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Diversifying arms
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 12 - 2014

Diversifying the sources of Egypt's armaments became a priority among state strategists after the 30 June Revolution. Overreliance on one provider was now seen as shortsighted. Egypt was also keen to ensure its armaments policy responded to international political developments, including the growing influence of China and Russia.
Specialists agree that Egypt is being pushed to meet two different challenges. The first is dictated by the aggravated threat posed by Islamist fundamentalist militias and their shift from the kinds of operations staged during confrontations with the Egyptian state in the 1980s to far more sophisticated operations since the 30 June Revolution.
At a regional level, Egyptian arms procurement is no longer solely governed by the need to maintain an Egyptian-Israeli military balance. Major regional developments have significantly altered priorities.
Arab armies have been dismantled, including that of Iraq in 2004. National armies have been targeted, as occurred in Syria in 2011. There is also the growing phenomenon of multinational militias possessed of vast quantities of arms, most of them obtained from the Iraqi and Syrian arsenals.
The second challenge is the result of overlapping local, regional and international developments. A regional arms race, fuelled by concerns over Iran as well as Israel, saw $68 billion worth of arms deals. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the leading purchasers, buying mostly from the US. In Egypt, strategists have become more aware that it is impractical to rely on a single supplier; for example, the US.
The need to diversify was driven home by Washington's growing tendency to link arms sales to political developments. The US first called off the Bright Star joint military exercises and then halted the delivery of arms purchases to Egypt and suspended maintenance and training. Egypt responded by turning to Russia, China, Germany and France.
Trends in International Arms Transfers 2013, a report published in March 2014 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), notes that several countries halted exports to Egypt in response to political events in July and August 2013.
“The USA suspended the scheduled deliveries of 12 F-16 combat aircraft, M-1A1 tanks and 10 AH-64D combat helicopters. Spain halted the scheduled delivery of C-295 transport aircraft. However, Russia delivered 14 Mi-17V-5 helicopters and continued to market its weapons to Egypt,” the report said.
Military experts say international measures to restrict arms sales and deliveries to Egypt have, for all practical purposes, been lifted. A senior source told Al-Ahram Weekly: “There are conventional restrictions that governments apply, in general, in conflict zones today in the Middle East, though Israel is excluded. They designate the distances for which certain types of arms can be used, and specify the conditions. Some arms may not be used beyond certain distances except under conditions stipulated in agreements.”
The source confirmed that the US has still not fulfilled the terms of its Apache helicopter deal with Egypt.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi's visits abroad have been closely linked with the push to diversify arms supplies. He visited Russia last year while still minister of defence. More recently he travelled to both Rome and Paris. A visit to China is planned before the end of this year and the issue of armaments will figure high on the agenda.
“The diversification of armaments sources is no longer a luxury. It has become an urgent necessity in light of developments in international armaments patterns and the evolution of the political map in Egypt,” says General Qadri Said, advisor to the military studies programme at Al-Ahram Centre of Political and Strategic Studies.
“We have a local base for the manufacture of arms in military factories and this should be taken into account. Egypt is also looking for the best sources in terms of technology, facilities and prices. President Al-Sisi and leaders in the military establishment keep up-to-date on developments in international armaments systems and the government is moving quickly to procure what it can from these systems,” Said explained.
“The great improvement in Egypt's political circumstances following the 30 June Revolution has helped Egypt obtain new systems from sources other than the US. Washington has not fulfilled its pledges toward Egypt. It has been dragging its feet for a long time on the Apache deal and on maintenance, which it is using as a form of political blackmail.”
The last two years have seen the most intensive exchange of visits between Cairo and Moscow since 1970. The visits were crowned by agreement on a $3 billion arms package. The package includes the S-130 missile system, MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 combat aircraft and other aerial and missile defence systems.
Egypt took delivery of the S-130 missile system in November 2014. Cairo and Moscow are still discussing delivery arrangements for other items, including Mi-17 combat helicopters, Tor M-1 and Bok M-2 missiles, MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 combat aircraft and the Yak-130 military training aircraft.
Discussions are also ongoing over upgrading Russian equipment that has been a part of the Egyptian arsenal since the middle of the last century. Egypt has expressed interest in purchasing another $4 billion in Russian arms and there is also talk of a licensing agreement for the domestic production of Kalashnikov rifles.
Negotiations with Moscow brought some good surprises concerning the quality of arms requested, says Nourhan Al-Sheikh, an expert on Egyptian-Russian relations. “It is important to take into consideration the sophistication Russian arms manufacturers have achieved and their competitiveness in the international market.”
No sooner had Cairo sealed the deal with Russia than it turned to France. Reports suggest that the early stage of negotiations was overseen by Al-Sisi when he was serving as defence minister.
Following President Al-Sisi's first visit to Paris, La Tribune reported that Cairo has purchased four missile-equipped Gowind-class corvettes for one billion euros. The contract was concluded with DCNS, the French industrial group that specialises in naval defence and energy.
DCNS will also supply the Egyptian airforce with seven Airbus planes. Sources note the French government voiced no reservations over the deals.
In September Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi visited Paris for talks on military cooperation and armaments. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the talks, which focussed on military equipment, particularly armoured vehicles, as constructive.
Al-Sisi's scheduled visit to China will focus on economic cooperation but will also include discussion of armaments. China is one of the world's largest arms suppliers.
“Diversified arms supplies are essential if we are to avoid dependency on any of the international powers that export arms,” says General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Armed Forces Centre for Strategic Studies.
“Egypt does not want to become linked to Russian policy or Chinese policy. It wants to modernise and constantly strengthen its army without becoming embroiled in the international politics and policy choices of the suppliers.
“We formulate our own policies. No one can impose them on us. This helps explain the importance of the Russian S-300 deal, which broke the arms supply monopoly that the US used to try and control Egypt.
“Egypt has suffered too long from American domination politically, especially following the peace treaty and under Hosni Mubarak. US military supplies were used to back up Washington's dictates to Egypt in political, economic and other matters.”
The financial support Egypt has received from the Gulf to conclude the arms deals opens the door for closer military cooperation with Gulf countries, says Qadri Said. Egypt could be asked to play a major role in securing stability in the Gulf, though this is a proposition that has yet to be tested.
Egypt is currently preoccupied with immediate national security threats, including terrorism on its own territory. It has responded cautiously and with considerable reserve to calls from the international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, which would inevitably entail engagements abroad.
It remains to be seen whether 2015 brings any changes in Egypt's position. What is certain is that Egypt has made its own calculations, informed by national security needs, and there is agreement with its partners in the Gulf over these choices.


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