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Egypt election: Will the state enlist Falcon Group to deepen repression? 

Ownership change raises concern at security company's potential role after, not during, the elections
An election campaign bus for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, bearing the slogan “Long live Egypt”, in Giza on 2 October 2023 (AFP)

Egyptians are heading to the polls this weekend to elect the country's president. There will be no surprises. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has ruled with an iron fist and squashed all shades of dissent over the past decade, will certainly win.

But while Sisi has used the traditional state repressive apparatus in consolidating his rule - the military, police and general intelligence service - there seems to be a new irregular force that is poised to play an auxiliary role in his third term in office.

In October, soon after Sisi announced he would run for a third presidential term, the state mobilised marches in the capital and across the country to declare "popular support" for the autocrat who has ruled Egypt for a decade. 

While any attempts to hold similar marches to support other candidates would have certainly been met with repression, the pro-Sisi mobilisations enjoyed the protection of police and the civilian paramilitary force Falcon Group.  

Last September, Falcon, Egypt's most prominent security company, was quietly sold to crime boss Sabry Nakhnoukh, who in the Mubarak era ran an "army of thugs" that was used by the interior ministry to attack opposition activists and to rig elections in favour of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party.

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Nakhnoukh managed a vast protection racket, through which casinos, shops and other endeavours made him a fortune. He stockpiled machine guns and a variety of heavy weapons in his Alexandria villa, where he kept caged lions and raised exotic animals. Photographs of him with celebrities and influential politicians have regularly appeared in tabloids and on social media.

Nakhnoukh was arrested in 2012 and charged with a number of crimes, including possession of illegal firearms and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2014, but successfully appealed the verdict in 2016, and was due to be retried when Sisi released him on a presidential pardon in 2018.

Falcon Group was previously a little-known company. Founded in 2006, it came into existence in a slowly rising private sector, propelled by the neoliberal transformation that started under president Anwar Sadat, at a time when the army was demobilised following the end of hostilities with Israel.

Retired army personnel looking for jobs provided the private security sector with abundant human resources.

By 2014, the number of private security companies operating in Egypt ranged from 400 to 500, employing between 100,000 and 120,000 personnel. That same year, Falcon Group made headlines after providing a security detail for Sisi's presidential campaign, then was contracted by the state to handle security at more than a dozen universities at a time when student protests were flaring.

Paramilitary force

Sharif Khaled, Falcon's chief executive at the time, has been described in state-owned media as a former military intelligence officer. He repeatedly remarked however that this was a "rumour".

In all cases, the company is generally seen as a front for Egypt's military intelligence and is known to be heavily staffed with retired officers from all the repressive state institutions. From a little more than 200 employees when founded, its personnel had grown to 6,000 by the eve of the 2011 revolution.

One thing is certain, though: Nakhnoukh now has the perfect legal cover for his 'army of thugs'. This raises even more questions over the timing and purpose

During the revolution, low-ranking employees staged protests over work conditions, and called for "demilitarising" management. These protests gave a rare glimpse into how the security company was being run in a fashion similar to a paramilitary force.

After the 2013 coup, Falcon's labour force continued to grow, reaching 22,000 by 2017 and operating across the country's 28 provinces. The company was also allowed to have a "rapid intervention force" to support police in suppressing protests and "lawlessness". In addition, it is the only company in the country licensed to use pellet rifles.

By January 2023, the company's official website boasted of serving and securing "more than 1,200 locations all over Egypt", including 26 banks, at least nine state universities, stadiums, sports facilities, airports, the underground metro system and even Tahrir Square. The post was later removed from the website.

Falcon personnel have acquired a notorious reputation for abusive treatment, as they have cooperated with the interior ministry in suppressing rebellions on campuses. Under severe repression, the student resistance started losing steam by mid-2015, and it was completely over by the beginning of 2018.

Losing venture

In 2017, Khaled said his company controlled 62 percent of the private security market. But despite its dominance, Falcon Group is shockingly a losing venture today: Nakhnoukh reportedly bought the firm for just three million Egyptian pounds ($97,000) and an agreement to take on the company's debt load of 120 million pounds ($3.9m).

How did such a prominent company with all those influential contacts, including Sisi, end up in such a disastrous financial situation? This remains unclear.

One thing is certain, though: Nakhnoukh now has the perfect legal cover for his "army of thugs". This raises even more questions over the timing and purpose. 

Egypt election: Another fait accompli for Sisi?
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As the country braces for the presidential election, some social media users and activists have been quick to conclude that Nakhnoukh's thugs, now legally operating with Falcon, will be deployed against voters. There is definitely room to argue along those lines, taking into account the long history of the Egyptian state. 

Already, Sisi's previous main challenger, Ahmad Tantawi, has been attacked on a number of occasions by officials linked to the regime-supporting Nation's Future party. But to be realistic, Sisi doesn't face an existential threat in this election, and his victory is certain

This opens the door to a more macabre scenario, as suggested by Belal Fadl, one of Egypt's most famous writers and who is now in exile. He is more concerned with the potential role of Falcon and Nakhnoukh after, not during, the election.

It is no secret that Sisi has been postponing further currency devaluation and austerity measures until the election is over, fearing that popular discontent could disrupt his electoral victory. 

As he embarks on such measures in the coming year, this will naturally trigger social dissent. Fadl argues that Nakhnoukh and his Falcon men will be an ideal repression tool for Sisi, and more reliable than the military and police if protests reach an extent that threatens to draw the sympathy of military conscripts. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is a journalist and scholar-activist who researches the Egyptian military and security services.
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