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Jun 12, 2015 | 08:00 GMT

9 mins read

Egypt's Conventional Military Thinking

Egyptian military M113 armored personnel carriers arrive at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Dec. 1, 2013 after dispersing Cairo University students rallying for ousted President Mohamed Morsi. (MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)
(MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

Since its decolonization, Egypt has maintained the largest and most powerful military in the Arab world. Throughout its history, the independent Egyptian state has relied heavily on the military to protect its territorial interests, first during its decadeslong conflict with Israel and again in disputes with Libya and Sudan on Egypt's western and southern borders. But while the existential threat from conventional foreign militaries has waned in recent years, the new and unconventional dangers of insurgencies, terrorism and non-state actors have risen to take its place. Egypt's large and inflexible conventional forces, which are better suited to guard against foreign incursion, may not be as capable of addressing the country's current security issues.

With the Egyptian military firmly in control of the government and its troops increasingly called upon to stand alongside a joint Arab force, military leaders are unlikely to reduce or shift the nature of state defense expenditures, despite the country's weak economy and evolving security concerns. Instead, Egypt will continue to focus on developing and sustaining its conventional military to guard against the unlikely but potentially catastrophic threat of a foreign invasion.

In decades past, Egypt's drawn-out conflict with Israel consistently took center stage as the most urgent threat facing the government. But over time, the menace of an invasion of Egypt by another country has dwindled. It is now highly unlikely that Israel, the only real conventional power within immediate striking distance, would try to attack Egypt. The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has ingratiated itself with its Israeli counterpart as Egyptian forces have worked to contain and undermine Hamas in Gaza.

Since the Arab Spring, Egypt has had to cope with a far more amorphous and pressing problem: the deterioration of the economy alongside the persistent threat of insurgency or terrorism on the Sinai Peninsula, along the Nile River and across the Libyan border. While this analysis will focus on the direct security threat posed by non-state actors using insurgent and terrorist tactics, the links between Egypt's socio-economic malaise and insurgencies should not be ignored.

At present, neither the insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula nor the Libyan conflict threaten the existence of the Egyptian state. In fact, since the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, the likelihood of any viable challenge to the Egyptian leadership has significantly diminished. While continued dissatisfaction among large swathes of the population over Egypt’s socio-economic and political conditions raises the possibility – however slight – of another revolution, military leaders will continue to manage political dissent by maintaining a heavy security presence in the country.

Nevertheless, an argument can be made for Egypt to modify its security posture to become more adept at tackling insurgency and terrorism. The United States and Israel have already made this point to Cairo. Such an effort would require heavy investment into rapid reaction forces equipped with sophisticated infantry weapons, optics and communication gear. These forces would need to be backed by enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. In order to transport them, Egypt would also need numerous modern aviation assets. While Egypt has taken some steps toward better equipping its troops for counterinsurgency campaigns, it remains overwhelmingly focused on enhancing its military's conventional fighting capabilities.

This stance is especially visible in the Egyptian military's force structure. Rather than restructuring its forces into a more flexible organization geared toward counterinsurgency operations, the military has maintained a centralized hierarchy that is broken down into conventional military region, army, corps and division units of command. It has also continued to invest heavily in weaponry such as surface-to-air missile batteries, anti-ship missiles, tanks and frigates that, for the most part, are useless for addressing Egypt's counterinsurgency and counterterrorism threats.

Obstacles to a New Egyptian Force

Five elements explain the lack of structural adjustment in Egypt's force posture: the military's threat analysis, institutional inertia, aim for prestige, centralized power structure and entrenched interests.

Threat Analysis 

The military's estimation of threats is perhaps the biggest factor contributing to its continued emphasis on conventional capabilities. Egyptian leaders undoubtedly understand that insurgency and terrorism pose the most urgent threat. That does not mean, however, that they are also the most dangerous. The Egyptian battles of the 20th century, including the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, still weigh heavily in the military's calculations. Though the likelihood of a conventional attack against Egypt is currently very low, the geopolitical conditions of the Middle East are notoriously fickle and Egypt's leaders likely will not discount a conventional military attack as a potential threat.

In addition, none of the other scenarios the military must plan for involve an existential threat to the Egyptian state. Insurgencies will persist, whether on the Sinai Peninsula or across the Libyan border, but it is unlikely that they will endanger the government's hold on power. Arab powers allied with Egypt, including Saudi Arabia, may increasingly call on Egyptian military forces for assistance against insurgencies or conventional armies, but they will do so in theaters far from home. Neither alternative will carry the risk of unseating the military leadership in Cairo.

