“Si vis pacem, para bellum” said Roman author Publius Renatus, meaning that “if you want peace, prepare for war.”
This has been the simple, yet deep, motto adopted by the Egyptian army for decades. After the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, some believed that the Egyptian army would scale back its readiness after the state of war with Israel was over. But the opposite took place during the 1980s and afterwards when modernisation and the shift from Soviet-camp weapons to Western-made ones took place, especially after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 and the frictions with Libya during the rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. These frictions reached their height in 1977 in a four-day war that ended with a decisive Egyptian victory.
The reliance on mostly Western equipment continued through the 1980s to recent years due to the cordial relations with the United States up until 2013 when then US president Barack Obama temporarily banned weapons exports to Egypt following the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood encampment in Rabaa Square in Cairo.
Following this short feud, the Egyptian leadership decided on a weapons diversification policy that favoured Russia and France. The diversification policy worked, and an assortment of defensive and offensive state-of-the-art weaponry was purchased from both countries that included fighter jets, frigates, aircraft carriers and air-defence systems such as the Russian S-300 system.
As a result of this policy, more friendly countries including China, Germany, Italy, South Korea and others offered Egypt cutting edge weaponry that resulted in a massive overhaul of the Egyptian armed forces’ capabilities. These were manifested by the recent ranking of the Egyptian army as the ninth most powerful army in the world, according to the website the Global Firepower Index, which meant that it has overtaken the Turkish army that until recently held that spot.
The Egyptian army’s surpassing some of its own suppliers, including Germany and Italy, may come as a surprise to some, especially those who had not foreseen its ability to win the war on terrorism in Egypt. During wars, armies may gain experience, but they also tend to lose the quality of their equipment as losses keep piling up. But the Egyptian army rose up the ranks with new purchases and new locally manufactured equipment along with massive military bases established around the country such as the Mohamed Naguib Base on the north coast and the Berenice Base in the south-east overlooking the Red Sea.
Since his service as minister of defence, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has brought about a massive reform and modernisation programme for the Egyptian army. A policy of diversification of arms purchases coupled with the renovation and upgrading of the local industry in Egypt has helped the country to move ahead of its regional counterparts by leaps and bounds and in record time.
The introduction of Egypt’s Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) was a major step in the right direction of modernising the army to face mounting challenges, especially in countering terrorism in Egypt and around the region. Formed in 2014, the force rivals the best in the world and parallels those of the NATO countries and Russia in terms of its mobility and capabilities. It is comprised of mainly airborne troops, highly efficient commando units, highly trained mechanised infantry, armoured corps, air-defence and anti-tank units and special reconnaissance units benefitting from an air-shield provided by fighter jets.
The RDF was instrumental in crushing terrorism in Sinai backed by hostile regimes like those in Turkey and Qatar. It has also seen combat action on the border with Libya in order to secure Egypt’s western borders and quell any attempts at infiltration by terrorists from the West.
MILITARY PURCHASES: Massive military purchases have enhanced the Egyptian army’s capabilities and ranking worldwide.
The purchase of two French Mistral helicopter carriers and FREMM frigates and corvettes along with a number of German frigates and submarines have joined South Korean and Russian-made naval units and made the Egyptian navy a force to be reckoned with regionally and globally. The division of the navy into two separate fleets, one in the north in the Mediterranean Sea and the second in the south in the Red Sea, has also enhanced the navy’s capabilities and expanded its reach.
Moreover, the inauguration of the 160,000-hectare Berenice Military Base on the Red Sea in January 2020, following that of the Mohamed Naguib Base on the Mediterranean in 2017, has added depth and unprecedented deployment capabilities to the Egyptian army, which earlier relied on smaller bases.
Egypt’s growing naval power to counter mounting threats in the Mediterranean, especially from the Turkey of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could not have been completed without a major overhaul of the air force. Egypt’s already powerful air force has acquired a number of new purchases, including French Rafale fighter jets, Russian Mig-29 fighters and a large number of attack helicopters including the Kamov 50/52 and the Mi-24 to add to its already large fleet of fighter jets. A major deal with Italy may soon enhance both the air force and the navy further in the coming period.
These acquisitions were introduced into the Egyptian army in record time, and they have been used during many military manoeuvres and exercises, including the Kader 2020 exercises last month. Egypt has also conducted numerous joint military exercises with allied and friendly countries, including the US, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Greece, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all the while seeing all its branches displaying their growing capabilities as a result of the recent military reforms.
Some may consider these military expenses to be a waste of money that should have been spent on development projects instead, but the truth is that without these military expenses the excellent security status that Egypt is now enjoying in a region filled with turmoil and perils would have been impossible. The aim of Egypt’s ramping up its military might is not to engage in regional wars, but on the contrary is to subvert the possible ignition of such wars by others, especially by regimes such as those in Turkey and Iran. Moreover, these purchases and reforms have been coupled by equally large economic reforms and massive development projects in the country, all of which are becoming more apparent to observers as changing the face of Egypt.
While the Global Firepower Index is an indicator of the improvement in the military status of Egypt and thus of the country’s overall development given the other parametres the Index uses to provide a proper assessment, there are still discrepancies in the economic numbers that are better than indicated in the Index. Nevertheless, it is still eloquent testimony of growing Egyptian military power and Egypt’s position as a key player in turbulent times in the region.
More importantly, Egypt has maintained its position as a force for peace in the region, solidifying its peace treaty with Israel with a number of economic deals as well as countering hostile regimes seeking to spread mayhem across the region and the continent. Egypt is also lending a hand to African countries to help them to quell terrorist attacks by training African special forces to meet the growing rise of terrorism, especially in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel region, and West Africa. On 9 February, President Al-Sisi called for the formation of a unified African force to counter terrorism in the region and stated his country’s willingness to hold a summit for African leaders in Cairo to produce a charter of the use of a unified force for that purpose.
Despite the massive renovation of the Egyptian military over recent years, the reforms are far from over, however, and the military will see more acquisitions and developments in the coming years. History has shown that regardless of the signing of pacts, international coalitions and deals, only a standing army can thwart the greedy ambitions of others, including by the type of foreign interventions that have exacerbated the situations of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria over recent years.
Foreign interventions and civil wars have ripped these great nations apart owing to their lack of a unified and mighty army to defend their sovereignty and interests from foreign attacks.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.