Cairo’s military buildup is about power projection in an unstable region

Egypt has been buying weapons systems at a rate that belies its relative size, power and purchasing ability

Visitors surround a training plane at the Egyptian booth during the first arms fair organized in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. The three-day Egypt Defence Expo features the world's top arms companies and hundreds of military and civilian participants from dozens of countries. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
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Egypt's unyielding arms build-up, a multi-billion-dollar endeavour that belies the country's struggling economy, speaks to the enduring volatility of the Middle East and the need for the most populous Arab state to project strength as a deterrent to potential adversaries.

Egypt's arms purchases – mostly from the United States, France, Germany and Russia – also have to do with maintaining the domestic, regional and international prestige that comes with having a well-equipped army, according to analysts.

The country’s leader, general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, has since taking office in 2014 spent billions of dollars buying weapons. They range from submarines, troop-carriers and warships to fighter-jets, air defence systems and assault helicopter gunships.

Cairo’s latest arms deal – about two dozen SU-35 fighter-jets from Russia – costs $2 billion (Dh 7.3 bn), with delivery starting next year, according to Russian media reports this week.

The weapons purchases are in addition to the annual US military aid to Egypt, which stands at over $1 billion a year and has been used since the commencement of the program in the late 1970s to mostly buy jet fighters, attack helicopters, tanks and armoured carriers.

A gold-plated SMG PK is displayed at the Pakistani stand during the last day of the Egypt Defense Expo, showcasing military systems and hardware, in Cairo, Egypt, December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A gold-plated SMG PK is displayed at the Pakistani stand during the last day of the Egypt Defence Expo. Reuters

Significantly, Egypt's arms shopping spree has been accompanied by an unprecedented number of war games with foreign nations, whose list over the past four years include the US, Britain, France, Greece, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Jordan.

The recent spate of arms deals has come at a time when Egypt’s army is ranked by various indexes as the most powerful in the Arab world and Africa as well as the 12th worldwide out of a total of 136 nations.

Egypt's security challenges cannot be underestimated and Mr El Sisi appears focused on projecting the image of a strong nation at home and abroad while warning the public against allowing the strife countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen are experiencing to be replicated in their country.

One challenge facing Egypt is the years-long battle against Islamist militants in the north of the Sinai Peninsula. Although security forces have successfully prevented the militants from ever holding territory, they continue to struggle to completely crush the insurgency.

Another threat comes from Sudan. Egypt has eyed its neighbour to the south with significant concern since a 1989 military coup backed by Islamists seized power there. Longtime ruler Omar Al Bashir, an Islamist and a career soldier who led the putsch, has sidelined radical Muslims in the ruling establishment over the years, but he also has been a less than reliable ally. Much to the displeasure of Egypt, he has occasionally stoked an old border dispute with Cairo while courting regional rivals like Qatar and Turkey.

Now, Egypt fears that three months of protests against the Sudanese leader could bring about his downfall, allowing hard-line Islamists to step in and fill the vacuum. Cairo fears this could turn Sudan into a magnet for militants.

A much more serious threat is already playing out in Libya, Egypt's neighbour to the west, where an uprising in 2011 brought about enough chaos to tempt militant Islamic groups to move there and subsequently send weapons and jihadists across the porous desert border with Egypt to strike at security forces and minority Christians. Egypt's air force has occasionally struck militants in eastern Libya, where Cairo supports the self-styled National Libyan Army in its fight against militants.

REFILE - CORRECTING GRAMMAR Military vehicles are displayed on the Saudi stand during on the first day of Egypt Defense Expo, showcasing military systems and hardware in Cairo, Egypt, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Military vehicles are displayed on the Saudi stand during on the first day of Egypt Defence Expo. Reuters

Protecting the vast offshore natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean is of no less importance to Egypt. The fields may hold the key to a much needed economic respite in Egypt and are equally crucial to Israel, Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus — fellow members in an informal "gas alliance."

Turkey, which occupies the northern third of Cyprus and is something of an anathema to Egypt, is pressing demands for a share of the gas with hostile posturing and threats of military intervention.

To Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert with the New York-based Century Foundation, the threats facing Egypt are real but the magnitude of Cairo's military buildup, he says, is not entirely justified.

"Egypt's military spending is conspicuous for a country of its size, economic situation and existing military assets," he said. "It has enough existing weaponry. It's hard to justify a need now, although they are deliberately seeking to diversify their suppliers and reduce reliance on the United States," said Mr Hanna. He acknowledged that Egypt's arms build-up is mostly intended to serve as a deterrent in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, with the latter witnessing rapid militarization as a spillover from the war in Yemen between a Saudi-led coalition and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

"I don't think it's necessary to pinpoint actual [potential] adversaries, but the [Egyptian] naval build-up certainly makes sense in light of Turkey's posture in the East Med, and the Red Sea is an arena where a number of potential threats to Egypt's vital interests can be identified," said David Butter, a Middle East expert from the London-based Chatham House think tank.

He said the naval buildup — German submarines, French frigates and Mistral troop carriers — makes much more sense now than it had in the past, with the potential of instability in Sudan and Egypt's announcement this month of an oil and gas bid round in the Red Sea.

"I think it's more a question of the Red Sea becoming increasingly militarized and Egypt making sure it has a robust naval presence," he said. "In the long run, they have to weigh up Egyptian power in the region against a wide range of rivals."

Military forces are seen in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017. Picture taken December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Military forces are seen in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017. Reuters

Another motive for Egypt's arms buildup is to project the image of a regional powerhouse and to back its often repeated assertions that the security of the Gulf region is inseparable from that of its own. Egypt has said it will come to the aid of Gulf Arab allies if faced with a "threat," a thinly veiled reference to non-Arab Iran, whose growing influence in the region has been a source of concern to Cairo and capitals across the Gulf.

"Military acquisitions may very well be considered by the Egyptian military as an instrument to cement their position as a central political actor and for internal prestige reasons," explained Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI. Mr Wezeman also cited the protection of Egypt's share of Nile waters, which Cairo says is threatened by a massive dam being built by Ethiopia.

However, Mr Hanna of the Century Foundation said that going into war against another country, whether Turkey over the gas or Ethiopia over the Nile, is not on the cards.

"[In recent decades], Egypt's military actions have been against non-state actors, while its posture is intended to act as a deterrent in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea," Mr Hanna said. "Interstate conflict would be ruinous right now. Very hard to imagine such a scenario."