headlines and are seemingly technocratic. The most sensational elements involve public celebrations of pro-regime youth, perhaps cultivating an alternative to the role models who led a national uprising a decade ago. In a country with a yawning generation gap and a regime that has evinced fear about its inability to reach youth, the NTA offers an attractive set of tools.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, portrays himself as defending the country from foreign and domestic enemies, and he sees the state apparatus as intended to help him in those missions. While security-oriented bodies seem to have the upper hand in Egyptian politics at present—and indeed have given birth to the current regime, with their veterans staffing many of its most powerful positions—they do not always have an easy time steering the state in all its breadth, including the vast network of official bodies that manage everything from simple market transactions to charitable donations to marriage.
The effectiveness of the NTA effort—in terms of creating a bureaucracy at once capable and quiescent while harnessing the energies and loyalty of talented youth—is unclear so far. Egypt’s past is littered with similar attempts that have failed.
A Problem With a Past
Since the 1952 overthrow of the country’s monarchy, Egypt’s rulers have devised various techniques to help them control the vast state apparatus, and when those techniques have not given them what they needed, they have tinkered with them or have invented new ones. The post-1952 regime experimented with a series of political parties that were designed in part to bring various state and national bodies together. Egypt’s single-party system culminated in the construction of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) in the 1960s. When that proved insufficient for state control, then president Gamal Abdel Nasser oversaw a “vanguard apparatus,” a mysterious body that itself became suspect in 1970 when Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasser. Sadat gradually dismantled the ASU and its vanguard and used different techniques—such as an empowerment of administrative courts, a carefully managed and tactical political liberalization, and a balancing among key institutions—to steer a set of administrative, security, religious, judicial, and social service structures.
Sisi has thus far eschewed political parties and evinces a deep disinterest in (and even hostility to) politics generally. Constitutional changes and new laws (especially those governing various judicial bodies) have greatly increased direct presidential control over much of the state. Loyal security services rather than politicians have managed parliamentary elections. That said, there are some suggestions that frustrations with the current parliament and legislative system may lead to an officially favored party in upcoming elections. Even loyal parliamentarians find the current arrangement too constricted, and some ambitious ones are beginning to advance their own initiatives. Various islands of autonomy within the state apparatus have been placed under closer watch, as the judiciary has been brought to heel with a spate of legal and constitutional changes that increase the president’s appointment power over senior posts. Only the venerable Islamic institution of al-Azhar is now able to challenge the president (politely and indirectly, but still publicly).
Networks of Training Institutions
The centerpiece of the new effort is the NTA. While it has had some older entities folded under its wings, the academy itself was established on August 28, 2017, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 434. It quickly began operating an elite youth leadership program. Located in the city of 6 October (a suburb of Cairo), the NTA purports to emphasize “building the Egyptian citizen.”
In some ways, the NTA and associated initiatives resemble the ASU vanguard of the 1960s, an experiment that is by now only dimly remembered. The vanguard also focused on cultivating a cadre of ambitious, like-minded, and talented, often younger leaders, sprinkling them throughout critical Egyptian institutions—but with the NTA, they are united by clear links to the presidency rather than a political party.
Initially holding a supervisory role over the NTA, the president currently chairs the NTA’s board of trustees, which also includes Major General Abbas Kamel, who directs the General Intelligence Service, and Professor Hala El Saeed, Egypt’s minister of planning and economic development. El Saeed, who is a respected economist with experience in important institutions, such as the Central Bank, has emerged as a key player behind Egypt’s institutional and administrative reforms. The minister has actively participated in the NTA’s development and direction and is one of the figures most identified with the academy. At a recent NTA event, El Saeed showed an ability to deploy the regime’s rhetoric when she argued that Egypt’s increasing population constituted a “national security” issue on par with terrorism.
Outside of the NTA’s board of trustees, Rascha Ragheb currently serves as the NTA’s executive director; her public profile is also significant. With a background in marketing, development, and finance, Ragheb oversees the NTA’s forty-three training programs that, to date, have trained more than 6,000 participants.
In addition to offering specialized instruction for individuals and organizations, the NTA’s youth training primarily revolves around the academy’s presidential leadership programs (PLPs). Ranging from five weeks to nine months in length, each program has its own specific eligibility requirements. For instance, the Advanced Presidential Leadership Program requires prospective trainees to have a postsecondary education, be an Egyptian national between twenty-three and thirty years of age, and engage in “good conduct and behavior.”
Through an emphasis on recent graduates and young professionals, the NTA seeks to inject competent youth into various government sectors through “transformative education” and the use of “world class methods and standards.” In December 2019, the NTA also introduced a new two-month intensive training initiative aimed at teaching public and local administrative skills to recently appointed deputy governors. Over the course of the initiative’s pilot program, various ministers, governors, and other political figures visited the NTA to meet with the new deputy governors.
Each year, a National Conference on Youth brings together PLP graduates with other promising youth in a showcase event under the president’s patronage: Sisi makes a personal appearance and an “Ask the President” session features among the highlights of the event.
Building International Ties
The NTA has a largely domestic agenda, but it has also included some international efforts, especially connected with Sisi’s focus on Africa. For example, the African Presidential Leadership Program (APLP) seeks to “bring . . . together African youth with different affiliations and beliefs under one umbrella aimed at development and peace, complementing Egypt’s role in effective participation with other African governments.” Striving to influence Africa’s next generation of leaders, the APLP’s mission is clear: “Develop. Inspire. Empower. Lead.” In February 2020, the NTA held its graduation ceremony for the third APLP cohort, which included ninety-four graduates from thirty-seven African states. Voicing the NTA’s position on Egypt’s regional relationships, Ragheb recently called for “no borders between African countries; the more diverse, the richer we are.” Reflecting this position, the NTA recently hosted delegations from the African Media and Cooperation Program and the African Women Leadership Program, which aims to enhance “the knowledge and skills of African women who hold important positions” in regional governments.
