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Nov 15, 2014 | 14:02 GMT

16 mins read

The Egyptian Military: Fighting Enemies Domestic, Not Foreign

Egyptian soldiers search the site of an attack by militants that killed 21 border guards in al-Wadi al-Gadid
(AFP/Getty Images)

Rumors abound regarding Egyptian military forays abroad. Earlier in 2014, media reports claimed that Cairo's armies were preparing to move across the border into eastern Libya, and more recent reports said Egypt may cooperate with its Gulf allies to try to stabilize Yemen. But Egypt cannot really pursue much beyond limited foreign adventurism. The army's current makeup and deployment shows that, to a great extent, the state's military priorities remain unchanged: Constrained by additional economic and political concerns, the country's security priorities force it to on defense and domestic affairs. Cairo may continue — and may increase — its limited and targeted military actions in the region in coordination with its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, but it will firmly resist any efforts to parlay these actions into larger campaigns.

The Egyptian military is the strongest in Africa and one of the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East. But in light of the country's 2011 revolution, continued domestic turmoil and an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, the military is relegated mostly to acting within Egyptian borders. 

One of the biggest constraints limiting the Egyptian army is the country's economy, which has been decrepit since the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the subsequent coup in 2013. The Egyptian government has had to rely on financial support from Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, severely limiting its ability to wage expensive foreign military campaigns.

Of course, this constraint would be removed if the Egyptian government were to receive the necessary funds from its allies, but such a development is rather unlikely given the sheer size and scope of the financial aid package that would be required. Still, such a development cannot be ruled out, and with suitable financial incentive, the Egyptian military would be able to mobilize its considerable power for operations within Libya or other problematic areas, such as Yemen.

Insufficient funding is not the only constraint Cairo faces, however. A large portion of the Egyptian populace maintains grievances over the military coup that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, threatening the Egyptian government with unrest and instability. Extended military campaigns in Libya and Yemen involving large numbers of Egyptian military personnel would be very unpopular, especially if they resulted in high levels of Egyptian casualties. Indeed, many soldiers already have died in the battle against insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, and many Egyptians still vividly remember the country's costly involvement in the North Yemen Civil War in the 1960s.

Because of these constraints, Cairo will likely remain focused on securing its border with Libya and pacifying the ongoing insurgency in Sinai.

The Egyptian Army

Traditionally, the bulk of Egypt's army has been positioned in the country's east, along the Suez Canal, the Nile Delta and lower Egypt's Nile River. This arrangement is primarily due to Egypt's — and more generally, the Nile Delta region's — history of land invasions from the northeast and the relative impassability of its western and southern desert hinterlands. But it is also a result of Egypt's economic imperative of maintaining traffic flow in the Suez Canal, as well as the fact that the vast majority of Egypt's 80 million people are located in this small but fertile territory. The high priority given to this core region can be seen in the deployment of the Egyptian army's three largest groupings: the First Field Army, stationed around greater Cairo; the Second Field Army, stationed in Ismailia (60 miles northeast of Cairo); and the Third Field Army, stationed in Suez.

The First Field Army covers the most territory by far. The bulk of its forces are dispersed around the capital and the Nile Basin. Its exact size is unclear, but elements from two corps are also in charge of defending the western and southern approaches from Libya and Sudan. Within the First Field Army is the elite Republican Guard division, which focuses on armored and mechanized warfare and is the only notable military unit allowed to operate within central Cairo. As the most senior division of the Egyptian army, the Republican Guard reports directly to the president, not to the defense minister or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This division — and the First Field Army more generally — has been given broad leeway since a presidential decree signed in late October placed much of Egypt's civilian infrastructure, including universities, under army jurisdiction.

