A Policy-Oriented Think Tank Addressing Foreign Policy and National Security Issues for a Safe Israel

The Egyptian Military Buildup: An Enigma

The ongoing Egyptian military buildup is an enigma. It is an impressive effort in terms of budget, acquisition of modern weaponry, and training. But why is Egypt investing so heavily in its military? Israel has to be wary, even though a military confrontation with Egypt is not expected.
Amy camouflage uniform with flag on it Egypt

Traditionally, Egypt has been one of the most important countries in the Middle East. In ancient times the Egyptian kingdoms played an important role in the history of the region in general and in the history of the Jewish people in particular. In the modern era, after gaining independence from Britain and after the “Free Officers” revolution in 1952, Egypt became a contender for leadership of the Arab world, sometimes competing for the title with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In recent decades, however, Egypt’s influence has declined greatly. This is due to economic weakness, the price paid by Egypt for its peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt’s transition to an American foreign policy orientation.

Although the peace agreement and the American orientation bore many economic advantages, the hostile response to the agreement in the Arab world damaged Egypt’s regional standing, especially given the fact that the country did not have large oil reserves.

The peace agreement has proved to be very stable, despite a number of low points in relations between Egypt and Israel over the years. It has remained in effect for more than 35 years, in spite of various crises – from the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the Second Intifada. Even the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not lead to abolition of the peace accord.

The Israel-Egypt peace agreement has proved to be very stable.

Egypt has never ceased to see itself as an important country. To a certain extent, the current, significant Egyptian military buildup stems from this self-conception. But Egypt has not seen a ‘natural’ enemy on its borders for years, and the puzzle of ‘why Egypt needs this army?’ continues to be asked.[tooltip num = 1]

The purpose of this paper is to describe and analyze Egypt’s military buildup over the last decade, particularly since President el-Sisi came into power in July 2013. The objective is not to claim that Egypt is planning a confrontation with one country or another, but to review her capabilities, her actions and the possibilities that arise from them.

This paper is divided into several parts. The first covers budgets and the army’s place in Egypt’s economy. The second part looks at the status of the Egyptian army today. The third section examines the buildup of infrastructures. The fourth section evaluates the training exercises of the Egyptian army. The last section discusses possible explanations for the buildup and considers its implications.

A.   Budget and Economy

In many countries, the army becomes an economic ‘player’. This is the case in Egypt, where in 2008 the American Embassy defined the army as a “quasi-commercial’ enterprise”.[tooltip num = 2] One researcher elaborated that the Egyptian army enjoys economic benefits such as “subsidized fuel inputs, control over lucrative real estate […] preferential access to state contracts, and the use of special permits to exercise extralegal oversight in sectors ranging from petrochemicals to tourism.[tooltip num = 3]” (It should be mentioned that during Mubarak’s final years the army’s economic situation was neglected, and it appears to have improved under el-Sisi). An example of this is the huge commercial center established by the Egyptian army in 2013 in the Suez region, where it sold products, both imported and Egyptian, at reduced prices.[tooltip num = 4]

The Egyptian army’s economic power has been restored under el-Sisi.

It is hard to tell exactly what part the army plays in the Egyptian economy. The army itself claimed in 2014 that revenues from various military industries accounted for less than one percent of Egypt’s GDP. Various experts have assessed the real portion as between five and sixty percent – a gap which means that it is difficult to formulate precise data on the involvement of the army in the Egyptian economy, apart from the fact that it exists and is recognized.[tooltip num = 5] The army’s budget itself is also unclear. For instance, Egypt’s defense budget was estimated at $ 5.5 billion in 2015, however, Egypt’s purchases from France alone in that year amounted to nearly 6.2 billion Euros.[tooltip num = 6]  While such procurement is not paid in one year, such huge amounts to only one of Egypt’s suppliers indicate that the reported defense budget apparently does not include all acquisitions.

In order to better understand the financial meaning of such deals, let’s demonstrate this by a comparison to an Israeli deal. The Israeli F-35 purchase of 50 aircraft over a period of several years was estimated at $ 7.5 billion[tooltip num = 7] which is approximately half of Israel’s estimated defense budget for one year, if we disregard the share of the US aid budget in the deal. The submarine contract (which at the time of writing this article is the focus of a police investigation) is approximately $ 1.5 billion. In other words, the payment for both major deals which Israel has signed, whose payments have been distributed over several years, together make up about two thirds of her annual defense budget. In contrast, only part of Egypt’s acquisitions in 2015 cost more than the country’s entire annual defense budget.

It appears that Egypt has additional resources to those specified in the budget. Since Egypt has also succeeded at the same time to expand the “Mohammed Naguib” military base complex near Alexandria and to build various large-scale infrastructure projects (as described below), its economic obligations are indeed unusually large in relation to the official defense budget, indicating that the figures in the official budget are not correct, or that certain factors, such as foreign aid, are ignored. This is also reflected in a statement made by President el-Sisi in 2015 that France loaned Egypt 3.2 billion Euros in order to finance an arms deal between the two countries.[tooltip num = 8]

B.   The Egyptian Army Today

The Egyptian Army’s ground forces are built as a heavy mechanized force, mainly intended for large-scale combat maneuvers and not as expeditionary forces or for fighting with light, mobile forces against irregular enemy.[tooltip num = 9] They are organized in regional headquarters which hold both armored and mechanized divisions.

