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Egypt’s Power Game: Why Cairo is Boosting its Military Power

[Egyptian Tank in the streets of Cairo, February 2011 in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Graffiti by protesters on Tank (near wheels) were masked or painted. Essam Sharaf] [Egyptian Tank in the streets of Cairo, February 2011 in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Graffiti by protesters on Tank (near wheels) were masked or painted. Essam Sharaf]

Recent spending patterns in Egypt pose a dilemma. While experiencing the worst economic crisis in decades, which involves a dwindling of resources, a sharp currency devaluation and an acute shortage of foreign exchange, levels of military spending in Egypt have dramatically increased. How can the two trends be reconciled? Why would a cash-strapped government spend massively on guns when its population of 90 million needs more bread and jobs and services?

This peculiar pattern began to take shape as soon as Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi became president in 2014. High-profile arms deals signed during his first two years in power include a 5.2 billion Euro agreement with France to deliver 24 Rafale combat jets, a multi-mission naval frigate and air-to-air missiles; deals with Russia to buy 46 attack helicopters and 50 MIG-29 fighter aircrafts; and with the US to purchase F-16 jets and harpoon missiles. It was also reported that Egypt has initiated negotiations for the procurement of the advanced MIG-35 Russian fighter jets. Egypt also signed an agreement with Russia to build a $25 billion nuclear power plant in Dabaa, northern Egypt.

A great deal of Egypt’s military efforts has focused on bolstering its presence in the Mediterranean. In this regard, Egypt has been strongly backed by major European powers who are deeply concerned about the specters of terrorism and illegal immigration. As one analyst put it, the Europeans perceive Cairo to be “the only southern Mediterranean state that can help police the region and secure Europe’s southern border.” Towards that end, Paris, Berlin and London ramped up their arms sales to Egypt. Over the past few years, Egypt received corvettes, amphibious assault ships and a reconnaissance satellite from France, submarines from Germany, and armored vehicles and components for aircraft from the UK. Meanwhile, Egypt’s armed forced have conducted several joint military and counterterrorism exercises with France and the UK. As a consequence of these investments, it is fair to say that Egypt has become a major military player in the Mediterranean region.  

Cairo’s efforts to reinforce its naval power are not limited to the Mediterranean. It was recently reported that Egypt seeks to establish a military base in Eritrea, obviously to buttress its influence in the Red Sea and the Mandeb Strait, historically an Egyptian-dominated region. To the same end, Egypt formed the Southern Fleet Command in January 2017. As a result of these strenuous efforts, Egypt has now the sixth strongest navy in the world.  

Egypt’s promotion of its military capabilities figures prominently in all military reports and indices. According to the global analysis firm IHS Inc., Egypt upped its spending on military imports in 2015 to $2.268 billion, making it the fourth-largest weapons importer worldwide. This figure is corroborated by a report produced by Global Security, which indicates that around 60% of Egypt’s military budget, estimated at $5.2 billion, is spent on salaries, while the rest is earmarked for arms purchases and sales parts. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) --which tracks arms transactions based on production costs rather than procurement prices-- calculated that the value of arms transfers to Egypt in 2015 reached $1.475 billion, compared to $686 in 2010. In other words, arms transfers more than doubled between Sisi’s first year in power and Hosni Mubarak’s last year in office. According to the ranking developed by Global Fire Power in 2017, Egypt is ranked as the 12th most powerful army worldwide. With the exception of Turkey, it surpassed all other Middle Eastern states in the ranking, including military powerhouses such as Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.

Military Expenditure in Egypt (in Egyptian Pounds)
Source: “Egypt – Military Expenditure” Index Mundi

Not only did Egypt massively upgrade its military capabilities, but it soon put its military power to use on more than one regional front. In August 2014, two months into Sisi’s presidency, Egypt and the UAE launched secret airstrikes against Islamist militias fighting for the control of Tripoli, Libya. Multiple reports gave an account of the involvement of the two countries in other aerial attacks in Libya, including one that asserted that General Khalifa Haftar (the self-styled leader of the Libyan National Army) has clearly become “dependent on the Egyptian and UAE air forces to carry out his air operations.” Again, in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christian workers in Libya in February 2015, Egypt carried out airstrikes against positions of ISIS in eastern Libya. Other air strikes were launched in May 2017, to target training camps of militiamen who are allegedly implicated in terrorist attacks in homeland Egypt. Meanwhile, Egypt’s navy and air force have joined the ongoing Saudi-led offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, although their contribution has remained marginal. This military-based posture represents a stark break from the past, especially the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule (1981-2011), when reluctance to get involved in combat was official policy (with participation in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait being the sole exception). 

It is crucial, however, to notice that Sisi has hardly showed any enthusiasm to intervene militarily in both Syria and Yemen. There is reason to believe that, because of the complexity and intensity of both conflicts, the army leaders have expressed their reluctance to send Egyptian troops there. In general, when it comes to military action, Egypt’s preference seems to be for conducting aerial strikes, or participating in multinational coalitions where sizeable Egyptian forces could play crucial roles in low-risk, internationally-legitimate missions.   