The geographic focus of the NTA has also expanded north. Plans to launch the NTA’s Euro-Mediterranean Presidential Leadership Program were announced at the 2019 World Youth Forum in Sharm El Sheikh. In January 2019, the NTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the French National School of Management at the Egyptian Presidential Palace during French President Emmanuel Macron’s official visit to Egypt. The NTA proudly announced ten months later: “In preparation for the second batch of the Executive Presidential Leadership Program (EPLP), [the] National Training Academy, in cooperation with the French Government provided an in-depth five day Training of Trainers . . . program with one of the prominent master trainers from France. The EPLP is one of the academy’s elite and exclusive programs which aims at developing the highest calibers and future executive leaders for the country.” The NTA boasts other partnerships with the Geneva Center for Security Policy and Google.
More Than One Purpose
This impressive set of training programs is certainly designed with the ostensible purpose in mind of developing a set of young people with the technical expertise and a sense of public purpose necessary to lead Egyptian state institutions in their difficult governing and administrative tasks.
But these programs do not simply confer technical skills and generic leadership training. There are three other apparent purposes as well.
- Groom future leaders: The programs seek to identify influential individuals and probable youth leaders and prepare them for public service in state bodies (and likely away from the sorts of activities that the protesting youth of Tahrir Square of a decade ago pursued). The PLP proclaims: “In the line with Egypt’s focus on creating a promising youth base qualified to carry the leadership torch within all areas on a political, administrative or community front, and possess profound national awareness with a comprehensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by the country, the decision to launch the presidential programs to train youth was born.” Other key state bureaucracies have their incoming cadres developed from the beginning through centrally managed training programs; in October 2019, the NTA suggested such a purpose when it announced on Facebook that it had just concluded its rigorous and meticulous selection process to choose “future elite Egyptian leaders.”
- Plug young leaders into local and state bureaucracies: The programs seem not only designed to identify and train incoming officials but to place them in responsible positions, so as to form a network of younger, ambitious officials throughout the bureaucracy. In a 2019 round of appointments, NTA graduates were placed in deputy governor posts throughout the country (with the leadership of the governorates often treated as sensitive security positions entrusted to senior state officials chosen from among the ranks of internal security figures, military officers, and judges). One has already ascended to the governorship of Beni Suef, south of Cairo. This not only places such individuals in local government but also ties them to the local activities of central ministries (such as the Ministry of Education). Key Egyptian ministries and other structures (such as the National Council for Women and the Council of State, a critical part of the Egyptian judicial apparatus) have formed training partnerships with the NTA. Even the Ministry of Religious Endowments has allowed its preachers to receive some NTA training.
- Indoctrinate the country’s future leaders: The final purpose seems to be ideological, although that is difficult to document. The curriculum is not public, but sporadic accounts suggest that it has a national security component—generally taught by military officers. Anecdotal evidence—and the security rhetoric of the regime and of senior military officers—suggests that the national security doctrine emphasizes internal threats, subversion, unconventional conflict, and threats emanating from domestic terrorists aided by international actors seeking to subvert Egyptian strength as well corrupt youth with alien ideas. Sisi has publicly endorsed “fourth generation warfare,” a vague concept that appeared in a S. Marine Corps publication in the 1980s (referring to unconventional warfare that aims to “collapse the enemy’s combat forces [internally] rather than seeking to close with and destroy them” and targets “such things as the population’s support for the war and the enemy’s culture”). Sisi has identified events in Egypt since 2011 as fitting this pattern; other security officials echo similar themes. And this kind of rhetoric seeps through into some public presentations of the NTA’s work, such as when it described its participants as frontline soldiers, as it did on Facebook in December 2019: “A soldier on the front line can grow into a leader with the right motivation and tools.” In the 2019 youth conference, “fourth generation warfare” became a major theme, coupled with the idea of “fake news.”
Is It Working?
While the scale of the NTA training effort is clear, its effectiveness is not. In a sense, the initiative is based on an elision between training cadres to serve the state and the public interest, broadly defined, and to loyally follow the current regime. Egypt’s top leaders seem to accept no distinction between the two. But there are limited signs of pushback from parts of the state apparatus. The judiciary, for instance, insisted that it was quite capable of training its own personnel. That position led the president to suspend new appointments (which are formally made by the president after they are nominated by the judicial council) for a significant period. The administrative courts finally agreed to NTA training in 2019, but the regular judiciary continues to resist.
But such overt opposition is fading and likely to recede further. The impact of the NTA effort will probably be determined far more by the training’s effectiveness; the ability of those overseeing the program to satisfy the career ambitions they are generating in graduates; the willingness of graduates to embrace the ideas that they are taught; and the capacity of the regime to guide the administrative cadres it is developing. Whether the result will be a set of ambitious and capable civil servants (the initiative’s ostensible purpose) or a tool for regime control (as the heavy presence of security bodies in its activities suggest) is not yet clear.
The ASU vanguard, an uncertain analogue, was abandoned when it proved to be more of a tool for the ambitions of its leaders and graduates than a loyal pillar of the regime—and indeed, it was identified as one of the centers of power that Sadat moved against in 1971 when he consolidated his position. The new training initiative does not seem to have the kind of autonomy and secrecy that would make it evolve into a similar threat, but it is too new to have proven its worth to more than a select group of ambitious and able young Egyptians.
Mark Berlin is a doctoral student at George Washington University.