Egypt goes on an arms spend­ing spree

Mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity does not ad­e­quately ex­plain the ma­jor in­crease in arms pur­chases. Egypt has pur­sued the arms buildup to bol­ster re­gional in­flu­ence and global pres­tige and to lessen its de­pen­dence on the United States.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - “Egypt Goes on an Arms Spend­ing Spree” is re­pub­lished un­der con­tent con­fed­er­a­tion be­tween Fi­nan­cial Nige­ria and Strat­for.

Over the past few years, Egypt has opened the cheque-book, em­bark­ing on an arms pur­chas­ing pro­gramme that has quickly made it one of the big­gest im­porters of weapons in the world. The out­lay of cash, how­ever, is all the more re­mark­able given Egypt's frag­ile eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion and its lack of a ma­jor con­ven­tional ad­ver­sary. Its mo­ti­va­tions stem not so much from a mil­i­tary need but from a de­sire to re­gain the in­flu­ence of a coun­try that is used to throw­ing its weight around the re­gion. Ul­ti­mately, though, sim­ple eco­nomics might cur­tail the spend­ing spree.

The Big Pic­ture

Egypt has tra­di­tion­ally held great sway over events in its wider re­gion – not least be­cause of its sta­tus as the most pop­u­lous coun­try in the Mid­dle East. Cairo's de­ci­sion to pur­sue a sig­nif­i­cant arms buildup will there­fore im­pact its po­si­tion in the re­gion, as well as its re­la­tion­ships with other global pow­ers, al­beit at a cost that goes be­yond the mere fi­nan­cial out­lay.

Open­ing the Cheque-book

Ac­cord­ing to a Stock­holm In­ter­na­tional Peace Re­search In­sti­tute re­port re­leased in March, Egypt is now the third largest arms im­porter in the world (af­ter In­dia and Saudi Ara­bia). In­deed, in the five years since Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi be­came pres­i­dent, the coun­try's arms im­ports have in­creased by a whop­ping 215 per­cent. Dur­ing that pe­riod, Egypt signed ma­jor deals with a di­verse ar­ray of sup­pli­ers, in­clud­ing the United States, Rus­sia, France and Ger­many. The pur­chases have sig­nif­i­cantly up­graded the Egyp­tian ar­se­nal, of­fer­ing Cairo ca­pa­bil­i­ties it pre­vi­ously lacked, in­clud­ing am­phibi­ous as­sault ships.

Egypt has en­joyed an im­prov­ing econ­omy in re­cent years, al­though the buy­ing spree pre­dates the uptick in its eco­nomic for­tunes. Cairo went to the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund two years ago, ob­tain­ing a $12 bil­lion loan that has since im­proved its macroe­co­nomic in­di­ca­tors. Al-Sisi's gov­ern­ment has re­mained com­mit­ted to eco­nomic re­form, in part be­cause the con­tin­ued de­liv­ery of the money is con­tin­gent on Cairo's im­ple­men­ta­tion of aus­ter­ity mea­sures and struc­tural re­forms. As a re­sult, Egypt's siz­able deficits are di­min­ish­ing, its in­fla­tion is im­prov­ing, and its debt fore­cast is look­ing rosier, all of which have led the World Bank to pre­dict a 5.8 per­cent growth rate for the coun­try in 2020. Greater over­all sta­bil­ity in Egypt over the past cou­ple of years has fa­cil­i­tated a re­cov­ery in the es­sen­tial tourism and en­ergy in­dus­tries. Even over­all un­em­ploy­ment rates have im­proved – al­though youth un­em­ploy­ment is still high, even by re­gional stan­dards.

Mil­i­tary ne­ces­sity, how­ever, does not lie at the root of the in­crease in Egyp­tian arms pur­chases. Al­though the coun­try is em­broiled in a dif­fi­cult coun­terin­sur­gency against Is­lamists in the Si­nai Penin­sula, most of its re­cent pur­chases, in­clud­ing sur­face-to-air mis­siles and ma­jor war­ships, are com­pletely un­suited to Si­nai fight­ing. In fact, few of the re­cent arms deals ad­dress the army's needs in the Si­nai, where Egyp­tian troops are largely wag­ing a cam­paign with pre-ex­ist­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and equip­ment. If any­thing, Egyp­tian forces fight­ing on the penin­sula have suf­fered from a lack of re­sources. To a great ex­tent, the Egyp­tian in­fantry con­duct­ing a ma­jor­ity of the fight­ing in the Si­nai lacks ad­vanced body ar­mour and in­di­vid­ual fight­ing gear amid a wider dearth of ef­fec­tive equip­ment, train­ing and sup­plies. In terms of ve­hi­cles, the army has de­ployed older and more vul­ner­a­ble M-60A3 tanks on the penin­sula, while its more ad­vanced – and much bet­ter pro­tected – M1 Abrams tanks have re­mained out­side the the­atre. Co­in­ci­den­tally, Egypt didn't even buy some of the equip­ment that is most suited to its bat­tle in the Si­nai, the mine-re­sis­tant, am­bush-pro­tected (MRAP) ve­hi­cles. In­stead, the United States be­gan giv­ing hun­dreds of them to Cairo free of charge in early 2016 as part of the Pen­tagon's Ex­cess De­fence Ar­ti­cles pro­gram.

