Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president in June 2014, the Egyptian military has embarked on a massive spending spree. The value of arms transfer agreements Egypt signed in 2015 was the second-largest among developing countries, at $11.9 billion. This included $5.9 billion from France for 24 Rafale jet fighters and $1.1 billion for two Mistral helicopter carriers, whose primary purpose is amphibious landing and assault operations. In 2016, Egypt and France signed an additional $1.1 billion deal for aircraft, ships, and a military satellite communication system. In January 2016, Egypt concluded a deal for 46 assault helicopters from Russia to complement the Mistral carriers.
Yet the kind of weaponry purchased does not seem well suited for Egypt’s internal or external security challenges, nor do they fit its foreign policy aims. The bulk of the purchases are of fighter jets, assault helicopters, and multi-purpose carriers, which are traditionally used to project power or carry out offensive operations. This raises questions about whether the state foresees a Syria-type internal conflict.
The recent military spending represents a substantial increase from previous years. For example, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), total international arms transfers to Egypt (based on 1990 fixed prices) averaged $611 million per year between 2000 and 2013—but an additional $1.47 billion was spent in 2015 alone, or 32 percent of all military arms transfers since 2008. Most of this was divided among fixed-wing aircraft and ships (mostly aircraft carriers).
Egypt’s internal and external security threats do not offer a clear rationale for these types of purchases. On the eastern border, Egypt has reached a historic level of diplomatic and security cooperation with Israel. For example, on December 22, Egypt postponed a vote in the United Nations Security Council that would have demanded Israel cease building settlements in the occupied territories when it became clear that the United States would not veto it. Moreover, in May 2016 Egypt nominated Ahmed Aboul Gheit, known across the region as “Israel’s Friend,” as head of the Arab League. On the security front, besides Egyptian–Israeli cooperation in besieging the Gaza strip, Israel has allowed Egypt to use airstrikes and heavy weaponry to fight the Islamic State in Sinai, which technically violates the Camp David accords.
On the western border, the power vacuum in Libya has allowed a number of armed groups to proliferate, including the Islamic State, which could potentially threaten Egyptian security. However, besides allowing Emirati jets to use Egyptian airbases to conduct air raids in Libya—and launching its own airstrikes in retaliation for the execution of a number of Coptic Egyptians—Egypt has kept its distance from the Libyan struggle. Sisi has provided moral and diplomatic support for Haftar but deemed any direct intervention “risky.” And unlike in Sinai, no sophisticated insurgency has developed in the western part of the country: the conflict in Libya did not spill over the border, nor does it show any signs of doing so. Along the Libyan border, the main security threat instead comes from smuggling weapons to Sinai. However, rather than invest in border control equipment, such as sensors, drones, and increased ground patrols, Egypt purchased power projection equipment that is ill-suited for anti-smuggling efforts.
Even in countries where Egypt was expected to increase its military involvement, it has not done so. For instance, Egypt has only symbolically supported Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. Sisi has also stayed away from the conflict in Syria, even voicing support for “national” armies, including the Syrian army, while dismissing any involvement in peacekeeping operations.
Internally, while the development of a sophisticated Islamic State insurgency in Sinai could merit such a spending spree, the types of weapons purchased do not fit this task. For example, the Rafale jets purchased from France will not help, since the Egyptian military already possesses 230 F-16 fighter jets with similar capabilities—more than their current number of trained pilots. The Apache helicopters the United States delivered in December 2014 are much more effective weapons against this type of insurgency, as they are better suited for hitting small targets. In addition, the Mistral helicopter carriers will be of little help in Sinai, where there is no need to conduct amphibious landing operations. As such, it is difficult to make a connection between the fight in Sinai and the recent weapons imports.
Some analysts have argued that the recent weapons imports are instead aimed at diversifying the suppliers to the Egyptian military, which is heavily dependent on the United States. Yet although the United States temporarily suspended weapons shipments after the 2013 coup, under the Camp David accords it still gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in military aid, making Egypt the second-largest recipient of U.S. military financing in the world. Even though the desire to diversify the sources of weapons supply might be a factor, this does not provide a full answer. A true diversification of the supply seems to be outside the reach of the current Egyptian government, since it would require massive funds to counterbalance the billions invested in U.S. weaponry over the past few decades. Even though the Egyptian regime has invested heavily in the purchase of weaponry, the needed investment far exceeds current purchases that are already straining the fragile Egyptian economy. For example, the Egyptian air force operates 584 fixed-wing aircraft, 230 of which are American F-16s, creating a strong structural dependence on American weaponry. Thus, in order to truly diversify the sources of supply, the Egyptian government has to purchase a much larger number of planes. The 24 Rafale jets from France were already a big drain of funds. Although diversifying the sources of supply might be a secondary factor, the regime would likely not risk a deteriorating economic situation for this goal, since U.S. aid has already fully resumed in March 2015 in the name of fighting terrorism.
As neither foreign nor domestic security threats explain the purchases, it is possible the military might be gearing up for internal conflict. In 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s domestic repressive apparatus of 1.5 million police officers and conscripts collapsed within 24 hours and required the intervention of the military—which at the time had considerable popular support—to maintain order with limited casualties. Thus, in case of a mass uprising, the police and state security forces alone are not sufficient. Given this history, the purchase of offensive weaponry could indeed be intended to project power domestically. For example, the Mistral carriers can be used to control vital cities like Port Said, Alexandria, and Suez—which was the first city to completely slip out of the regime’s control in 2011—along the north coast and the canal. Sisi hinted at the use of the military as a tool for domestic repression in a speech on September 26, 2016, when he stated that the military has contingency plans to spread across the country within six hours in the event of domestic disturbances.
Similarly, a potential internal conflict could explain the urge to invest in air power, which tends to be effective in putting down resistance in urban areas. The Syrian air force, at times supported by the Russian air force, played a critical role in ensuring the survival that regime, eventually tilting the balance of the civil war in its favor. In Egypt’s own experience, the collapse of the domestic security apparatus in 2011 was primarily driven by attacks on police stations in densely populated areas. The topography of narrow, maze-like streets in these areas makes ground operations risky and costly. If the Egyptian regime expects a repeat of such attacks—Sisi himself mentioned the prospect of a civil war several times during his November 2016 visit to Lisbon—increased investment in the air force becomes a sensible step.
Considering the lack of credible traditional threats, the unsuitability of the weaponry for current counter-insurgency operations, and the risk-averse nature of Egyptian foreign policy, these weapons are most likely aimed at repressing a mass, urban uprising—with little regard for the civilian causalities fighter jets and attack helicopters are liable to incur.
This military spending spree is all the more puzzling as Egypt is grapples with a dire economic situation that could itself spark social unrest. The country is facing a severe shortage of foreign reserves, leading to massive currency devaluation and increasing inflation. In light of the country’s fiscal standing, this spending raises question about its ability to meet its financial obligations to debtors, including the IMF, which finalized a $12 billion loan in November. The size of the Egyptian external debt has reached a whopping $60.1 billion even as exports have fallen from $22.2 billion to $18.5 billion over the past year. The regime’s priority on such military spending given the economic crisis is perhaps an indication of how much they fear and prepare for large-scale internal conflict.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.