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A 10-year overhaul
Published in Ahram Online on 20 - 12 - 2020

In the first half of the last decade the army backed the people in two grassroots revolutions, and in the second performed a complementary role to civilian bodies in fostering economic recovery, development, and growth. The army performed these ancillary functions with the same professionalism with which it protects the nation from dangers at home and abroad.
As an institution, the Armed Forces underwent a major transformation, implementing a comprehensive armament, training and development programme, expanding its capacities and honing the skills necessary to defend Egypt's vital geostrategic interests.
Systemic terrorism posed an immediate threat. The army has carried out four major counter-terrorism operations in Sinai over the last decade and succeeded in dismantling terrorist networks that were part of a larger regional terrorist threat.
Eagle-1, the first of the four counter-terrorist operations, was launched in August 2011. The majority of attacks during the first wave of post-revolutionary terrorist activity in Sinai targeted international natural gas pipelines.
In August 2012 Eagle-2 was launched to contain the spread of the terrorism menace, followed by Martyr's Right, launched in September 2015. The Islamic State (IS) had begun to spread across the region but Egypt's counter-terrorist campaign prevented it from establishing a foothold in Egypt. In February 2018, the army launched Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 which has successfully reduced terrorist activity.
In the course of these operations the army developed a specialised counter-terrorist force. Numerous counter-terrorist training drills were held, including joint manoeuvres with countries keen to exchange counter-terrorism expertise with Egypt. It also acquired specialised equipment, such as surveillance drones, which helped pinpoint terrorist lairs and foil attacks.
In tandem with the military operations, the government launched a massive Sinai development programme which has radically transformed life in the peninsula. To begin with, it was essential to tighten security along the border with Gaza. When that was accomplished, attention turned to developing essential infrastructure. The civilian sector, aided by the Armed Forces, repaired and expanded road and communications networks, with an eye on linking the peninsula more closely to the Suez Canal cities, the Nile Valley and Delta. Development plans took into account local demographics and the social and cultural traits of Sinai society. Before long, it was possible to see a qualitative shift in the local economy as a legitimate alternative to the underground economy that had emerged. The growing numbers of job opportunities also stymied the terrorist organisations' recruitment operations.
After the 30 June 2013 Revolution, the Armed Forces dedicated much needed attention to developing and expanding military facilities and infrastructure. Perhaps the most important step was the upgrading of dozens of military installations. Much of this work took place in Sinai. Outside the peninsula, efforts focused not only on upgrading existing facilities, such as the main naval base in Alexandria and the base at Sidi Barrani, but on building new bases.
In the north of the country, the Mohamed Naguib military base which opened in July 2017 is the largest military base in Africa and the Middle East. In January 2020 the Berenice Red Sea naval was inaugurated and is now home to the Southern Fleet. Six months later, the Garboub Naval Base in the Western Military Zone near the borders of Libya opened.
The bases on the north coast were developed to defend recently discovered natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, a vital economic resource in a region that has experienced a sharp surge in tensions due, in large measure, to Turkey's illegal and provocative drilling activities. The natural gas discoveries have stimulated an array of cooperative arrangements with countries in the region, involving exclusive economic zones and the delineation of maritime borders which, in turn, necessitate collective security arrangements.
Anwar El Sadat Mistral class helicopter carrier
In this framework the new bases serve a tactical function, facilitating rapid deployment in the event of any threat. Development of the Berenice base was motivated, in part, by the need to be prepared for eventualities in the tense yet strategically crucial regions of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Several international powers already have bases in Djibouti and Eritrea and, more recently, Moscow and Khartoum struck an agreement under which the Russians will build a naval base on Sudan's Red Sea coast. The Egyptian military establishment is obviously keen to keep up with such developments.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi's declaration of a red line from Sirte to Jufra in Libya during his address to Egyptian troops in the Western Zone this summer left little doubt about what lay behind the construction of the Garboub base. The proliferation of terrorist groups in Libya, and their attempts to infiltrate Egypt and furnish arms and support to terrorist organisations here, constitutes a major threat. And as the conflict in Libya descended into ever greater chaos, the risk of spill-over increased.
An ambitious armaments programme accompanied infrastructural developments. Diversification of armament sources, transfer of technology and expertise in defence manufacture, and striking a balance between the different branches of the Armed Forces were the guiding principles of a programme that raised weapon capacity to unprecedented levels of sophistication. Egypt acquired two Mistral class helicopter carriers, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat, from France, and several Gowind class corvettes, two of them manufactured in Egypt through a joint Egyptian-French defence manufacture development scheme. Dassault Rafale fighter planes were acquired to strengthen Egypt's air defence, and the French made telecommunications satellite, Tiba-1, was launched in November 2019. Primarily designed to serve healthcare, education, and other civilian services, the satellite also boosted the army's aerial surveillance capability. Other acquisitions include four Type 209/1400mod class submarines from Germany, Kamov Ka-52 attack/scout planes from Russia, and an order of 10 US-made Apache attack helicopters.
The acquisitions came in response to Egypt's growing defence requirements and the need to be able to deploy rapidly to defend vital interests. The helicopter carriers, for example, are essential to staging a response to threats on the high seas, including hostile activities targeting maritime hydrocarbon resources or the entrances to the Suez Canal. For the same reasons, the Air Force has been comprehensively revamped.
In December 2018, the Egypt Defence Expo (EDEX) — the first international defence exhibition in Egypt, covering air, land and sea military technologies — opened. More than 375 foreign defence and 23 Egyptian firms attended. The expo was an opportunity to showcase Egypt's ability to organise a major international event, and the level of local military production. Domestic manufacture accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of Egypt's armaments needs, as well as producing many items for export. Egypt's defence industry serves all branches of the military and keeps abreast of demand in international defence markets where interest is increasingly focused on weapons used in asymmetric warfare and counter-terrorism and incorporating the latest advances in military technology.
Joint training drills and manoeuvres played a crucial role in enhancing the army's ability to respond to diverse threats and master new hardware and technologies. In addition to honing skills, joint activities offer an opportunity to exchange military expertise and strengthen cooperation with regional and international allies. Training activities have grown in tandem with the creation of the new military bases. Egypt took part in dozens of manoeuvres with Gulf Cooperation Council members Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, some, like the Zayed and Hamad series, in the Gulf, and others, such as the Arab Shield and Arab Sword manoeuvres, in Egypt. The latter also included Sudan and Jordan. In addition, Egypt resumed the Bright Star manoeuvres with the US and engaged in joint exercises with France, the UK, Greece and Cyprus, and Egypt and Russia conducted the third edition of the joint maritime drills Friendship Bridge in the Black Sea.
The Egyptian army is one of the most active in the region, and the least involved in combat abroad. Egypt has set itself apart from other regional powers which have militarised their foreign policy: instead, it has demonstrated that possession of the highest levels of deterrent capacity allows a country to influence the region without having to engage in combat.
The intensity of the joint training agendas, a diversified training curricula aimed at honing the combat and command and control skills of all branches of the Armed Forces, the locations of the drills, whether in Egypt or as far away as the Gulf and the Black Sea, combine to deliver strong messages regarding the comprehensive strengths of the Armed Forces and Egypt's ability to respond wisely and effectively to the gamut of challenges and risks it must contend with under the difficult regional and international circumstances that currently prevail.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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