Institutional Inertia 

Over many decades, Egypt's military institutions have been built and optimized for large-scale conventional warfare. This focus has seeped into military education, training, ideology and doctrine, shaping perceptions and by extension, force structure, as military leaders trained to maintain and enhance Egypt's prowess in conventional warfare take on roles in military planning.

Search for Prestige 

The ability to boast the largest and most sophisticated Arab army carries significant prestige. The Egyptian state and military will therefore continue to seek out further conventional capabilities in an attempt to retain and enhance this positive perception.

Centralized Power Structure 

At its core, the Egyptian military is a highly centralized institution. Despite abundant historical evidence that its overly centralized nature has hurt its fighting prowess, the military is unwilling to move toward a more flexible force posture that would make room for individual initiative at the junior officer level. This aversion to disseminating power among the ranks is rooted in the leadership's fears of a coup — because troops are drawn from the wider population, they are not immune to the waves of discontent that periodically undermine Egypt's stability. Though these fears may be warranted to some degree, the military's solutions — tight centralized discipline, layers of control and oversight, and restricted flow of information — have resulted in a slow-moving organization that has difficulty reacting to the more flexible non-state actors threatening the country.

Entrenched Interests

The interests of the officers and enlisted personnel within the current military force structure create additional pressure on Egyptian leaders to maintain the status quo. For example, a shift toward a force more capable of counterinsurgency would empower non-commissioned officers and special operations forces at the expense of conventional leadership. It would also lead to the closure of several headquarters and stations, as well as the elimination of any officer position attached to them. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of poorly trained infantry would be rendered unsuitable for sophisticated counterinsurgency campaigns.

Expect More of the Same 

Given the strong motivations behind Egypt's continued adherence to a conventional force structure, we can expect the Egyptian military to continue having difficulty prosecuting counterinsurgency campaigns over the next few years. Its cumbersome force structure, combined with its failure to enable leadership initiative at the lower levels, will stand in the way of any counterinsurgency effort geared toward winning hearts and minds. (For example, Egypt's strategy to develop inroads onto the Sinai Peninsula via local Bedouins has been undermined by the military's heavy-handed policing approach, which has turned the local population against the state.)

The military must also cope with the effects of its recent move away from U.S. sources of military equipment. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt concluded that the United States was an unreliable partner and began to purchase its weapons from Russia, France and China. Cairo believed these countries would be less likely to allow politics to interfere with weapons sales. Though Egypt's effort to diversify its supply of weapons increased the reliability and competitiveness of the deals it received, it also came with several drawbacks. The Egyptian military had largely adapted to the use of U.S. weapons as its primary platform; transitioning to different platforms has complicated military training and logistics and will require a period of time for troops to familiarize themselves with the new arsenal.

Still, for all its inherent weaknesses, the Egyptian military will maintain its considerable strength in conventional warfare. It is undeniably well equipped and, in some ways, well trained for conventional battles, and it has increasingly benefitted from the acquisition of sophisticated modern weaponry and joint training exercises with advanced foreign militaries, such as that of the United States. Thus, Egypt will remain positioned to defend itself against conventional armies that suffer similar weaknesses in military culture, such as Libyan and Sudanese forces. However, it will be at a clear disadvantage against Israel's rapid and flexible troops.

Egypt's Position in the Region

From the perspective of force size and capability alone, the Egyptian military's status within the wider Middle East and North Africa region will remain largely unaltered. Egypt has not measurably invested in weapons that have changed its capacity for projecting force, nor has it managed to carry out forced amphibious landings. Its navy continues to be largely confined to littoral waters, and its strategic airlift capabilities are virtually non-existent. While Egypt will maintain its ability to carry out operations both within its borders and directly across them in Libya and Sudan, as well as theoretically against Israel, it has neither invested in nor trained its forces to launch sustained attacks beyond its immediate proximity.

That being said, the above assessment is meant for a non-permissive battle environment. Should a permissive environment emerge in which allied countries grant Egypt access to ports, airfields, highways and airlifts for the deployment and maintenance of Egyptian troops farther afield, it could extend a sizable force across the Middle East. Given the growing ties between Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the push for the creation of a joint Arab force, this is becoming increasingly possible. With enough political and logistical support, Egyptian forces could theoretically play an important role in a military campaign across the wider region. 

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