The reason behind Cairo’s proclivity to upgrade its military power has been a subject of controversy. It has admittedly been fostered by Cairo’s pervasive sense of insecurity resulting from the intensification of multiple security threats surrounding Egypt. These include the heated armed insurgency by ISIS affiliates in northern Sinai; the spillover effects of the protracted civil war in Libya; the unremitting state of tension in the Gaza Strip; and the rising threat of terrorist attacks at home. Also, despite a stable four-decade peace treaty with Israel and current security cooperation at highest levels since the peace deal, Egypt’s geographic proximity to the Jewish state (which has a huge arsenal of conventional and non-conventional weapons, including some 200 nuclear heads) must be worrying for the Egyptian leadership. The upgrade is likewise part and parcel of the overall security strategies seen by Egypt’s security-minded leaders as the panacea for all political and social questions. Moreover, it might have partially been a response to the two decades of the leadership of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi (Egypt’s Minister of Defense, 1991-2011), which reportedly saw a decline in the army’s “professional readiness.” While some analysts argue that Egypt’s vast purchases of French and Russian weapons aims at diversifying its suppliers of military equipment, and lessening its dependence on the US, others believe that these purchases may be geared to “repressing an anticipated urban uprising that resembles Syria’s”

The validity of these interpretations notwithstanding, the decision to allocate huge resources to the procurement of jets, helicopter carriers and weapon systems in the throes of a mounting economic crisis reflects something else: Egypt’s intention to convert its uneasy one-sided dependency on wealthy Arab states into a mutual dependency. In other words, Egypt seeks to balance its economic inferiority with its military superiority, in a bid to elevate its status in the region and to avoid subordination to other Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia.

That is why Sisi has been more than willing, nearly eager, to put Egypt’s military strength to actual use. Egypt was the most vocal advocate about the creation of a joint Arab military force when the idea was popular in 2015, and it pledged to commit 40,000 troops to the force, but the plan never came to fruition. Moreover, Sisi vowed to provide protection to Gulf states whenever required, and he also expressed his readiness to send Egyptian troops to a future Palestinian state to help stabilize it. There is also reason to believe that Sisi feels inclined to intervene militarily in neighboring Libya, but only if a multilateral force that enjoys a UN mandate is formed.

Leadership aspirations are not alien to Egypt’s modern history. In fact, due to Egypt’s pivotal geographic location, demographic weight and cultural lure, the pursuit of regional leadership has been a constant feature of Egypt’s foreign policy since its independence. Egyptian rulers have seen themselves as the natural leaders of the Arab world, often falling into the trap of taking their country’s preeminence for granted. Following the revolution of the ‘Free Officers’ in 1952, the type of leader in power implied how that leading regional role was to be executed. Gamal Abdel-Nasser believed that Egypt’s hegemony cannot be imposed without a constantly active foreign policy that ardently asserts its presence in all inter-Arab issues with vigor and dogged determination. Sadat, on the other hand, was less zestful. He believed that Egypt is destined to lead and that Arabs are bound to follow in Egypt’s footsteps. Mubarak had to come to terms with the decline in Egypt’s capabilities vis-à-vis other states. He thus opted for a tripartite leadership of the Arab world (with Saudi Arabia and Syria).  

So over the past seven decades, Egypt led at times, was the first among equals at other times, and saw its influence fading at other times. Yet whatever the mode in effect, Egyptian rulers across different regimes shared an apprehension about the potential emergence of other regional hegemons. King Farouk in the late 1940s, Nasser in the late 1950s and Mubarak in the 1980s were alarmed by the rise of Iraq in the Arab state system, and they strove to thwart its influence.

Sisi is following in the footsteps of his predecessors. His decision to boost Egypt’s military strength is driven by his knowledge that his country has limited room for maneuver, and that its frail economy cannot eliminate its dependence on the largesse of wealthy Arab states, let alone compete with their economies. Only military prowess will enable Egypt to maintain its traditional political leverage and to avoid being swept away by the rapid reconfigurations of power in the region. Indeed, Sisi expressed, on numerous occasions, his personal irritation at his country’s dependence on the oil-rich Gulf states (who bankrolled his regime with more than $30 billion since his predecessor was ousted in 2013), and his hope that this dependence would soon come to an end.

The Egyptian president admitted that he did not purchase vast amounts of arms for defense purposes, but to project Egypt’s power in the Arab world. In April 2017, Sisi said: “Nobody will invade you from the outside. So why do we own these [military] capabilities? We own them because a huge vacuum has happened in our region ... in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq … this vacuum has to be filled, filled with these capabilities.”     

In a region that is in a state of great flux and challenge, Sisi’s power gamble may fail to produce the desired results. Also, given Egypt’s huge economic troubles, it stands to reason that his stupendous spending on arms is grossly irrational. But this is how Middle Eastern leaders who were trained in the ranks of the military usually think and act. They believe that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, tend to be fixated on raw forms of power, waste scarce resources on questionable ends, and more often than not fail to admit their faults.

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Population(July 2016 est.): 94,666,993
GDP($US trillions, 2016 est.)$1.105 
Unemployment: 13.1% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): 34.3% (2013 est.)
Internet Users (/million, 2015)31.767 (35.9%)
Exchange Rate(2016 est.)$342.8 billion 
GDP Growth Rate(2016 est.)2.51% 
Military Expenditures(2015): 1.73% of GDP 
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014)5.6% 
Population Growth Rate (2016 est.):  2.51%
Age Structure (2016 est.)0-14 years: 33.21%; 15-24 years: 19.24%; 25-54 years: 37.47%; 55-64 years: 5.91%; 65 years and over: 4.17% 
Literacy (2016 est.): 73.8% 
Religious Demographics: Muslim (mostly Sunni) 90%; Coptic 9%; other Christian 1%