Egypt's arms fair boosts military's image as regional superpower
Earlier this week, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opened the country's first international security and defense expo. The event, which took place over three days, featured more than 350 contributors from 40 countries. By anyone's standards it was a big show, but does it really mean anything for Egypt?
The short answer is yes. The reasons for this lies in its recent history.
The glory days of modern Egypt
In 1952, a revolution in Egypt overthrew the British-backed monarchy and pushed the last vestiges of foreign control out of the country.
Those behind the bloodless coup called themselves the Free Officers Movement.
The end result of the revolt was that Egypt, at long last, was once again ruled by Egyptians.
These Egyptians, however, were the military and their new leader as of 1954 - after a moment of internal struggle - was Gamal Abdel Nasser.
After the Suez Canal crisis, Nasser had successfully nationalized the Canal against efforts from the French, British and Israeli military.
The victory boosted Egypt’s image as a military powerhouse.
As the Cold War took hold, Egypt continued to expand its military arsenal, making it the Middle East’s most most powerful state in terms of armaments, Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, explains in his article Egypt Goes on an Arms Spending Spree.
This was the golden age of Egypt’s military might. Not only was it known for its strength inside the country, but it was known for it outside the country too.
However, with Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the army’s reputation started to weaken.
Following the end of the cold war, the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey’s reengagement with the region, Egypt began to lose its status.
“So that role, regional role, that Egypt aspires to, as it has since the 1950s, has very much declined,” says Issandr al-Amrami, the project director for North Africa and the Middle East at the International Crisis Group.
As a result of this decline, Al-Amrami explains that Egypt has begun revising its doctrine and part of that has been upgrading its military equipment and diversifying its procurement processes.
Changes since 2011
Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013 and then officially in 2014 following elections, the country’s percentage of arms imports jumped by 215 in the period 2013 to 2017 over the period 2008 to 2012.
But if you look at Egypt’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) its military expenditure for the same period is, in fact, lower.
Pieter Wezeman, the senior researcher in the Arms and Military expenditure programmes at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says this discrepancy is likely to stem from the fact that military expenditures reported by Egypt possibly excludes its arms procurement and that, as a result, the overall spending on military expenditures cited in the GDP figures may exclude its arms procurement tally overall.
He adds that a “significant part of Egyptian arms procurement is financed with aid from the US, Saudi Arabia or the UAE (and others). This is probably not included in the government budget [either]."
This boost in arms purchases has pushed Egypt to be the third largest importer in the world of such weapons and equipment after India and Saudi Arabia as of 2017.
France is Egypt's biggest supplier. In fact, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony beside President Sisi on the first day of the expo was France’s Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly .
Arms transfers internationally
Egypt's quest to revamp its military image is nothing new.
In fact, a report on the trends in international arms transfers for 2017 by SIPRI states that the overall volume of international transfers of major weapons between 2013 to 2017 increased by 10 percent over the period of 2008 to 2012.
In short, countries all around the world since the early 2000s have been increasing their arms spend.
Holly Spencer, from the French organization ‘Stop Fuelling War’ explains that “in European countries we see increased spending on the military, in France in particular as well. And decreased spending on social services and things like these.”
The drive to acquire weapons appears to be “increasing fear with an increasing desire to show a sort of strong military front” says Spencer.
In Egypt's case that spending has left the country with an external debt that has reached “a record high of €80 billion as of June 2018” says Maged Mandour in his article ‘Sisi’s Debt Crisis’.
He adds that “even as the military’s spending worsened an evolving debt crisis, the regime focused on paying for it with a massive austerity drive.”
This drive has included austerity measures in 2016 and then new measures on 7th of November of this year.
Importance of this defense expo
So is this defense expo a significant move for Egypt?
“I think the focus on this defense fair [is] that the constant glorification of the Egyptian army is just [a] recurring feature of the current regime,” explains Al-Amrami.
Since Sisi took over as president, the country has shown its people it is willing and able to protect them from Islamist rule, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the the Islamic State armed group in the Sinai.
In the post-2011 era, the country, under the leadership of Sisi, has been looking to rebuild the state, adds Al-Amrami.
And people want to feel secure, even as the country’s infrastructure, social services and economy remain weak, because the revolutions left the country in a very vulnerable state.
So moves such as buying the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that haven’t yet been used appear to be impulsive purchases.
But as Wezeman explains that by buying these arms “it can [improve] its status.”
"Defense fairs take place all the time across the globe. They are the “focal point of this industry” says Spencer.
“This is where all the deals get done [and] where all the contacts are made.”
It’s also the place where you show the world “that you are re-equipping and expanding your military capability” says Wezeman.
Wezeman adds that it is also the venue “where you actually play your suppliers out against each other to get the best deal on the most advance equipment.”
All of this is designed to return Egypt to its glory days as a regional military superpower.
The thinking, as outlined by Egypt’s Defense Minister General Mohammed Zaki during the opening remarks of the fair, is that "peace must be protected by power that secures."
In other words, Egypt sees strong military as synonymous with peace.