For the Egyptian Armed Forces this is the season of intensive military training. To the south it held the first joint aerial drills with Sudan. In the northern sector, it held the first T-1 amphibious exercises with the UK. Also in the Mediterranean, it held some brief manoeuvres with France and Bahrain. Further to the north, Egypt and Russia began the third edition of their Friendship Bridge naval exercises at Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Simultaneously, Egypt kicked off the Seif Al-Arab, or Arab Sword, drills this week. Five other Arab countries are participating in these joint exercises in the Northern Military Zone at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Marsa Matrouh. Taken together, this series of activities point to the contours of a new strategic outlook in Egyptian military policies. It is an approach that aims to broaden and strengthen the realms of common interest with other regional and international powers.
It is useful to note a paradox when we look back at Egyptian military activities over the past few years. The Egyptian Armed Forces has been one of the most active armies in the region, yet one of the least involved in actual combat beyond its borders. Egypt wields the highest level of deterrent capacities in the framework of military diplomacy that safeguards security and defuses tensions. Herein lies the army’s intrinsic “sagacious” engagement with regional security issues, a principle that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi underscored as one of the defining features of the Egyptian military creed.
A number of qualitative factors offer other important insights into the nature and scope of the new strategic outlook. One is the multiplicity of training arenas, not just within Egypt but also abroad, whether in Sudan, with the Nile Eagle manoeuvres, the first such joint military manoeuvres with Khartoum, or in the Black Sea, another first for the Egyptian navy whose ships passed through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. The locations of these arenas offer a perspective on the nature and origin of threats for which the exercises have been designed.
A major strategic return from these many different activities is how they expand and develop capacities to respond to diverse potential threats, most of which are now unconventional and asymmetrical given the nature of the upheaval in the region. Long gone are the days when threats originated from neighbouring countries. In today’s world, the actual source of the threat could come from the neighbour’s neighbour and well beyond that. Take the war in Yemen, for example. There the realm of maritime threats extends from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and, by extension, to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Sea. Naturally, if training activities in that theatre are shaped by the need to safeguard maritime shipping through one of the world’s most crucial maritime routes, the newly discovered underwater natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean informs training activities in the Eastern Mediterranean where a new perspective on economic interests in the high seas comes into play.
Considering the nature and objectives of the training programmes, they are designed to contend with new, unconventional and possibly sudden threats that can loom from extensive distances signifies that Egypt has closely monitored and evaluated the evolution and nature of threats in its vital sphere and identified what needs to be done to prepare proactively. This is what gives the intensive schedule of military manoeuvres its substance. They are not mere hardware displays.
Egypt’s military activities also tell us something about Egypt’s multi-faceted strategic approach. One of its key concepts can be defined as calculated engagement based on incrementally increasable deterrence against threats to national security. In this we find another fundamental component of Egypt’s military creed: the rejection of military adventurism. Egypt will avoid unnecessary engagement in open-ended regional conflicts, unlike certain regional powers that have militarised their foreign policies.
Egypt’s policy of calculated deterrence has compelled hostile powers to revise their calculations towards Egypt. International military ranking systems, in which the branches of the Egyptian Armed Forces are very highly rated are not sufficient to assess the qualitative weight and influence of a country. Other factors are equally if not more crucial, not least of which is a country’s ability to effectively optimise the utilisation of its military assets. Effective channelling of such assets give added value to a country’s diplomatic assets and strengthen the fabric of its cooperative relations and alliances, whereas an impetuous and aggressive use of them could backfire. The many regional and international powers keen to partner with Egypt in its various programmes of military exercises and training activities indicate that Egypt has been successful in this regard.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly