Over the past few years, Egypt has opened the checkbook, embarking on an arms purchasing program that has quickly made it one of the biggest importers of weapons in the world. The outlay of cash, however, is all the more remarkable given Egypt's fragile economic situation and its lack of a major conventional adversary. Its motivations stem not so much from a military need but from a desire to regain the influence of a country that is used to throwing its weight around the region. Ultimately, though, simple economics might curtail the spending spree.
Egypt has traditionally held great sway over events in its wider region — not least because of its status as the most populous country in the Middle East. Cairo's decision to pursue a significant arms buildup will therefore impact its position in the region, as well as its relationships with other global powers, albeit at a cost that goes beyond the mere financial outlay.
Opening the Checkbook
According to a Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report released in March, Egypt is now the third largest arms importer in the world (after India and Saudi Arabia). Indeed, in the five years since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president, the country's arms imports have increased by a whopping 215 percent. During that period, Egypt signed major deals with a diverse array of suppliers, including the United States, Russia, France and Germany. The purchases have significantly upgraded the Egyptian arsenal, offering Cairo capabilities it previously lacked, including amphibious assault ships.
Egypt has enjoyed an improving economy in recent years, although the buying spree predates the uptick in its economic fortunes. Cairo went to the International Monetary Fund two years ago, obtaining a $12 billion loan that has since improved its macroeconomic indicators. Al-Sisi's government has remained committed to economic reform, in part because the continued delivery of the money is contingent on Cairo's implementation of austerity measures and structural reforms. As a result, Egypt's sizable deficits are diminishing, its inflation is improving, and its debt forecast is looking rosier, all of which have led the World Bank to predict a 5.8 percent growth rate for the country in 2020. Greater overall stability in Egypt over the past couple of years has facilitated a recovery in the essential tourism and energy industries. Even overall unemployment rates have improved — although youth unemployment is still high, even by regional standards.
Military necessity, however, does not lie at the root of the increase in Egyptian arms purchases. Although the country is embroiled in a difficult counterinsurgency against Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula, most of its recent purchases, including surface-to-air missiles and major warships, are completely unsuited to Sinai fighting. In fact, few of the recent arms deals address the army's needs in the Sinai, where Egyptian troops are largely waging a campaign with pre-existing capabilities and equipment. If anything, Egyptian forces fighting on the peninsula have suffered from a lack of resources. To a great extent, the Egyptian infantry conducting a majority of the fighting in the Sinai lacks advanced body armor and individual fighting gear amid a wider dearth of effective equipment, training and supplies. In terms of vehicles, the army has deployed older and more vulnerable M-60A3 tanks on the peninsula, while its more advanced — and much better protected — M1 Abrams tanks have remained outside the theater. Coincidentally, Egypt didn't even buy some of the equipment that is most suited to its battle in the Sinai, the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles. Instead, the United States began giving hundreds of them to Cairo free of charge in early 2016 as part of the Pentagon's Excess Defense Articles program.
Nor is Egypt's buying spree the result of a pressing need to deter major conventional adversaries. Aside from Israel and Saudi Arabia, none of Egypt's immediate neighbors come close to matching the country's military power. And Saudi Arabia hardly represents a realistic military threat, especially because the kingdom has provided significant economic aid to Cairo to bolster al-Sisi's government since the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. The long history of conflict between Egypt and Israel might give Cairo reason to maintain a robust military defense to guard against a potential downturn in relations with Israel, but such an eventuality appears remote at present. After all, Egypt's relations with Israel have manifestly improved under the al-Sisi government, and Israel has even provided indirect assistance to the Egyptian army in its Sinai operations.
Egypt's recent arms purchases stem more from broader geopolitical factors than from mere military need.
Regaining a Lost Luster
A more convincing explanation for its recent arms purchases lies more in broader geopolitical factors than in mere military need. Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world (currently about 100 million), was traditionally the Middle East's most influential state, especially during the Cold War. During the past two decades, however, its influence has diminished due to the growing economic heft of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Turkey's re-engagement with the region and Iran's move to bolster its presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in the wake of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003. Internal factors, such as the Arab Spring and its aftermath, also diverted Egypt's focus inward for some time. But in a bid to restore some of its former shine and prestige, the government is loosening the purse strings to acquire high-end weapons, including the massive Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, to once again highlight its military might and influence.
Egypt's decision to search far and wide for suppliers is also no accident, because the country has long harbored worries about the risks of overdependence on a single foreign supplier such as the United States, which has supplied most of the Middle Eastern giant's military equipment since the 1978 Camp David Accords. Washington exacerbated Cairo's fears in October 2013 when it cut military and economic aid to Egypt due to the military's role in removing Morsi from power. The U.S. decision infuriated the Egyptian military, which became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of becoming hostage to U.S. demands. The choice to diversify its supplier base not only insulated Egypt from the dangers of overdependence on a single supplier but also enhanced the country's influence with a number of strong foreign powers, including France and Russia.
The cost of buying more arms from different suppliers, however, has not been simply financial. In general, militaries are more effective when they can operate largely similar equipment and weaponry across the force. Such standardization greatly facilitates logistics, maintenance and training, because spare parts can be easily sourced and troops need not become familiar with a hodgepodge of equipment. Egypt's extremely diverse arsenal, therefore, imposes significant constraints on its military. Its air defense forces, for instance, operate surface-to-air missile batteries that originate from the United States, Russia, France and now Germany. All the batteries are widely different platforms, making it exceedingly difficult to train forces in the same service across the various equipment.
Egypt's Achilles' Heel
Despite the IMF loans, the economy will remain the country's Achilles' heel. In the end, no amount of economic growth can outpace its exceptional population growth rate and its citizens' needs for basic services and resources. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, Egypt's population will reach 150 million, and 200 million by 2100. Though the country's military is locked in a difficult battle with Islamist militias in the Sinai, al-Sisi has referred to uncontrolled population growth as the country's greatest national security threat due to its capacity to hamstring the economy and the government. Egypt's economy might have improved in the past few years, but the country can ill afford to continue its major arms buildup over the long term — especially because much of the weaponry has been financed by loans Cairo still needs to pay back.