Egypt and the Allure of Military Power
Since the 2013 military coup d’état brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power, Egypt has been building up its military, purchasing weapons at an increased rate and diversifying their sources.
The final, troubling question is whether a military build-up that does not appear justified by present threats may push Egypt to pursue policies that will increase the danger of war in the future.
This spending spree on the part of a country with a sluggish economy and no major external security threats raises several questions. Why? Who are the enemies against which it seeks to protect itself? How is the country paying for purchases that do not show up in the official defense budget? All answers point to a country with an inflated sense of its grandeur, increasingly dominated by the military, and building an arsenal that bears little relation to the country’s real security challenges – namely an insurgency in Sinai, not a military threat from powerful external enemies. The final, troubling question is whether a military build-up that does not appear justified by present threats may push Egypt to pursue policies that will increase the danger of war in the future.
The military build-up in Egypt is explained by pragmatic political considerations as well as by ideological reasons. The military has been at the center of Egyptian politics since 1952, overtly at times, more discreetly at others. For seventy years, all Egyptian presidents have come from the military, with the exception of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brother who was elected in 2012 in the only competitive and fair presidential election Egypt ever held, only to be overthrown in a military coup d’état a year later. Toward the end of the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the political role of the military receded into the background, giving rise to speculation whether it was fading away. The uprising of 2011 put an abrupt end to such speculations because the military stepped directly into the political fray. It forced Mubarak to resign, ruled the country for a year through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and then pretended to defer to elected President Mohammed Morsi before ousting him in July 2013.
Today, there is nothing discreet about the military character of the regime. Al-Sisi owes his position to the military; the two subsequent, de facto uncontested elections that confirmed his presidency were simply window dressing. Should the military turn against al-Sisi, his elected status would not protect him. Thus, he needs to keep the military happy. Weapon modernization, the major role of the military in the economy (discussed below), and the appointment of retired officers to posts in the administration are all part of the mechanism of mutual support between the military and the president. It is virtually impossible for an outsider to know what is really going on inside the armed forces, whether al-Sisi has credible rivals, or whether disaffected officers aspiring to replace him lurk somewhere. But it is clear that a president who comes from the military and depends on it has to keep it happy.
There are also ideological reasons for the military build-up. It is thus important to understand how Egypt likes to portray its position in the world and how President al-Sisi envisages the Egyptian state. The preamble of the 2014 Egyptian constitution provides a good insight into how Egypt’s rulers choose to see their country’s position in the world. Nobody looks for historical accuracy in constitutional preambles, which always abound in rhetoric and hyperbole, but the Egyptian document is extreme by any standard. It declares that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”—which is standard rhetoric—but also that “It is the gift of Egyptians to humanity.” Egypt, furthermore, is “at the heart of the whole world.” Such a state must, by definition be strong and powerful.
Al-Sisi’s own speeches reinforce the idea of the Egyptian state as an almost metaphysical entity, something with a reality that transcends the contingent choices made by specific governments or individuals. “There is no such thing as a regime. There is something called the Egyptian state… The Egyptian people elect a president who is able to stabilize the country, not a regime that keeps changing. That is unacceptable.” The state is al-Sisi’s concern, not its citizens. In a speech on April 26, 2020, celebrating the anniversary of the return of Sinai to Egypt, he declared “The Supreme goal of the state is to preserve its survival. Maximizing the state’s comprehensive powers comes at the top of the Egyptian State’s priorities.” Such ideas make a military build-up inevitable.
Politics and ideology go a long way to explain why al-Sisi and the military have embarked on a major arms build-up. The security threats Egypt faces do not. Such threats are domestic, not external. The types of weapons the country is acquiring do not appear to be suited to fight these domestic challenges, which might affect the stability of the regime but not the survival of the state. Egypt fought the last war with Israel in 1973 and is not threatened by any other neighbors. Regional powers—Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia—are not threatening the Egyptian state but competing for regional hegemony. The United Arab Emirates, with its dynamic economy and growing ties to Israel, may be a challenge to Egypt’s sense of superiority, but is not an enemy. Cairo sees Ethiopia as a threat to its own water security because it is building a dam on the Nile, but this is not a military problem.
Egypt’s military is large, but like all conventional militaries is having a difficult time fighting insurgencies like the one in the Sinai.