The Second and Third field armies — each estimated at around 90,000 active personnel and heavily focused on armored units — represent the bulwark of Egyptian defenses against foreign intervention. With bitter memories of the Six Day War with neighboring Israel in 1967, these two armies protect the Suez Canal and Cairo from rapid Israeli invasion via the Sinai Peninsula. The Second Field Army is responsible for the territory stretching south from the Mediterranean Coast to the city of Ismailia, where the Third Army assumes command until the Red Sea to the south. Nevertheless, the army's mandate has changed over the past few decades — and particularly since the 2011 revolution — from combatting foreign threats to managing internal unrest. As a result, the Sinai Peninsula, which has long served as an important buffer region separating Israel and Egypt, is now the primary focus of the Second (and to a lesser extent, the Third) Field Army.

Patrolling the Sinai Peninsula

The northern third of the Sinai Peninsula, particularly the routes along the coast, has long served as the main highway for foreign armies seeking to invade the Nile Delta. This causeway, known as Wadi al-Arish, receives the highest level of rainfall in the peninsula and thus is home to a vast majority of Sinai's population, including the region's most powerful tribes. The population is primarily concentrated in the cities of El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. The bulk of advancing Israeli forces traversed this region during the wars of 1954, 1967 and 1973 before reaching the Suez Canal. Wadi al-Arish is also the primary route used by smuggling networks transporting arms to the Gaza Strip.

Military threats from the southern two-thirds of the Sinai Peninsula have long been negligible because of the broad expanse of mountainous and sparsely populated terrain, with the exception of the narrow western coastline and the southern tip. Nevertheless, the Egyptian military — primarily the Third Field Army — maintains a limited force in this region to protect against threats to the Suez and Aqaba gulfs. It also defends the Arab Gas Pipeline, which in the past exported Egyptian natural gas primarily to Jordan and Israel (although militant attacks on the northern section of the pipeline have taken it offline indefinitely). A few east-west highways also traverse the rugged mountains of central Sinai. Invading Israeli armor units used a number of these highways, particularly those leading to the Mitla Pass, which provides an outlet to the southern Suez Canal region. The rugged terrain and narrow passageways, however, limit these routes to smaller and more mobile forces.

The recent influx of Salafist jihadists within Sinai has been centered primarily on the vulnerable and more densely populated northern strip, particularly in cities such as El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. The Second Field Army, headquartered in El Arish, has led the northern Sinai counterinsurgency campaign. The 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel, however, sets restrictions on the number, composition of and areas of deployment for Egyptian military forces in the peninsula, with tighter restrictions moving further east. These restrictions have limited the effectiveness and response time of Cairo's counterinsurgency efforts.

Nevertheless, since the 2011 revolution, Israel has on three occasions approved Egyptian requests to send additional battalions and previously prohibited mechanized units to the northern Sinai. Much of this can be attributed to Israel's own apprehension regarding jihadists operating along its eastern border and in close proximity to the restive Gaza Strip. In fact, following the Oct. 24 jihadist attack in El Arish that killed more than 30 Egyptian soldiers, Israel allowed an additional two Egyptian infantry battalions and supporting military helicopters to enter Sinai. Now, the total number of army brigades in Sinai is 14 — 13 infantry brigades and one armored brigade — but attacks have continued. 

The Bedouin Tribes

With restrictions placed on its military presence in the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian government's relations with the tribal Bedouins, who constitute roughly 75 percent of the peninsula's population of 400,000 — have been crucial for maintaining security. The region is home to more than 10 powerful tribes, all of which play a role in limiting unrest.

The tribes along the southern Sinai Peninsula's coastal valleys traditionally have proved less restive than their numerically superior brethren to the north, mostly because the area has a large tourist industry and thus greater access to more lucrative job opportunities. The region's dominant Muszeina tribe makes sure violence does not become frequent enough to scare away visitors, and while occasional flare-ups of violence have occurred around population centers such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and el-Tor, the tribe has been largely successful.

The tribes along the crucial northern coastal transportation route have received the bulk of Cairo's attention. The Sawarka tribe controls the majority of Sinai's coastal region and is the peninsula's largest tribe, with some 70,000 people. The Tarabin tribe controls a strip of territory along the plateaus just south of the populated coastal region, but its traditional tribal territory extends into Gaza and Israel's Negev desert. The Tiyaha tribe lays claim to a vast swath of mountainous territory abutting most of southern Israel in Sinai's east, an area through which the Arab Gas Pipeline runs.