The Egyptian Army is intended to be a ground force and not an expeditionary force or a force for combat against unorganized forces.

In comparison to 2010, the number and type of its units has not changed significantly. In 2010 and in 2016 Egypt had four armored divisions; in 2016 the number of mechanized divisions grew from seven to eight; the number of artillery regiments remained at 15; the number of airborne brigades has remained three; special forces have not changed; and so on. The estimated number of its manpower may have even decreased slightly from 468,000 to 438,000, but since more than one estimate was given in 2010, the 2016 estimate may just be more accurate. Alternatively, because there are indications of a different trend (as shown below), it is possible that the assessments presented are not a true appraisal of the strength of the Egyptian army.[tooltip num = 10]

Even if we do not have information on new units, we can identify processes of modernization and a significant buildup of Egypt’s military forces. While in 2010 it was claimed that the Egyptian army had 973 modern M1 Abrams tanks, in 2016, the number mentioned by the same source was approximately 1,360 (almost three times the estimated number of the IDF’s regular (non-reserve) tank arsenal at that time).[tooltip num = 11] In addition, it was reported that Egypt intends to assemble Russian T-90 tanks in a factory to be built in her territory.[tooltip num = 12] Earlier reports talked of approximately 400 to 500 such tanks.

In the field of troop carriers, Egypt purchased 762 MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored trucks) from the United States, of the kind that have proven themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have already been used in fighting against ISIS forces in the Sinai, and a rough calculation will show they are capable of carrying the infantry of an entire mechanized division. An unknown number of Egyptian-made Timsah MRAPs that have already been observed in the Sinai Peninsula must be added, as well as the purchase of 130 military transport trucks from the Czech company, Tatra. Negotiations are conducted for a further order of 220 trucks.[tooltip num = 13]

In addition, Egypt is interested in upgrading or replacing its artillery systems. By mid-2017, it issued a request for proposals for 155 mm artillery systems from Russia, South Africa, South Korea and France.[tooltip num = 14]

Egypt also purchased S-300VM (Antey-2500) antiaircraft systems from Russia, a downgraded export version with an operational range of at least 200 km and missile interception capabilities (Egypt expressed interest in the newer S‑400 systems as well as in the newest generation of the ‘BUK’ missile systems, but for the moment the cost of the S-400 proved prohibitive). According to Russian sources, the scope of the deal is about $ 1 billion, and the Egyptians plan to equip three battalions – a full air defense regiment. The first of these systems were supplied to Egypt in the middle of 2017. They joined the short and medium-range BUK-M2E and TOR‑1 / TOR-2 missiles purchased by the Egyptians in recent years from Russia,[tooltip num = 15] and seventy-five Avenger US-made antiaircraft launchers purchased a decade ago (In 2016-2017, Egypt made an unusual use of the system, which is actually a mobile version of the ‘Stinger’ shoulder missile: she anchored “Humvee” (“Hummer”) vehicles armed with missiles on board the new helicopter carriers that she purchased).[tooltip num = 16] However, in Egyptian military exercises one can still see widespread use of outdated anti-aircraft systems.

The Egyptian Army maintains a unique focus, at least for the Middle East, on air defense forces. These constitute a separate arm, and are estimated at 80,000 soldiers and 70,000 reserve soldiers, almost a sixth of the Egyptian regular army and reserves, in all branches (not including paramilitary forces and internal forces).[tooltip num = 17] This does not include the anti-aircraft defense that every division has – two air defense battalions. One can guess that the massive Egyptian reliance on air defense forces is related to the fact that during the 1973 war, the Egyptian Air Defense was more successful than the Egyptian Air Force.

The Egyptian Army continues to maintain a unique focus on air defense forces.

If Egypt completes the construction of the planned nuclear reactor at el-Dab’a in the Marsa-Matruh area,[tooltip num = 18] it is reasonable to assume that the S-300 missiles will protect it. However, the number of missiles purchased – especially if the missiles are the longer-range models, capable of reaching 350 kilometers or more – provides not only protection of specific critical infrastructure, but also long-range air protection. A battery of the longer-range model can be placed near the Suez Canal, where it can engage targets all over the Sinai Peninsula and even in parts of Israel.

Israel was divided on the S-300 missile deal. An anonymous source expressed concern that these anti-aircraft systems had nothing to do with the fight against terror, but the then-Israel Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, responded to the question regarding this matter: “Are you kidding me? We’re at peace with them (the Egyptians).”[tooltip num = 19]

The modernization is even more pronounced in the air and sea forces. The number of American F-16 aircrafts over the past decade has grown from 151 (of which 113 are relatively modern C/D models) to 208 or 220 (of which at least 177 are modern). In addition, Egypt is diversifying its sources of procurement. For example, it purchased some 50 MiG-29s of the advanced M2 model (the deal, worth $ 2 billion, is expected to be completed by 2020. The first MiGs in the Egyptian Air Force were spotted in April 2017), and at least 24 French Raphael fighters in 2015, the first of which landed in Egypt less than a year after the signing of the deal. [tooltip num = 20]

By the end of this re-equipping, Egypt will retain one of the largest modern air forces in the Middle East, although Israel will still maintain a more advanced air force, including stealth fighters.

Helicopters, too, were on this shopping spree. Forty-six Apache attack helicopters (ten of which are of the advanced Apache Longbow model, were supplied in 2014) are joined by same number of advanced Russian made KA-52 attack helicopters. The first ones were observed in mid 2017 and were delivered to Egypt shortly after.[tooltip num = 21] Egypt also purchased from China an unknown number of Wing Loong armed UAVs, which are very useful for attacks against ISIS in the Sinai and have already seen operational use.[tooltip num = 22]

Modernization is evident in Egypt’s air and sea forces.

There have also been significant developments in the naval sector, all after Morsi was ousted and el-Sisi took power: in 2014, Egypt signed a €1 billion contract with France for the construction of four”Gowind-2500″ corvettes of about 2,500 tons for Egypt. A year later, it added a contract for a six-thousand-ton frigate (which has already been supplied), and two Mistral-class helicopter carriers (see below). They were joined in 2016 by contracts for two more corvettes, two patrol boats (and a communications satellite).[tooltip num = 23] In 2016 German 209/1400 submarines (more or less equivalent to Israel’s first generation ‘Dolphin’ submarines) began to replace the aging Chinese-made ‘Romeo’ submarines. It should be noted that this deal, although supplied during a-Sisi’s presidency, was signed back in 2012. In addition, the Russians supplied a new small 550ton P-32 missile corvette, armed with supersonic Moskit anti-ship missiles, in June 2016.

These ships join a wide range of older but still active ships, such as the four frigates from the American Oliver Hazard Perry series (4,200 tons) or four lightweight (600 ton) and speedy (41-knot) ships from the American Ambassador III series, which are supposed to have some stealth characteristics.[tooltip num = 24] As a result, the Egyptian navy is the second largest in the region, after Turkey, and is far removed from its image after the 1973 war, when it was perceived to be the “Achilles’ heel of the Egypt’s military.”[tooltip num = 25]

The most conspicuous acquisition, and some would say the most astonishing, were the two 21,000 ton French Mistral-class helicopter carriers, capable of carrying sixteen helicopters, as well as an armored battalion and an infantry battalion. These ships were originally intended for Russia but were frozen due to the latter’s involvement in the Crimea. As a result, the Egyptians bought them at the price of nine hundred and fifty million Euros, or about $ 1.06 billion at the time of purchase, compared with the $ 1.53 billion the Russians were ready to pay for them.[tooltip num = 26]

This really is a bargain price, if for a moment one ignores the fact that Egypt is in financial difficulties, or of the fact that these are the largest ships of their kind throughout the Middle East and Africa.[tooltip num = 27] Before this deal, no one had thought that Egypt needed this kind of ship.

The commander of the Egyptian navy explained that the ships would be used to secure the Egyptian gas fields and to fight terrorism.[tooltip num = 28] This is quite surprising, to say the least, because it differs radically from concepts, such as the Israeli one, in which gas fields are protected by speedboats and anti-missile systems, and not by attack and reconnaissance helicopters flown from large, lightly armed helicopter carriers that are able to carry hundreds of their soldiers and land them on their enemies’ shores, all of which is not very relevant to protecting gas fields at sea.

The maritime and aircraft acquisitions suggest that the explanation that Egypt is preparing for the scenario of an urban uprising like in Syria,[tooltip num = 29] is difficult to believe, since it focuses largely on measures that would be useless in the early stages of such an uprising. If Egypt fears an urban insurrection, it would be better to invest a lot more in UAVs and armored light vehicles, and much less in corvettes and helicopter carriers.

Another, more logical option is that the ships were intended to enable Egypt to deploy forces rapidly in the Gulf region, a capability she currently lacks, since almost all of her buildup is unsuitable for rapid deployment by sea or air.

The fact that Egypt is not dependent on a single supplier enhances her status.

The Egyptian buildup pattern in recent years adds complexity for Egypt. For example, Egypt needs to maintain new aircrafts produced in the United States, Russia and European countries – each of course requires different spare parts, different training, and maintenance systems, which poses a considerable burden on the Egyptian army. However, strategically speaking, the fact that Egypt is not committed to a single supplier, but buys for anyone who is willing to sell to her at her terms, strengthens her position. She is not just another client dependent on one supplier, who can dictate conditions or stop the supply of spare parts and ammunition, but rather a customer courted by competing countries for contracts. Diversifying procurement reduces Egypt’s dependence on its suppliers and strengthens its ability to adopt an independent policy.

C.    Infrastructure

A mere inspection of Egypt’s military power is not enough in order to determine her military buildup. Military forces don’t just move from one place to another. They need infrastructure; bases, roads (at least to a limited extent) and so on. Egypt has made considerable investments in all these areas over recent years. One of the most ambitious programs is the Sinai Development Plan, which was designed to develop the peninsula and integrate it further into Egypt, after decades of it being a no-man’s-land for the most part (and as ISIS’s activity in the Sinai proves, it is still one). This plan, which took shape in 2012 during the Muslim Brotherhood period, includes extensive development of the Sinai; construction of many highways; economic development; construction of factories and over a decade the transfer of three million residents to the Sinai.

Naturally, the focus of this plan is civilian, and settlement of many residents in the Sinai is intended for civilian development. Yet highways also ease the movement of forces, and it appears that these roads deep into the Sinai are more extensive than necessary for a civilian purpose. The army is responsible for this plan, and in 2016 el-Sisi announced the allocation of 10 billion Egyptian pounds (over one billion dollars) to the plan.[tooltip num = 30]

In recent years there has been considerable Egyptian investment in infrastructure.