Two types of internal problems threaten Egypt’s domestic stability: the presence of radical Islamist groups vaguely affiliated with ISIS in Sinai (which is at least in part a military problem); and the possibility of new uprisings such as those that shook the country in 2011, against which a strong military is no protection. Egypt’s military is large, but like all conventional militaries is having a difficult time fighting insurgencies like the one in the Sinai. As the United States learned the hard way in Afghanistan and earlier in Vietnam, military superiority is no match for a determined and elusive enemy; furthermore, Egypt does not appear to have a hearts-and-mind strategy to win over the inhabitants of the remote and neglected region. And certainly, the combat aircrafts and the helicopter carriers Egypt is importing cannot do much against the small groups of fighters that continue to inflict losses before vanishing.
Sinai is not the only source of domestic instability. The conditions that led to the 2011 uprising, the overthrow of Mubarak and the ensuing turmoil still exist. Most of the mega economic projects of which al-Sisi is proud, such as the widening of the Suez Canal and the building of the still unnamed new administrative capital half way between Cairo and Suez, do not address the fundamental problems of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, and a bleak future for the young. Poverty is likely to increase further because the war between Russia and Ukraine directly threatens Egypt’s wheat supplies. The country imports well over half of the wheat it consumes (precise amounts fluctuate from year to year depending on the domestic harvest). Eighty percent of imported wheat normally comes from Russia and Ukraine.
The weapon build-up
Egypt’s Ministry of Defense budget since the military seized power has not changed much. A well-documented 2020 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that, depending on unit of measurement employed, the budget has increased only slightly or even decreased—a 48 percent devaluation of the Egyptian pound in 2016 complicates calculations. Measured in in US dollars, the official military budget shrank slightly from $3.7 billion in 2011-12, just before the coup, to $3.3 billion in 2019-20. Measured in Egyptian pounds, it shrank by 18 percent in those years. Official budget figures also indicate that in 2019 Egypt ranked last among the twelve Middle East countries in terms of its military burden, that is, its military spending as a percentage of GDP, devoting only 1.2 percent of GDP to the military, while MENA countries averaged 4.4 percent.
In reality, Egypt’s military spending increased considerably after 2014, with much of that expenditure outside the official military budget, which excludes wages of the armed forces and procurement of goods and services. (SIPRI, p.7) It also excludes the spending on the Central Security Forces, part of which are engaged in war in Sinai. That expenditure appears in the budget of the Ministry of Interior. Arms procurement does not appear in the Ministry of Defense’s budget, either, but that is where the steep increase in military spending lies.
Between 2015 and 2019, Egypt became the third largest arms importer in the world and the second in MENA after Saudi Arabia.
In 2014-19, after al-Sisi became president, arms purchases increased rapidly, and sources diversified. In 2000-09, 75 percent of imported weapons came from the United States, but between 2010 and 2019 only 23 percent did, with France and Russia becoming the top suppliers. Egypt imported Rafale combat aircraft, a frigate armed with anti-ship missiles, a helicopter carrier from France, and SU-35 combat aircraft with air-to-air missiles from Russia. In 2019 and 2020, Egypt placed orders for an additional $15 billion worth of advanced weapon systems from Russia, Germany and Italy, with more planned. Between 2015 and 2019, Egypt became the third largest arms importer in the world and the second in MENA after Saudi Arabia.
The military economy
The financing of these purchases is not explained by the defense budget but pinpointing the source of the funds is extremely difficult. SIPRI points out that some military expenditures are listed in the budget of other ministries but that is not the entire explanation. The funds the military earns through its economic activities are key but difficult to document.
What is generally referred to as the “military economy” has been the subject of much speculation but of some serious investigations that help clarify the issue as much as it is possible for outsiders to the military establishment to do. I will draw heavily on a study by Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Despite reforms introduced at various times to curb it, the military economy continued growing and developing in new directions.
The military economy started developing in the days of Nasser, when the military started enterprises to feed and outfit its own forces and moved from there into production for the civilian market. Despite reforms introduced at various times to curb it, the military economy continued growing and developing in new directions.
One component of the military economy consists of businesses the military owns outright. The Ministry of Military Production is involved in a large number of activities that appear almost random to an observer, although the unifying factor is probably that they are an extension of activities the military started for itself. For example, the military engages in food production and distribution: it bakes bread, produces eggs and dairy products, and manages butcher shops and supermarkets. It has gas stations and repairs flat tires. It produces washing machines, bottled water, and pasta. These are the activities Egyptians usually mention when asked about the military economy, because they are visible and affect consumers directly. There is a lot of controversy about the size of this part of the military economy. Some estimates have put it as high fifty percent, certainly a gross exaggeration. President al-Sisi has repeatedly asserted that it is only about 2 percent, definitely an underestimate. Whatever the correct figure, the real strength of the military economy is not in the production of such goods and services.
