Egypt enters the space race

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 15 May 2016

With this latest deal, France now tops the list of countries to have signed ‎military supply agreements with Egypt during the term of President Abdel-‎Fattah El-Sisi

Sisi and Hollande
Sisi and Hollande during a welcome ceremony at al-Quba Sisi and Hollande during a welcome ceremony at al-Quba in May 2016 (Photo: AFP)

Cairo finalised on Tuesday the purchase of a military reconnaissance and ‎monitoring satellite, the third in a series of deals within the framework of ‎Egyptian-French military cooperation. Last year Egypt successfully concluded ‎contracts for Rafale fighter planes and Mistral-class helicopter carriers.‎

With this latest deal, France now tops the list of countries to have signed ‎military supply agreements with Egypt during the term of President Abdel-‎Fattah El-Sisi.‎

During French President François Hollande’s visit to Egypt in April the two ‎countries signed numerous memoranda of understanding, marking increasingly ‎close bilateral relations. At the level of strategic/military relations it is ‎noteworthy that the contract for 24 Rafales is the first time France has ever ‎sold a fighter plane to another country. Egypt has so far received seven of ‎these planes.‎

The first batch of four, which arrived in August 2015, took part in the ‎celebrations for the inauguration of the new Suez Canal. Three more arrived in ‎January this year. The contract for the two Mistral aircraft carriers, which was ‎concluded in September last year, was valued at 950 million euros.‎

While France’s La Tribune broke the news of the military satellite deal, Cairo ‎announced that a military delegation, headed by Minister of Military ‎Production General Mohamed El-Assar, would sign the deal on behalf of ‎Egypt. According to La Tribune, the other signatories are Thales Alenia Space ‎‎(TAS), a Franco-Italian satellite and communications systems manufacturer, ‎and Space Systems Airbus, which specialises in defence equipment.‎

La Tribune said the contract for the military communications satellite, which it ‎estimated as worth 600 million euros, crowned seven months of discussions ‎and negotiations between Cairo and the two aerospace manufacturing firms. ‎The newspaper added that Paris and Cairo signed numerous agreements during ‎President Hollande’s visit to Egypt on 17 April, which paved the way for this ‎latest deal.‎

A senior military expert from Egypt cited a source close to El-Assar who ‎confirmed the accuracy of the details reported in the French newspaper. He ‎explained that the satellite Egypt has purchased is very sophisticated. It is, in ‎fact, the most modern of the industrial technologies that Egypt now possesses.‎

He noted that while the satellite has been classed as military it is capable of ‎performing both military and non-military tasks. It orbits at altitudes above ‎‎700 km and is capable of taking images at an extremely high resolution.‎

‎“As far as military supplies are concerned, we are not just diversifying our ‎armaments sources we have turned to China, Russia, France and Germany but ‎more importantly there is a focus on upgrading military technologies,” General ‎Hisham El-Halabi of the Higher Nasser Military Academy told Al-Ahram ‎Weekly.‎

He added that the purpose of purchasing the satellite was to increase ‎intelligence gathering resources to reinforce national security.‎

General Chief of Staff Mohamed Qashqoush, academic advisor to the Regional ‎Centre for Strategic Studies, agrees.‎

‎“The purpose of acquiring highly sophisticated technologies is to be able to ‎manage the Egyptian strategic depth with as much precision as possible in the ‎framework of completing our military systems and also military cooperation,” ‎he said.‎

Qashqoush said that the French satellite will work in conjunction with the ‎Mistral naval vessels and facilitate navigation in the Bab El-Mandeb and in the ‎Mediterranean, where maritime oil and gas fields were recently discovered.‎

He added that the Russian-made helicopters that Egypt has contracted from ‎Moscow will complete the Mistral weapons system.‎

Another important dimension of Egypt’s purchases of French-made ‎technologies includes what Qashqoush terms the “African belt in which the ‎French military command has a presence in such countries as Mali, Djibouti ‎and Senegal”.‎

Egypt’s acquisitions “will enhance our ability to safeguard our western borders ‎with Libya through closer tracking of the movement of extremist elements and ‎enhanced communications with forces on the ground.” Said Qashqoush, ‎‎“Egypt is situated in an environment teeming with tensions, crises, challenges ‎and mounting dangers.”‎

According to Qashqoush, French experts will train Egyptian teams in the ‎management of the satellite.‎

‎“They have new knowhow in the field that they will impart to the Egyptian ‎side. They will also offer instruction in the process of protecting the ‎information in the satellite,” he said, stressing the need for Egypt to be able to ‎secure information transmitted by the satellite.‎

The absence of an Egyptian satellite has been the source of considerable ‎controversy in recent years, reaching a peak when it was announced that the ‎research satellite Egypt 2 had gone missing. Experts have openly speculated ‎that Israel was most likely responsible, although there has been nothing to ‎corroborate this. They suggested that the Israelis had probably sent a satellite ‎of their own into the same orbit. In the 1990s Israel obstructed an Egyptian-‎French deal for the purchase of a satellite.‎

Israel is certainly interested in Egypt’s recent purchase from France. The ‎Israeli army’s Israel Defence periodical has featured detailed coverage of this ‎deal. It concluded that acquisition of the satellite would give a great boost to ‎Egypt’s military communications. It also remarked on Egypt’s drive to build ‎up its military arsenal. “It has purchased two helicopter carriers from France ‎which were to be sold to Russia. The first of these is due to arrive in June,” it ‎reported.‎

La Tribune noted that Cairo entered into negotiations with Paris in December ‎‎2015 initially for the purchase of two satellites: one for military ‎telecommunications, the other for surveillance. A delegation from the Egyptian ‎army headed to Paris around Christmas but the negotiations broke down over ‎the question of costs.‎

Egypt decided to postpone the purchase of a military satellite as Russia and ‎South Korea had made less-costly offers. The same newspaper reported that ‎negotiations are still in progress between the Egyptian Defence Ministry and ‎DCNS, the French company that produces the Mistral, over the manufacture ‎of four warships.‎

Qashqoush told the Weekly that the European offers were better than the ‎Asian ones when post-sale services such as upkeep, maintenance and spare ‎parts were taken into account.‎

Apparently, space is now an integral part of the Middle East’s arms race, and ‎it is taking place against a backdrop of intractable conflicts. The Gulf countries ‎have obtained similar satellites. The UAE launched a space programme in ‎collaboration with the US many years ago.‎

Saudi Arabia, too, is now in the running, while Iran entered the arena a decade ‎ago. Since concluding its nuclear deal with the West, Tehran has begun to ‎focus more intensely on its aerospace programme. Last week it announced the ‎test launch of a precision-guided missile with a range of up to 2000 km.‎

Sources interviewed by the Weekly say the Iranian space programme, despite ‎Tehran’s claims, is primarily for military purposes. Israel, too, has many ‎satellites at its army’s disposal.‎

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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