Beside these plans, Egypt has more far-reaching development plans, such as plans to triple the capacity of Egypt’s ports, especially Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal, improvement of the infrastructure of the roads and railways in Egypt as a whole, and especially in the Cairo environs.

One Egyptian plan, bordering on science fiction, calls for the construction of a new city for five million residents between Suez and Cairo, with jobs for everyone and all necessary infrastructures, within just a few years at a cost of £ 30 billion.[tooltip num = 31] This plan was not left lying on the drawing board, and is being realized.

It is not clear from where the financing for these ambitious plans that cost billions of dollars will come. The “New Suez Canal” was financed by bonds. There are reports of aid from the Gulf States. Nevertheless, the scale of development is huge, and the rulers of Egypt must of course hope that the events that took place in Egypt after the digging of the Suez Canal in the 19th century will not repeat themselves. Then they had to sell their shares to repay debts.

In light of Egypt’s success with constructing the new Suez Canal in the record time of a year, doubling its capacity (even if the economic results have so far been disappointing[tooltip num = 32]) as well as expensive projects such as the expansion of the Mohammed Naguib base near Alexandria, which according to the Egyptians is the largest military base in the Middle East, it is evident that Egypt’s engineering capabilities should not be underestimated.[tooltip num = 33]

In 2017, Egypt’s Al-Ahram reported about a dozen development programs in Sinai valued at $ 1.5 billion. In addition, it was reported that with the help of the Engineering Authority of the [Egyptian] Armed Forces progress is being made with construction of seven more tunnels, some for cars and some for trains, under the Suez Canal, in the Port Said and Ismailia areas (in addition to the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel in the south of the Suez Canal), at a cost of $ 4 billion, planned to be completed by 2020.[tooltip num = 34] The schedule seems extremely optimistic.

These plans will not only be useful if the Sinai region becomes settled, but will also allow military forces to deploy there much more quickly than before. Some of the canals were apparently intended to solve the problem created by the ‘New Suez Canal’, which has cut off the el Fierdan bridge, thus disconnecting Port Fuad’s container port from mainland Egypt. Another part was apparently intended to provide a solution for the future expansion of the Port Said port.

However, it is still difficult to find a civil reason justifying the construction of all seven different tunnels, when at the moment or in the near future there is not much of an infrastructure in the Sinai that will make their use economically viable.

It is difficult to find a civilian explanation justifying the construction of seven tunnels under the Suez Canal.

In contrast to the plans mentioned, part of the development appears to be clearly for military purposes. An examination of satellite imagery shows that Egypt has been building, especially since 2014, extensive warehouses scattered throughout the Cairo-Suez area. Those sites have signs of military installations,[tooltip num = 35] and when activity is observed – it looks military. In addition, several new military camps able to house more than a brigade, are being built in various parts of Egypt.[tooltip num = 36]

A more prominent example is the development of the Maliz (Bir Gifgafa) Airfield in Sinai. According to the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt is prohibited from placing fighter planes in the Sinai. In the entire “B” Area, which includes the aforementioned airport, Egypt is permitted to hold eight unarmed transport aircraft at the same time.[tooltip num = 37] Over the years since the peace agreement was signed, Bir Gifgafa has almost been deserted, but in 2015-2017 satellite images show extensive work, some of which is of a strictly military nature. As of now, it’s hard to find any large civilian population nearby, which may use its facilities, nor is it a popular tourist destination. Yet, all the runways were made operational again, and new runways were constructed as well as an infrastructure for what looks like a new terminal. Moreover, eight fortified hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) and five clearly military open aircraft parking spaces, protected by earth mounds, are also being built.

Bir Gifgafa is not an exception. Six HASs and two battalion-sized camps were also built at the airport in El Arish and its vicinity. This construction is part of the more extensive construction of military aviation infrastructure. As counted by Lt. Col. (res.) Eli Dekel, former Head of  the terrain analysis branch in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Corps, in the decade prior to September 2017, the Egyptians built or put into use six runways and 88 HAS’s in the Cairo-Sinai area (including the Cairo West airport).[tooltip num = 38] Of course, outside of the Sinai, there is no legal limit on the Egyptian ability to build military infrastructure. But Egypt is also building them inside the Sinai. The extensions to the airports are built in a standard format (an additional runway and a passenger terminal),[tooltip num = 39] and indeed Egypt sometimes reported these extensions as being intended for civilian use. However, while at Hurghada Airport we do see the use of civilian terminals, at other airports (such as Cairo West and Katameya) there is no such activity. Although Egypt has many military airports in its territory, the expansions are not divided equally; the building boom has been only in airports from Cairo and eastward to the Sinai.

The building boom has been only in airports from Cairo and eastward.

In addition, Egypt built huge fuel reservoirs, some of which are camouflaged, and again this is far beyond the civilian needs in the Sinai. Some of the reservoirs are, according to the photographs, on a scale capable of serving an army, and some of them are strategic reservoirs of many millions of liters. For example, a reservoir was built in Serapeum, that holds an estimated 25 million liters,[tooltip num = 40] which may be an anterior reservoir belonging to the Second Army, which is in charge of this zone. In addition, Egypt is building many strategic fuel reservoirs. As part of her preparations for the Yom Kippur War, Egypt built ten such reservoirs, from Sidi Barrani on the Libyan border to the Suez Canal. From 1973 to 2010, three fuel sites had been added to them, west of the Suez Canal, two of which, according to the same estimate, hold 50 million liters and one is twice that size. Since 2010 construction of at least three even larger reservoirs has begun.

For example, at the western exit of the Egyptian Mitla road, a dozen large reservoir tanks, each about 40 m in diameter, were dug out in 2015.[tooltip num = 41] In North Katameya and Ismailia – a farm with six reservoir tanks each. It is hardly possible that some of the tanks are connected to the production of Egyptian gas. Their location seems too far away for this, they do not resemble liquid gas tanks, and unlike other tanks (such as the huge fuel tanks in the Suez) they are underground. It’s also hard to understand why suddenly such large new fuel reserves are needed. This is so especially in Katameya, for example, where there already are two civilian tank farms, or the reservoir near El-Shat, about 2.7 kilometers from the canal, which is about 10 kilometers as the crow flies from the production facilities and the vast tank farm in Suez; too close to justify a separate reservoir, and too distant to be part of the Suez facilities. If this was a civilian installation, it is reasonable to assume that it would be located near the port, and not a few kilometers from it on the other side of the canal.

It is possible that some of the reservoirs are intended for jet fuel, but this is only a guess. It is possible that one day some of the airports and reservoirs will serve a future Russian presence, but this is also speculation. (There are reports that Egypt and Russia are working on a base-sharing agreement.)[tooltip num = 42]

While it is possible to believe that part of the development of the fuel reservoirs is for civilian purposes, even if it seems excessive for Egypt’s current needs and for those of the near future, the same can’t be said about the stockpiles of ammunition in the Sinai. An examination of satellite images since 2007 shows that all the ammunition depots have grown considerably, and that new and sometimes larger ammunition bunkers have been built.[tooltip num = 43]

Finally, we can point to an increase in the numbers of Egyptian tank transporters and the number of military bases of the tank transport units. Since 2010 three such bases have been built, which together have a capacity of some 720 transporters, although one of them, built in the vast expansion of the ‘Mohammed Najib’ base near Alexandria, may only be partly occupied, and the second seems to be still unmanned.[tooltip num = 44] It is hard to find a reason for this step, but its military implications are clear: Egypt is significantly improving its ability to mobilize large forces very quickly. For the sake of comparison, it was recently reported that the IDF is buying 90 new tank transporters from Navistar, which join more than 100 Volvo tank transporters that were purchased in 2012.[tooltip num = 45] These will replace the old-fashioned tank transporters that the IDF has been using since the 1970s.

Even if the IDF has additional trucks for other uses, which can serve also as tank transporters in case of an emergency, it is still clear that the Egyptian army has a much greater transport capacity than the IDF, and that Egyptian capacity has increased it recently. Given the fact that armored MRAP trucks are capable of moving on roads like any other vehicle, thus decreasing the use of tank transporters, this capacity enables Egypt to move several divisions at once – considering road limitations. As stated above, the Sinai development plans will greatly ease those limitations.

There is an increase in the number of tanks, and bases used for their storage.

In contrast to the investment in airports, storage complexes and ammunition bunkers, it is clear that Egypt is not investing in defensive infrastructure on the Sinai front. The large defense complexes in the Rephidim (Bir Gifgafa) area, which were built after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, have not been maintained, and some of them have almost disappeared under the sand or disintegrated.[tooltip num = 46] This does not indicate a change in combat doctrine. At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, the Egyptians built a new training area in the area east of Cairo west Airport. This area includes a totally new “steering wheel” outpost, named after its shape, the same kind that was neglected in Rephidim.[tooltip num = 47] Egypt is manning similar outposts on the Libyan border, but it seems that none of its neighbors is using this kind of outposts.

Egypt is not investing in defensive infrastructure in the Sinai.

Furthermore, since 2014, Egypt has set up outposts on the Israeli border, in coordination with Israel, to assist with confronting Hamas and ISIS in the Sinai.[tooltip num = 48] However, these outposts are meant to defend troops against irregular forces coming from Sinai rather than an organized defense against an army like in Rephidim, and they have no similarity to the “steering wheel” design. Therefore, the establishment of the training post shows the fact that Egypt not only uses the “steering wheel” outposts but plans on doing so in the future; it has no need to train its forces to attack such fortification, for almost no one else has them.

In other words, Egypt is not worried that Israel will attack and conquer the Sinai Peninsula. The military infrastructure is not intended for obstructing such a possibility. The newly-constructed Egyptian military infrastructure reinforces the deployment capability, increases the amount of ammunition stored, as well as fuel and other equipment – but it does not see the need to maintain defensive infrastructure.

D.   Training

The third link in the puzzle is training and military exercises. Naturally, an unskilled army with sophisticated equipment is less efficient than a skilled army with the same equipment, and usually also less so than a well-trained army with less sophisticated equipment.