Nor is Egypt's buy­ing spree the re­sult of a press­ing need to de­ter ma­jor con­ven­tional ad­ver­saries. Aside from Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia, none of Egypt's im­me­di­ate neigh­bours come close to match­ing the coun­try's mil­i­tary power. And Saudi Ara­bia hardly rep­re­sents a re­al­is­tic mil­i­tary threat, es­pe­cially be­cause the king­dom has pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic aid to Cairo to bol­ster al-Sisi's gov­ern­ment since the over­throw of Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Morsi in 2013. The long his­tory of con­flict be­tween

Egypt and Is­rael might give Cairo rea­son to main­tain a ro­bust mil­i­tary de­fence to guard against a po­ten­tial down­turn in re­la­tions with Is­rael, but such an even­tu­al­ity ap­pears re­mote at present. Af­ter all, Egypt's re­la­tions with Is­rael have man­i­festly im­proved un­der the al-Sisi gov­ern­ment, and Is­rael has even pro­vided in­di­rect as­sis­tance to the Egyp­tian army in its Si­nai op­er­a­tions.

Re­gain­ing a Lost Lus­tre

A more con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion for its re­cent arms pur­chases lies more in broader geopo­lit­i­cal fac­tors than in mere mil­i­tary need. Egypt, the most pop­u­lous coun­try in the Arab world (cur­rently about 100 mil­lion), was tra­di­tion­ally the Mid­dle East's most in­flu­en­tial state, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Cold War. Dur­ing the past two decades, how­ever, its in­flu­ence has di­min­ished due to the grow­ing eco­nomic heft of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, Turkey's re-en­gage­ment with the re­gion and Iran's move to bol­ster its pres­ence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the wake of Iraqi Pres­i­dent Sad­dam Hus­sein's ouster in 2003. In­ter­nal fac­tors, such as the Arab Spring and its af­ter­math, also di­verted Egypt's fo­cus in­ward for some time. But in a bid to re­store some of its for­mer shine and pres­tige, the gov­ern­ment is loos­en­ing the purse strings to ac­quire high-end weapons, in­clud­ing the mas­sive Mis­tral-class am­phibi­ous as­sault ships, to once again high­light its mil­i­tary might and in­flu­ence.

Egypt's de­ci­sion to search far and wide for sup­pli­ers is also no ac­ci­dent, be­cause the coun­try has long har­boured wor­ries about the risks of overde­pen­dence on a sin­gle for­eign sup­plier such as the United States, which has sup­plied most of the Mid­dle Eastern gi­ant's mil­i­tary equip­ment since the 1978 Camp David Ac­cords. Wash­ing­ton ex­ac­er­bated Cairo's fears in Oc­to­ber 2013 when it cut mil­i­tary and eco­nomic aid to Egypt due to the mil­i­tary's role in re­mov­ing Morsi from power. The U.S. de­ci­sion in­fu­ri­ated the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary, which be­came in­creas­ingly alarmed at the prospect of be­com­ing hostage to U.S. de­mands. The choice to di­ver­sify its sup­plier base not only in­su­lated Egypt from the dan­gers of overde­pen­dence on a sin­gle sup­plier but also en­hanced the coun­try's in­flu­ence with a num­ber of strong for­eign pow­ers, in­clud­ing France and Rus­sia.

The cost of buy­ing more arms from dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers, how­ever, has not been sim­ply fi­nan­cial. In gen­eral, mil­i­taries are more ef­fec­tive when they can op­er­ate largely sim­i­lar equip­ment and weaponry across the force. Such stan­dard­iza­tion greatly fa­cil­i­tates lo­gis­tics, main­te­nance and train­ing, be­cause spare parts can be eas­ily sourced and troops need not be­come fa­mil­iar with a hodge­podge of equip­ment. Egypt's ex­tremely di­verse ar­se­nal, there­fore, im­poses sig­nif­i­cant con­straints on its mil­i­tary. Its air de­fence forces, for in­stance, op­er­ate sur­face-toair mis­sile bat­ter­ies that orig­i­nate from the United States, Rus­sia, France and now Ger­many. All the bat­ter­ies are widely dif­fer­ent plat­forms, mak­ing it ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to train forces in the same ser­vice across the var­i­ous equip­ment.

Egypt's Achilles' Heel

De­spite the IMF loans, the econ­omy will re­main the coun­try's Achilles' heel. In the end, no amount of eco­nomic growth can out­pace its ex­cep­tional pop­u­la­tion growth rate and its cit­i­zens' needs for ba­sic ser­vices and re­sources. The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that by 2050, Egypt's pop­u­la­tion will reach 150 mil­lion, and 200 mil­lion by 2100. Though the coun­try's mil­i­tary is locked in a dif­fi­cult bat­tle with Is­lamist mili­tias in the Si­nai, al-Sisi has re­ferred to un­con­trolled pop­u­la­tion growth as the coun­try's great­est na­tional se­cu­rity threat due to its ca­pac­ity to ham­string the econ­omy and the gov­ern­ment. Egypt's econ­omy might have im­proved in the past few years, but the coun­try can ill af­ford to con­tinue its ma­jor arms buildup over the long term – es­pe­cially be­cause much of the weaponry has been fi­nanced by loans Cairo still needs to pay back.

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