Historically, the Egyptian government has launched several initiatives to shape the powerful northern Sinai tribes into local security forces loosely aligned with the Interior Ministry, but it has been only moderately successful. In the late 1950s, former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser attempted to forge a Bedouin force known as the National Guard, which was instructed to patrol territories adjacent to Israel and also to provide logistical support and guidance for military convoys through the rugged terrain. Ultimately, this plan was ineffective and was further strained during former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule. His administration sought to co-opt and buy off powerful tribal sheikhs to use as intermediaries and informants, but it also launched near-continuous security crackdowns against Sinai's Bedouins to prevent smuggling and militancy.

The lackluster performance of these integration efforts can be traced primarily to two long-standing grievances of local communities. First, the lack of economic and infrastructural development, job opportunities and access to state services in the region means smuggling is a much-needed source of revenue. Second, Cairo's unwillingness or reluctance to incorporate the Bedouin tribes into formal police and military apparatuses means that local tribesmen have little presence in state security forces posted in Sinai.

Salafist militancy began spreading after Mubarak was ousted in 2011 and intensified after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Morsi regime in July 2013. A number of state proposals to create self-defense militias among Sinai's Bedouins have progressed little beyond initial implementation. This may be because the proposals came at a time when tribal sheikhs were rapidly losing influence to rising Salafist organizations, the bulk of whose supporters were increasingly being drawn from young men of the local Bedouin tribes that were frustrated with the seeming subservience of their tribal sheikhs to Cairo. A campaign of assassinations targeted tribal leaders suspected of cooperating with Cairo's security apparatus, while Salafist militants were generally given shelter and protection by their fellow tribesmen under customary Bedouin law.

With state influence over the tribes waning, the Egyptian army has been forced to bear the brunt of local security operations (primarily in the northern coastal region) and thus has become the primary target for regional militancy. Little progress has been made in reversing this trend over the past year, and indeed it appears to have worsened, culminating in the declaration of a state of emergency in the peninsula in late October.

Western Frontier: The Libyan-Egyptian Border

The Egyptian army has had to shift its forces toward the Libyan border on a number of occasions, including when the Allies controlled Egypt and Axis-affiliated Italians controlled Libya during World War II, and more recently during the brief 1977 Libyan-Egyptian War. On these occasions, the military had to deal with significant logistical obstacles stemming from the topographic and demographic layout of the barren border with Libya.

Between the Nile River Delta and the Libyan border exists a relatively narrow pass along the coast that leads almost all the way to Libya. This pass is flanked by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the formidable Qattara Depression to the south, which is impassible to vehicles because of the presence of salt lakes, high cliffs and fine powdered sand known as fech fech. It is along this pass that the few significant population centers in western Egypt are located. Running from El Alamein westward along the coastal road, these include El Dabaa, Zawiya Sidi Moussa and Mersa Matruh. At Mersa Matruh the Qattara Depression ends, leading to a second split road that heads south by southwest toward the Siwa Oasis and close to the Libyan border. The coastal road itself continues westward through Sidi Barrani, Buq Buq and Sallum, ending at the Libyan border.

Since World War II, not much has changed; any military force of significant size would have to remain highly dependent on the coastal road for logistics and resupply. As German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel occasionally did in World War II during desert battles in the region, a fighting force can swing through the desert in a significant pincer move, but only for short durations and with considerable logistical constraints.

Fortunately for the Egyptians, sealing the border is far less difficult, but it still presents its own challenges. The division known as the Egyptian Western Military Region, based principally out of Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani, is responsible for securing the Libyan border. These forces are significantly mobile, consisting predominantly of mechanized and motorized units. At the moment, the bulk of these units — which, according to intelligence from Stratfor ground sources, consist of three brigades from the First Field Army — is based in Mersa Matruh, with smaller forward units stationed in Sidi Barrani and Sallum.

