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Is Egypt’s army adapting to growing regional and domestic threats?

By Loza Seleshie
Posted on Thursday, 3 December 2020 23:29

Army soldiers stand guard at the entrance of a tunnel in the Suez Canal area, in Ismailia
Army soldiers stand guard at the entrance of a tunnel in the Suez Canal area, in Ismailia, Egypt November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) training schedule has been quite busy these past few years. Once a conventional army, it is now undergoing drastic change under the leadership of President Fattah al-Sisi as it responds to shifting dynamics across the region as well as its own internal and external threats. How is the EAF's military strategy evolving in this context? How is it affecting alliances?

What is being witnessed today in Egypt is in large part linked to the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power during the former and short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi’ has deeply affected the domestic and regional balance.

Changing dynamics

Egypt – Gulf states

Deposed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, the Brotherhood was banned by court order and labelled a terrorist organisation, leading to the exile of many.

Fleeing the violent crackdown, the Brotherhood leaders such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, considered to be the group’s spiritual leader, found refuge and support in Qatar and Turkey. Both countries’ leaderships have ideological leanings with the Brotherhood.

That has been a major source of tension with the Sisi administration that culminated in the Qatar diplomatic relations in 2017.

READ MORE The Horn of Africa and the Gulf: Shifting power plays in the Red Sea

The UAE and Saudi regimes fear another Arab Spring and see the Muslim Brotherhood as the driving force behind any drastic change in the region. That fear has in turn helped to shape alliances among the Egypt – UAE – Saudi front against the Turkey – Qatar – Iran entente.

Egypt – US

Washington’s absence of support for Mubarak (a long-standing ally) during the popular uprising in 2011 created a dent in the trust between the two countries.

Since Sisi came to power, his administration has been looking “to broaden and diversify its foreign strategic relationships, partly to demonstrate that it is not wholly dependent on the US, but especially at this time to deepen ties with countries with which it shares hostility or at least suspicion, [as in the case] of Turkey” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

Military reform

As new regional dynamics emerge, so do new threats.

On the domestic front, the instability of the Northern Sinaï region since 2011 has intensified in the past seven years. The ousting of Mohamed Morsi and economic difficulties have made the terrain ripe for terrorism.

The country’s percentage of arms imports jumped by 215 in the period 2013 to 2017.f This boost in arms purchases has pushed Egypt to be the third largest importer in the world of military weapons and equipment.

But while the Egyptian military was previously “equipped to fight a major land battle”, it is now adapting to new challenges with “special operations, air mobility, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms” says Robert Springborg, a retired professor of national security affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School.

On the training front, Egypt has increased:

  • Military drills and mainly joint operations (nine between July 2019 and December 2020).
  • Exercises with navies from the region (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Sudan) and global powers (US, Russia, UK, France, Greece and Cyprus).

However, a few exceptions were noted in November this year:

Nile’s Eagles was the first joint training session held since the ousting of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir. The training exercise came on the heels of Washington’s announcement that Khartoum would be taken off its terrorist list.

READ MORE Can Trump be trusted to remove Sudan from its terror list?

Egypt’s current naval force-focused strategy also includes efforts to secure the strategic Suez Canal by hosting the biggest military base in the Red Sea at Bérénice.

READ MORE Ports, military bases and treaties: Who’s who in the Red Sea

An increased Egyptian naval capacity is also to the benefit of the EU. Two joint trainings have been conducted in the Mediterranean since July 2020. The growing closeness appears to be creating an “Egypt -EU alliance to counter what is perceived as an aggressive expansion of Turkey in the Mediterranean,” Alex Issa, a research Associate in International relations at Sciences Po, tells The Africa Report.

Joint venture

Another growing headache for Egypt has been its shared border with Libya. Although the conflict has been ongoing since 2011, both Sisi’s administration and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are backing General Khalifa Haftar, who heads the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east of the country over the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The LNA controls access to the country’s major oil sources and strategic locations (Tobruk and Derna ports) over the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

The main point of contention is the oil crescent region, home to most of Libya’s export terminals.

Egypt fears the Turkish-backed GNA’s control over those prime Libyan resources. It therefore has sought to strengthen its support network through its allies including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Inevitably, military action is one way of solidifying and displaying that support.

READ MORE Egypt’s parliament approves military intervention in Libya

Over on the east side of the country, Egypt’s increasingly tense situation with Ethiopia over its Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile continues to raise questions about any military operation.

Going back to its Nile’s Eagles-1 training with Sudan, the joint exercise comes at a time when both Cairo and Khartoum are becoming more weary of Addis Ababa’s growing power through its dam.

But as negotiations drag on and tensions intensify, their joint military exercise “is to be understood in a context of continued normalisation of relations between Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and now Sudan” says Issa. However, he cautions that:  “We cannot count on a real alliance [between Egypt and Sudan]. It is one of circumstances”.

READ MORE Egyptian farmers living in the shadow of Ethiopia’s dam

There are also disagreements with its Saudi ally regarding Iran (of which Egypt is not as hostile) and Yemen where Egypt’s participation has been “essentially symbolic” adds Mohamed Maher, a researcher for the Washington Institute.

Bottom line

Overall, a policy of boosted investment in the military alone could be a risk. Recent plans to spend $1.3bn in arms deals with Italy and $3.5bn with Russia were met by outcry amidst the growing effects of COVID-19.

But recent military operations and renewed exercises do not appear to be stopping Cairo from backing down on regaining its status as a regional military might. Under Sisi’s leadership, the military continues to grow in response to perceived or tangible threats, while the country moves on with social and economic reforms.