The Egyptian Armed Forces held an intensive series of training and development activities recently. The first-ever joint military exercise between Egypt and Sudan, the first amphibious manoeuvres, named T-1, with the UK, naval exercises with France, Bahrain, and in the Black Sea with Russia: taken together, the plethora of training exercises reveals a great deal about the evolution of Egypt’s military outlook.
The intensity, scope and geographic range of the drills reflect the growing capacities of the Egyptian army and the comprehensive restructuring and upgrade that was set in motion five years ago. Despite the diversity, the four theatres in which the drills took place had some common denominators: they are all areas where new security arrangements have been introduced, and the focus of mounting tensions and threats.
The Mediterranean region has seen a flurry of new security arrangements — the latest of which was the T-1 manoeuvres with the UK last week — were designed in part to safeguard the huge natural gas fields the discovery of which led to the creation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), agreements to demarcate maritime borders and exclusive economic zones.
There are now border demarcation agreements between Egypt and Cyprus, and Egypt and Greece. The new-found wealth, however, has contributed to mounting tensions and threats in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt has developed a strong military infrastructure, which includes the Northern Fleet, to defend Egypt’s vital strategic and economic interests in the area.
Turkey’s unlawful drilling activities, its attempts to establish a permanent military presence in Libya and Ankara’s aggressive expansionist drive have led to escalating tensions in the area. Ankara’s policies and activities have triggered growing concern among EU nations and the US.
Cairo, which perceives these activities as a direct threat, has joined Greece and Cyprus in the Medusa series of naval exercises in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and teamed with France in other manoeuvres in the same framework. France and Greece are among the nations involved in Operation Irini, launched in March 2020 in order to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya.
Some naval manoeuvres, designed to secure maritime traffic, took place in the Red Sea. The exercises — Egypt and Spain held joint drills in the Red Sea off Berenice in October — included air defence operations to intercept potential maritime assaults.
The deteriorating security situation and growing involvement of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Yemen, and the recent escalation of Houthi activities in the Red Sea have increased the threat to shipping. While Egypt has avoided direct engagement in the war in Yemen it has been actively involved in containing the repercussions.
The southern Red Sea falls directly within Egypt’s regional security sphere since tensions there affect maritime activity off Egypt’s Red Sea coast and the security of ships travelling to and from the Suez Canal. The strategic area extends southwards to the Horn of Africa which overlooks the entrance to the Red Sea.
In January 2020 Saudi Arabia launched an initiative to found an African-Arab Council of Red Sea and Gulf of Aden nations to oversee security concerns in an area which is crucial to global navigation and trade.
The initiative aims to prevent Iranian expansion in the area, whether via Eritrea and Somalia, or from the Red Sea’s eastern shore, using the Houthis as proxies.
The recently inaugurated Berenice military base, constructed in the framework of the Armed Forces’ modernisation programme, is intended to safeguard this strategic southern zone.
The Egyptian-Sudanese military drills, which set a precedent in the two countries’ bilateral relations, kicked off with aerial manoeuvres, highlighting the importance of the Air Force in security arrangements for the southern zone. The Nile Eagles-1, as the manoeuvres were called, coincided with the visit to Cairo of a high-level delegation of the Sudanese Air Command and conveyed several messages.
For Khartoum the exercises offered military officials an opportunity to view the advanced capacities of the Egyptian Air Force up close and marked the beginning of a systematic transfer of Egyptian expertise, including training Sudanese military personnel in Egypt. The Sudanese delegation used the occasion to visit Egyptian military academies and familiarise themselves with the theoretical and practical curricula on offer.
Apart from enhancing Red Sea security, the strengthening of military cooperation with Sudan should also be viewed within the framework of mounting tensions in the Horn of Africa and the possibility that conflict in Ethiopia could spill over its borders and into neighbouring Eritrea.
“The policies of some of the governments in the region pose grave challenges to Egyptian interests,” says Ahmed Amal, professor of African Studies at Cairo University.
“Of prime concern to Cairo is the intransigence of the Ethiopian federal government and its attempts to impose a fait accompli in the matter of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Some Red Sea and Horn of Africa nations have shown a clear trend towards militarisation. The region hosts military bases and logistic centres for regional and international powers, including some that are hostile to Egypt.”
The Red Sea/Horn of Africa region is a major source of unconventional security threats, says Amal. “Many terrorist organisations are based there and they have been working to expand beyond the Horn of Africa and establish contact with similar organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, Libya and the Great Lakes region.”
The third edition of the Egyptian-Russian Bridge of Friendship naval manoeuvres is remarkable in several respects, not least its staging in the Black Sea.
Advances in military technologies and developments in the nature of warfare and security threats left Egypt with no choice but to diversify its military activities. Any modern concept of national security must look beyond threats emanating from immediate neighbours to threats from further neighbours and even further afield. Examples are to be found in Somalia in the past, and in Ethiopia today.
Major General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of national security studies at the Nasser Military Academy, stresses that Egypt’s “strategic interests have extended beyond the conventional geographic realm to broader geopolitical frameworks.
“Unconventional threats and risks can exist within the borders of the state while the source of the threats lies outside the region. Cooperation with regional and international powers with whom we share common outlooks and interests helps counter these threats,” he says.
For the Egyptian command, the multiplicity of activities provided an opportunity to showcase the skill and efficiency with which it can carry out multiple and intensive training agendas involving diverse aerospace and naval hardware, technologies and regular and special forces.
From the perspective of regional security, Egypt’s strategy to strengthen and diversify military cooperation with regional and international partners bolsters its pursuit of a diplomacy of deterrence.
Unlike some other regional powers, Cairo has no interest in militarising its foreign policy. Its handling of the Libyan crisis demonstrated the wisdom of this strategy: no sooner had Egypt drawn the Sirte-Jufra red line and issued its ultimatum than the game changed and the prospect of a clash that could spiral out of control receded.
Egypt’s regional and international status and influence are an important facet of its soft power. Paradoxically, the prestige of the Egyptian army strengthens this facet. It remains, as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said in his address to troops in the Western Zone on 20 June, a “sagacious institution”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly