Egypt’s military exercises hone down strategy to cope with threats

Cairo no longer sees national security threats as confined to its geographical borders.
Sunday 22/11/2020
Egyptian tanks take part in the Arab Shield military exercises in the Matrouh Governorate Mohamed Naguib miilitary base, northwest of the capital Cairo on November 15, 2018. AFP
Egyptian tanks take part in the Arab Shield military exercises in the Matrouh Governorate Mohamed Naguib miilitary base, northwest of the capital Cairo on November 15, 2018. (AFP)

CAIRO – The Egyptian army is taking part in four simultaneous military exercises with different regional and international powers, and in multiple directions.

Analysts see it striving to redraw the dimensions of its vital space by moving away from the traditional perspective of national security decision-makers.

Joint military exercises, held under the name “Saif al-Arab” by the Egyptian armed forces and those of the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan, began last Tuesday at the Mohamed Naguib military base in western Egypt and stretched northwards. Egypt’s naval forces, for their part, launched a joint training exercise for their northern fleet in the Mediterranean with French naval forces, the second such exercise this month.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) dressed in military uniform visits the headquarters of the eastern forces of the Suez Canal in the Sinai. (AFP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) dressed in military uniform visits the headquarters of the eastern forces of the Suez Canal in the Sinai. (AFP)

Convoys of Egyptian ships and frigates also set out to the far north, passing through the international straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, which are under Turkish control, to the Black Sea to participate in the “Friendship Bridge 2020” drills with the Russian navy, while Egyptian Air Force units and elements of the Egyptian Thunderbolt Forces took part in joint exercises dubbed “Nile Eagles 1” with the Sudanese army at the Sudanese Meroe airbase.

This comprehensive deployment by Egyptian armed forces in exercises using various weapons in distant regions and with different international partners indicates that there is an awareness of the seriousness of the diverse threats facing Egypt.

Cairo sees such threats as emanating from many possible sources not necessarily connected to the country’s borders. They especially see Turkey threatening Egyptian interests in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean region, in conjunction with the highly suspicious Turkish and Qatari moves in the Horn of Africa region and developments in Ethiopia that affect the future of the water conflict between the Nile Basin countries.

Strategic exploration

Military expert Major General Talaat Muslim believes that Egypt is exploring the geopolitical areas from which the direct threats could be coming, which it has ignored for years because of its continued focus on the eastern front with Israel and the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian armed forces seem to be studying multiple ways of dealing with any future conflicts, in light of the current turmoil in various areas in the region and the lack of clear visibility regarding the future of international approaches to vital issues.

He told The Arab Weekly that “coming into contact with multiple forces in directions that are likely to witness an escalation is in the interest of deepening the expertise of the Egyptian army, training its men in the use of modern weapons, and coordinating military efforts with allies in different regions, in the contingency of a conflict that could pit political and military alliances rather than two single powers facing each other on the battlefield.”

Such a scenario was visible in the multiple Egyptian exercises with Cyprus, Greece and France, which are countries that share various aspects of political convergence in the face of Turkish bullying in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also visible in the joint exercises with the countries of the moderate Arab axis, namely Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, to deal with Iranian threats in the Red Sea, securing the Strait of Bab al-Mandab and ensuring the safety of navigation in the Suez Canal.

The Egyptian army’s southward direction towards Sudan supports the possibility of forming a bilateral alliance in the face of possible conflicts over the Nile waters that may become a reality. This alliance may extend to form a security buffer against the threat of terrorism coming from the Horn of Africa, which represents a common peril to the two countries.

Strategic expert Major General Abdel Rafaa Darwish explained that Egypt is seeking to redraw the limits of its vital space in the south and intensify its cooperation with countries such as Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Eritrea.

Launch of an anti-naval missile by an Egyptian frigate during exercises. (Egyptian Army on Twitter)
Launch of an anti-naval missile by an Egyptian frigate during exercises. (Egyptian Army on Twitter)

He said that this space may be extended to become a joint military space in the face of any threats coming from that area due to the density of military bases there belonging to countries hostile to Egypt, foremost of which is Turkey.

Darwish indicated to The Arab Weekly that Cairo is trying to avoid the mistakes that allowed Turkey to infiltrate the region and start threatening it directly across its western border with Libya.

Cairo’s message is that it is willing to resort to the military option by emphasising the possibility of confronting dangers in the south without changing its strategy, meaning that it will rely on manoeuvres and intensify coordination and military and intelligence cooperation with southern countries without seeking to have military bases there.

To counter the deterioration of the security situation in Yemen and the constant Houthi threats along Yemen’s western coast, Cairo is in the process of securing its vital space on the Red Sea side with the Gulf countries. It is expected that there will be a significant degree of military integration with Gulf countries to ensure the protection of the Arab depth of its national security.

It is also inconceivable, experts say, to separate the successive joint Egyptian-Arab manoeuvres on the Red Sea coast from the international rearrangements of the situation in that region, including the new cooperation between Arab countries and Israel in the face of the Iranian threat, as Iran is seen as likely to use its terrorist arms to threaten maritime traffic in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Moreover, Cairo’s interest in securing the Red Sea and its initiative to demarcate maritime borders with Saudi Arabia has important economic dimensions in light of Cairo’s desire to drill for gas and oil within its territorial borders.

These considerations may have been the impetus for inaugurating a naval base that forms a pillar for the southern naval fleet stationed along the stretch of the Red Sea coast.

Deterring threats

The Egyptian army recently conducted naval manoeuvres with the British Navy that included exercises to protect ships carrying important cargo, along with training in maritime interception operations in accordance with international charters and laws, and providing air protection to naval units.

Noha Bakr, a member of the advisory board of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, told The Arab Weekly, “There is an awareness of the multiple cross-borders security risks that do not stop only at the edges of the national space, which has prompted Cairo to be more proactive in creating a kind of military synergy between it and the allied countries, because dangers are now taking diverse forms, such as piracy, terrorism, human trafficking and organised crime, in addition to the traditional military dangers.”

 Egyptian Defence Minister Lieutenant General Mohamed Zaki follow an exercise with members of army staff.  (Egyptian Army on Twitter)

Emad Gad, an international relations researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, explained that Egypt is working to expand its vital space to consolidate its role as a key regional power. By reaching as far north as the Black Sea and southward to the Horn of Africa, Cairo no longer sees its national security as limited to its geographical borders. Furthermore, it is looking forward to transforming years of diplomatic efforts into effective cooperation that tightens the screws on the dangers threatening its interests and those of its allies.

“There is an urgent need to redraw the geopolitical map of the region, given the existence of a number of open files whose closure will require the presence of an Arab military force that deals with the consequences of the civil wars that have ravaged different Arab countries. This is why Cairo finds itself forced to expand the scope of the base of its external moves in order to maintain the stability of its internal conditions, which will also be threatened,” Gad told The Arab Weekly.

Gad declined to predict the future of Egypt’s military moves and said that it is linked to the extent of the violations that might directly affect Egypt’s national security. Nevertheless, he raised the possibility of it moving westward if Turkey crosses the red line (Sirte – Al-Jafra) that Cairo has drawn in Libya, or in the event of further Turkish-Qatari military coordination in Libya leading to the establishment of permanent military bases there.