Egypt opens new military base with many objectives in mind
Cairo- The threat from unrest in neighbouring Libya, the planned construction of a nuclear power plant and huge off-shore natural gas reserves are behind Egypt’s massive military build-up in the western desert, experts said.
“There is a persistent desire from those pulling the strings in Libya to move the violence to the border with Egypt,” said Sameh Abu Hashima, a retired Egyptian Army general and an adviser at Nasser Military Academy. “This makes it necessary for us to move our troops close to the border with the restive neighbouring country.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opened a major base in El- Hamam in the western desert on July 22. The Mohamed Naguib Military Base, named after Egypt’s first president, has been billed as the largest such facility in Africa and the Middle East.
The base, which took two years to build, can accommodate more than 20,000 troops and includes 1,155 “vital facilities”along with 72km of roads.
Although eastern Libya has fallen more firmly under the control of Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar — an Egyptian ally — and his Libyan National Army, Cairo is concerned about arms smuggling and infiltration from Libya.
There have been daily attempts by smugglers and Islamist militants to cross into Egypt. Cairo said the new base would be an important part of its border strategy.
“Libya is a real threat to Egypt’s national security, especially with militant groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and ISIS controlling some parts of the country,” Abu Hashima said. “This is why the presence of a military base that large near the border with Libya is a prerequisite for protecting Egypt.”
The scale of the Mohamed Naguib facility, along with the military equipment that Egypt can bring to bear from there, was clear from the parade that signalled the official opening of the base.
Hundreds of tanks, advanced multifunction Rafale fighter jets, Apache helicopters, Chinook helicopters and armoured vehicles passed before Sisi and Arab dignitaries, including United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who is also deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed services, to mark the occasion.
Situated about 60km west of the Alexandria and less than 100km from the Mediterranean, the Mohamed Naguib base is on a site of immense strategic value in western Egypt. This is just kilometres from the site of a nuclear power plant to be built at al-Dabaa, a coastal city in Matrouh province. It will have four reactors, the first of which is to become operational in 2022.
The initial deal for the power plant was agreed between Moscow and Cairo in 2015, with Russia agreeing to give Egypt a $25 billion loan to build the plant. When fully operational, the four reactors are expected to generate 4,800 megawatts of power every year, a little less than 20% of Egypt’s annual electrical power production.
“The plant is necessary to satisfy the electricity needs of the population, expected to be 117 million in 2030, from 93.3 million now,” said Ibrahim al-Asiri, a nuclear energy expert.
“The lack of sufficient protection for the plant could be devastating to tens of millions of people,” he said.
A military base in the western desert and near the Mediterranean is also of paramount importance for Egypt to protect its massive natural gas discoveries. In August 2015, an Italian company exploring off the coastal city of Damietta found what has been described as the southern Mediterranean’s largest natural gas field.
The Zohr field has confirmed reserves of 850 billion cubic metres of gas, almost doubling Egypt’s overall reserves. Production from the field is expected to go online by the end of this year and reach full capacity by the end of 2018, when it is expected to produce 76.5 million cubic metres of gas per day.
Egypt’s off-shore gas reserves lack adequate security because there are no maritime border demarcation agreements with Turkey or Israel. Egypt agreed to maritime demarcation deals with Greece and Cyprus in late 2015. The lack of similar agreements with Tel Aviv and Ankara is a concern in Cairo, with many viewing the military base to oversee Egyptian claims as paramount.
“This is particularly so after the discovery of Zohr and in light of forecasts about the presence of huge gas reserves in the area,” said Ibrahim Zahran, a former petroleum executive. “These reserves open the door wide for tension, which means that a strong military presence is needed.”