The Egyptian army’s training has traditionally been viewed as mediocre, even if – as was seen in the Yom Kippur War – it was capable of successful planning and carrying out original and effective operational plans. On the tactical level there was no doubt that after the well-executed combat crossing of the Suez canal, its combat performance was not particularly efficient.[tooltip num = 49] The dismal failures of Egypt’s elite Unit 777’s attempt to rescue flight 648 in 1985, as well as the botched Larnaca raid in 1978, only reinforced this image.[tooltip num = 50] At the end of the 1990s, an American officer and researcher noted a lack of initiative and motivation, a rigid centralized command structure, poor training, and other problems in the Egyptian Army.[tooltip num = 51] Some of this has remained this day. Testimonies still indicate a low level of at least some of the Egyptian forces, and there is evidence of corruption and of recruits who serve in non-military positions, similar to the past.[tooltip num = 52]

However, Egypt has made a considerable effort to improve. In recent years, the Egyptian army has carried out extensive maneuvers, including full-scale division exercises, in which all soldiers in the participating units took part, together with their tanks and vehicles. (The IDF allegedly has not conducted such an exercise for many years). Thus, for example, in the annual ‘Raed 27’ exercise in May 2017 the entire 9th Armored Division trained with live ammunition.[tooltip num = 53]

In recent years, the Egyptian army has carried out large exercises.

The exercises have been on the rise in recent years. The Badr 2014 exercise was, according to Egypt, the largest since 1996. It was defensive in nature but it included offensive parts, including a combat crossing of the Suez Canal, along with a simultaneous naval exercise that included diverse subjects from combating smugglers and pirates to anti-submarine warfare.[tooltip num = 54] The “Raed 24” exercise of 2015 focused on fighting on the Libyan front.[tooltip num = 55] Even before that, the Egyptians conducted exercises on subjects like crossing the Suez Canal or large live-fire exercises,[tooltip num = 56] but the scope of the exercises seem to have increased, at least according to the media coverage and the huge parades accompanying them, where a full division can be seen standing to attention, with its vehicles and weapons all present.[tooltip num = 57]

In addition, Egypt continues its traditional exercises with other countries, and adds some new ones.  The biennial joint American- Egyptian military exercise “Bright Star” was held again in 2017, after being cancelled by the Obama administration in 2011, following the Egyptian revolution.  Over the past five years, joint training exercises have been held with Jordan’s special forces; Egypt made parachute drops and house-clearing joint exercises with Russian paratroopers and special forces; an Egyptian unit was sent to Russia to train with Russian forces; Egyptian ships trained with Russian ships; the military has trained with forces from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with the Greek Air Force and Navy; and the Greek defense minister recently even declared a joint exercise with the Greek and Israeli air forces.

In any event, it is clear that the Egyptian military is training more than in the past, and with many more countries.[tooltip num = 58] Building large training facilities, including for combat in built up areas, is also an indication of this.[tooltip num = 59]

E.    Possible Explanations

Piecing together the information about the military buildup, the infrastructure and the training exercises, indicates that the Egyptian army is undergoing considerable reform, and that Egypt is boosting its military capabilities. The military is purchasing newer equipment. The government is building new military infrastructure and dual-use infrastructure, mostly within the area from the Sinai to Cairo. Some of this infrastructure is apparently meant to enable fast deployment of troops to the Sinai, including aircraft, and to supply them without the need for supply convoys having to travel hundreds of kilometers.

Increasing the number of the tank transporters will also enable rapid deployment, as will the hundreds of new mine protected trucks that have joined Egypt’s Fahd wheeled armored personnel carriers. The extensive training of the various branches, and in particular, the extensive joint exercises, indicate that the military is determined to preserve significant “conventional” large scale military capability, that is the ability to fight armored battles against other armies.

It’s hard to tell what’s driving the Egyptian military buildup. The buildup could be a disturbing sign. However, it does not prove any certain intention on Egypt’s part. There are many possible reasons for a military buildup, including:

  • Buildup for the purpose of preserving its status in the Arab world, both as a means of balancing its economic weakness and due to the “arms race” in the Persian Gulf, which was largely caused by the Gulf States’ fear of the Iranians[tooltip num = 60] (even though the Saudis purchased less arms in 2016, in contrast to the sharp increase of previous years);[tooltip num = 61]
  • Creating an infrastructure for future Russian deployment;
  • Preparations for a conflict with Israel or for the re-militarization of the Sinai;[tooltip num = 62]
  • Strengthening the internal status of the government and the ruling class, in a country in which the army is, in many ways, the State itself.

Each thesis is possible, but it is difficult to know which, if any of these explanations, is the reason for the Egyptian military buildup.

President el-Sisi has stated that he is not afraid of an invasion because no organized army is threatening Egypt, but that Egypt needs a big army due to the unstable situation and the “vacuum” in the Middle East. According to his statements, the Egyptian buildup partially can be interpreted as a force for the rapid deployment of troops throughout the Middle East. Sisi has indeed declared his support of a united Arab force to deal with problems in the Middle East, and said that Egypt will play a part in this force.[tooltip num = 63]

Acquiring the “Mistral” ships may be part of this, because they provide the ability to deploy a number of battalions to a distant target at short notice, including dozens of armored vehicles.

However, the bulk of the Egyptian army is built as a heavy mechanized and armored army, and will not be able to quickly reach other countries, from Libya to Saudi Arabia.

If, for example, Egypt wishes to intervene in Libya,[tooltip num = 64] she can deploy a light expeditionary force using light infantry units, MRAP trucks, and various types of wheeled armored personnel carriers. After that, on a much longer timetable, it will be able to bring the tank divisions, moved by train (where possible) or by tank transporters[tooltip num = 65] – and the timetable will be extended further, because unlike in the canal area, it does not appear that the Egyptians are preparing reservoirs or supply bases that will support such a move.

In other words, while the Egyptian army can relatively easily (if we ignore the difficulties that they are presently facing with ISIS) transfer large forces deep into the Sinai and toward the Israeli border, an attempt to transfer them to Libya or Sudan will meet with many more logistical difficulties. The new submarines, of course, have multiple uses. They may provide capabilities against any navy, from the Iranian to the Israeli Navy, from commando deployment to anti-ship attacks.

The reasons for the buildup are sometimes related to the role of the army in the country.

The reasons for the buildup are often related to the role of the army in the country. Not all armies serve the same purpose.[tooltip num = 66] Sometimes internal reasons (demonstrating power in order to awe opponents, controlling the country, supporting an officer class, etc.) will have a greater influence than the need to contend with an external enemy. Likewise, external reasons are not always “preparations for war.”

Traditionally, the status of a country was measured also by the size of their forces, and regional commitments can also affect the force structure and buildup. Luxembourg, for example, has a battalion-size army that, of course, cannot prevent or delay any invasion by any of its neighbors for more than a few hours, and an air force composed entirely of early warning aircraft – all within the framework of NATO membership.

Acquisition of weapons can also be connected to the army’s status in a society or the ability of its officials to derive a large profit from it, and not necessarily for any sort of operational planning.

Therefore, surveying Egypt’s abilities is not sufficient in order to understand her intentions. An analysis of the neighbors’ intentions is necessary – but it is not sufficient either.

As Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin, former commander of Israel’s intelligence branch has said, “If we prepare to confront the enemy’s capabilities, the IDF will need double the forces, deployed on high alert 365 days a year along the borders of the State of Israel”[tooltip num = 67] However, since identification of irregular movements is the identification of ‘capabilities’, it seems that in practice the IDF could make do with smaller forces, but will need a rapid reaction time and total army mobilization whenever such a movement is identified.


While it is not possible to know at this point what the goal is of Egypt’s recent significant military buildup, the buildup itself speaks volumes. A comprehensive military buildup that involves the purchase of equipment, the improvement of infrastructure, and the enhancement of training – creates a new situation and forces neighboring countries to relate.

It is not possible to relate to this solely on the basis of an analysis of Egypt’s current leader’s intentions. Countries such as Israel must relate to the buildup also on the basis of Egypt’s actions and capabilities.

It is also impossible to ignore the influence of one party’s policy – deliberate or not – on other players in the international arena. The moment one party aspires to become stronger, the policies of others have to take this into account. Security is always relative. As Henry Kissinger had said, Absolute security for one party means total insecurity for other parties.[tooltip num = 68] In other words, the catch in responding to the military build-up of a neighboring country is that the response itself can create an arms race.

The arms race of the European navies at the end of the 19th century is an excellent example of such dynamics. British policy, which required that its fleet be equal in size to the next two fleets combined together, meant that every time a foreign naval fleet expanded, the British felt compelled to increase their fleet, which threatened foreign fleets, and so forth and so on.

This dynamic holds especially true for Israel, since many parts of Egyptian society have not accepted Israel and/or remain disappointed by the Egypt-Israel peace agreement. To a great degree, the peace remains an agreement between states but not between societies.[tooltip num = 69]

If the Muslim Brotherhood had remained in power in Egypt and had succeeded in carrying out an Erdogan-like revolution (that is, the purging of the army and bringing it under Brotherhood control), Israel would have found itself concerned about much more than the army’s infrastructure buildup.

The fact that Israel recently permitted Egypt to station significant troops in the Sinai to fight ISIS (– many more troops than allowed under the Egypt-Israel peace agreement!) also requires Israel to pay significant attention to the overall Egyptian buildup.

(The Egyptian president recently announced deployment of 20 battalions in the Sinai, a force that amounts to more than 20,000 thousand soldiers including support units. This is not the total force in Sinai, but the newest additions).[tooltip num = 70]

This author shares the widespread Israeli assessment that, under al-Sisi, Israel and Egypt have become closer than ever; and therefore, that a military clash between the two countries is unlikely. Nevertheless, the Egyptian army buildup, the improvement of its force deployment capabilities, and the large deployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai – warrants a great deal of attention and caution. Assessments may be wrong – and even if they are correct at the moment, future unknown changes may change the situation for worse.

The example of Iran, formerly a friend of Israel that has become a bitter enemy, stands as a warning about the type of rapid changes that can occur. (Fortunately, Iran does not directly share a border with Israel, although it is trying to advance towards Israel through Syria).

The 19th century in Europe, as mentioned above, is another example of how the Belle Époque (the Beautiful Era) can, in only a few years, be transformed into an era of destructive war.

On the other hand, the twentieth century in Western Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union presents another possibility: A situation in which every country is so sure that its neighbor will not attack it, so that no country pays much attention to the question of what its neighbor buys for its army (or even complains that its neighbor does NOT buy enough weapons, contrary to its NATO obligations). The fact that most of the Western European countries are members of NATO, with American backing, certainly does not hurt.

A middle path is the example of the Israeli-Arab arms race after the 1973 war, which, as we know, has not lead to another major war.