What accounts for the military’s independent wealth are two other types of activities. The first is control over vast tracts of land the military was granted for security reasons. Some of this land has become valuable, particularly near towns and new major roads, and is being sold or leased to businesses. The endless miles of walls and fences apparently surrounding empty desert spaces that puzzle travelers in Egypt are the manifestation of this control, and the new businesses springing up at intervals are the proof that such empty spaces can become valuable. The second activity from which the military generates considerable revenue, particularly since al-Sisi came to power, are the contracts it receives from the government for managing mega projects. Al-Sisi trusts the military and believes in its efficiency and expertise. Thus, the military was entrusted with the task of broadening the Suez Canal and with building the new administrative capital, to mention two prime examples. In such projects, the military acts as general contractor, subcontracting out many of the tasks to the Egyptian private sector or even to foreign companies when it needs expertise and resources it cannot mobilize domestically quickly enough to satisfy the government’s timetable.
What happens to the revenue that accrues to the military from such activities is a question many analysts try to address but that nobody has been able to answer satisfactorily. It is certainly part of the mechanisms that keep the military happy and strengthen support for al-Sisi; and it is also probably a source of funding for military purchases not accounted for by the official budget.
The policy impact of the military build-up
Military-dominated Egypt has embarked on a process of military modernization and build-up that appears exaggerated and misdirected in terms of the mostly domestic security threats the country faces. The build-up is made possible in part by the economic activities of the military, and in turn it increases its power and its hold on the country. One consequences is already clear: like other mega projects undertaken by the al-Sisi regime, the purchase of weapon systems that appear irrelevant to real security needs absorbs funds that the country needs to develop its civilian economy and improve the standard of living of its population—spending on weapon imports is not a tide that lifts all boats.
Beyond the immediate opportunity cost of military purchases, a further problem may develop in the future, namely the possibility that a military confident of its strength may push the country to pursue policies that require deployment in conflicts beyond Egypt’s borders.
So far, such interventions have been limited to airstrikes. Egypt bombed ISIS facilities in Libya on several occasions between 2015 and 2018 in retaliation for attacks against Egyptian Copts in Upper Egypt. In 2020 Egypt threatened to send ground troops to support General Khalifa Haftar, who was engaged in conflict with the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Based in Eastern Libya close to the Egyptian border, General Haftar mounted an offensive again the government in Tripoli, hoping to overthrow it. The effort failed, but Haftar managed to occupy several towns in the West. The government asked for the support of Turkey, which complied and helped Tripoli regain control of some of the occupied towns. Haftar then asked for Egypt’s help, but despite a favorable reply by the Egyptian parliament and al-Sisi himself, no troops were deployed. In the end, Egypt’s intervention was limited to airstrikes, as in the past.
Egypt demonstrated the same restraint in Yemen. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to commit troops to help the Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi government against the Houthi rebels backed by Iran, in 2015 al-Sisi agreed in principle to participate in the effort. In practice, he refused to commit ground forces, carrying out instead a few bombing strikes and sending four war ships for a show of strength in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
The ambition to cast itself as a regional power has so far not overcome the reluctance to become deeply involved in operations that do not involve major Egyptian interests.
Egypt’s large recent purchases of combat planes from France and Russia gives a degree of credibility to its repeated saber rattling.
Nevertheless, the possibility that Egypt might be tempted to intervene militarily beyond its borders cannot be ruled out. The conflict in Libya is far from over, despite sustained international efforts. To Egypt’s south, Sudan, which Egypt has seen as part of its zone of influence since the days of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1956) is unstable, locked in struggle between civilian organizations and the military, which Egypt wants to remain in control. Equally threatening, although less feasible, is military action against Ethiopia, which is building a dam on the White Nile Egypt claims violates its water rights and national security. Military action so far from the Egyptian border would be logistically difficult and water from the partially filled reservoir would threaten Sudan if the dam were bombed. Yet, Egypt’s large recent purchases of combat planes from France and Russia gives a degree of credibility to its repeated saber rattling.
Egypt has so far not launched into military adventures, as it did in the days of Nasser. There is no doubt, however, that the present military build-up could have policy consequences that could further destabilize an unstable region.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
About the Author
Former Senior Research Associate and Head of the Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more