By utilizing the coastal road, it is relatively easy for the Egyptians to bolster their units on the border, but they must take care to avoid overwhelming the road's capacity. Given the forces available in the west and the narrow strip of terrain it needs to defend, the Egyptian army is already able to maintain a tight blockade of traffic along the coastal road, which can also be extended to the secondary road leading to the Siwa Oasis, located some 170 miles southwest along the Libyan border. It is not entirely clear just how tight the checkpoints are in this area, but the threat of Libyan weaponry crossing the border has likely raised soldiers' alert level.

Overall, the Egyptian army can ably monitor and control the two roads leading into Egypt from Libya. Furthermore, Stratfor sources have indicated that the Egyptians maintain 4,000 border security forces along the boundary with Egypt, a number that is more than sufficient for such a task, especially when combined with the Western Military Region's army forces.

Unfortunately for Egypt, controlling the main roads is different from controlling the entire border, a task that is virtually impossible given the sheer size and impassability of the region. The advantage for the Egyptians, however, is that smuggling large quantities of equipment and weaponry across the border without using the available road network is very difficult. This means that while Cairo will not be able to stop weapons from flowing in from Libya, the weapons will predominantly consist of light to medium equipment that is best transported by camels or, in certain cases, vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.

To limit the extent of cross-border smuggling, Egyptian authorities have tried to use local tribal communities, many of which wield strong influence on both sides of the border because of generations of intermarriage and running lucrative smuggling networks. Many of these Bedouin tribes — including the Awlad Ali (estimated at some 750,000 people), al-Hamayim, Baraisa, Fawayid and Jawazi — migrated to Egypt's western deserts centuries ago from coastal Libya and retain historical ties to Libya's eastern Cyrenaica region.

However, as in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Cairo's success in these endeavors remains unclear and likely limited, evidenced by smuggling's role as major enterprise for a region that has long suffered from a lack of state development, limited employment opportunities and poor access to civil services and infrastructure. Nevertheless, senior leaders in Cairo reportedly have held a series of meetings with tribal leaders and sheikhs to spur further cooperation. In addition, Libya's Tobruk-based House of Representatives and its army are working to consolidate control over their country's east, a development that, though a long way off, would assist in securing the border.

The Far South

Southern Egypt's border zone — an enormous but relatively impassable region, guarded by a smaller security force situated primarily along a narrow passage — is similar to Egypt's western borderlands. Smuggling also remains a key concern here, especially regarding reports of Iranian trafficking networks that transfer armaments and rockets to Tehran's allies in the Gaza Strip.

Northwestern Sudan and southwestern Egypt are dominated by the eastern Sahara Desert, with only a few narrow roads linking small oasis communities. The southeastern regions along the Red Sea are more mountainous but contain a number of small population centers and larger coastal highways. The bulk of the southern region's population lies along the Nile, although the population tapers off rapidly as one approaches Aswan and Lake Nasser.

Egypt's southern approach is largely defended by a single army corps — formally attached to the First Field Army and dominated by armored and mechanized units — stationed in the city of Assiut, 220 miles south of Cairo. Nevertheless, another corps attached to the Third Field Army, stationed to the northeast of Assiut in the Red Sea town of Hurghada, provides assistance in detecting key smuggling networks along the coast.

Because of the area's geography, an invasion from the south is highly unlikely. Even with the small amount of troops stationed in the area, the army would be able to defend necessary roads and stop advances. Like the western border with Libya, defending every part of the southern border is impossible, but the Egyptian army is doing enough.

Egypt's armed forces are tasked with deterring smugglers, fighting jihadists and preventing regional unrest from penetrating the country, and so they must concentrate their energy inside the borders, instead of conducting operations abroad. When the country's limited budget and the public's opposition to large-scale deployments are factored in, it becomes clear that the military has little capacity to venture abroad. These factors are unlikely to change, so Egyptian armed forces will continue to concern themselves with domestic issues and will likely only participate in regional military operations if they receive significant financial aid and are part of a wider coalition.

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