The Middle East does not resemble Europe after the Cold War. The relations between Israel and its neighbors are far from being similar to the relations between Denmark and Sweden, or between France and Britain. (This is true despite the increased cooperation between Israel and Egypt). Therefore, Israel must be guarded regarding the Egyptian military buildup, and especially leery regarding the possibility of the rise of an Egyptian Erdogan.

The Egyptian army has often carried out exercises that appear to be based on war-with-Israel scenario. Nevertheless, the IDF should not necessarily train directly for an ‘Egyptian contingency,’ since this would exacerbate relations with Egypt. (Although one could ask what kind of a relationship pertains here, when one side can train for the possibility of fighting the other, but not vice versa).

Taking all these delicate concerns into account, the upshot is that Israel must maintain a basic capacity for mechanized warfare against modern armies. It must not assume that the present situation, in which Israel had a crushing material military advantage versus its enemies (as in the Second Lebanon War and in recent wars against Hamas), will remain the same against other possible adversaries.

Israel must keep a careful eye on the changes in Egypt and their implications; and, at the same time, increase cooperation with Egypt as much as possible. Cooperation does not necessarily prevent future conflict, but it reduces misunderstandings and creates de facto alliances. Such alliances reduce the chances of unintentional escalation.

In other words, Israel’s great challenge is to maintain and improve relations with Egypt, and at the same time be prepared, without causing unintended escalation, for a situation in which the optimistic scenarios do not materialize.

* The author thanks Eli Dekel for his extensive assistance with satellite images of Egypt, and Alex Greenberg for his assistance with Arab sources. The conclusions are the responsibility of the author alone. This study does not represent any official position, and relies only on open sources.

[1] See, for example, Amnon Barzilai, “Why Does Egypt Need Such a Huge Army?”, Haaretz, August 26, 2001.


[2] US Embassy, Cairo, Cable, 23rd September 2008, Wikileaks Public Library of US Diplomacy, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08CAIRO2091_a.html. On the general subject of armies and their involvement in the economy, see, for example, Jörn Brömmelhörster and Wolf-Christian Paes (Eds.), The Military as an Economic Actor: Soldiers in Business, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

[3] Shana Marshall, The Egyptian Armed Forces and the Remaking of an Economic Empire, Washington DC: Carnegie Middle East Center, 2015, p. 5.

[4] The Marker, 11 April 2013, https://www.themarker.com/wallstreet/middle-east/1.1991503

[5] Washington Post, March 16, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egyptian-military-expands-its-economic-control/2014/03/16/39508b52-a554-11e3-b865-38b254d92063_story.html?utm_term=.3c88da139d9e . The most comprehensive experience is probably: Zeinab Abul-Magd, Militarizing the Nation:

The Army, Business, and Revolution in Egypt, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

[6] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2016, p. 324, and also Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Military expenditure by country, in constant (2015) US$ m., 2007-2016”, 2017, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Milex-constant-2015-USD.pdf. Yiftah S. Shapir and Kashish Parpiani, “Egypt Rearms”, Strategic Assessment, Volume 19, No. 3, 2016, p 55 http://din-online.info/pdf/ad19-3.pdf.

[7] Ynet, 27 August 2017, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5008220,00.html

[8] Reuters, March 1st, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-france-loan/3-2-billion-euros-of-egypt-french-arms-deal-financed-by-loan-from-paris-sisi-idUSKBN0LW0ZN20150228

[9] This is in contrast to the process that almost every Western military force has undergone. See, for example, Yagil Henkin, “Why do we even need an army?” Media, 10 February 2017, ; Yagil Henkin, “Where did the European armies go?”, Media, 3 March 2017,

[10] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2016, p. 324; —- The Military Balance 2010, p. 248.

[11] The estimates are not necessarily accurate. For example, in 2010, the report claimed that Israel had 3,501 tanks, while in 2016 it estimated that Israel had about 500 tanks (and another 1,000 in storage); since it did not seem as if Israel had dismantled about 10 active or reserve armored divisions in six years, (based on a historical average, a Western Armored Division had 200-350 tanks), it can be assumed that a considerable portion of the tanks in the 2010 report were those that had been removed from active service years ago (and that the active tank force is concerning only conscript units, but not reserve units). For example, the 2010 report contained no fewer than 387 Soviet-made tanks, or an improved version of them, despite that the fact that these tanks had been removed from service in a previous generation was not classified at all. It is reasonable to assume that a similar process is true too with regard to the Egyptian army.

It should be noted that the report of 2016 mistakenly stated that the total number fell to 2,710 (compared to 3,723 in 2010), however, a separate calculation of the number of tanks (minus 200 T-62 tanks which were counted twice) shows that this was an error. In light of the fact that four different divisions and another five independent brigades were observed in Google Earth images around the Egyptian military bases on different dates, it is likely that the total number of Abrams tanks is even greater, given the fact that there are also tanks in storage and tanks reserved for basic training. My thanks to Eli Dekel who showed me the locations of the formations.

[12] TASS (English), July 5th, 2017, http://tass.com/defense/954764. The report used code numbers to indicate the customers, and it was removed from the net after Russian analysts were able to identify the different countries. Jane’s, July 6th, 2017, http://www.janes.com/article/72090/russia-s-t-90-makes-inroads-in-middle-east-market ; Defense Web, July 7, 2017, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48488:egypt-looking-to-domestically-produce-t-90-tanks&catid=50:Land&Itemid=105

[13] For a picture of the Egyptian MRAP in the Sinai, see,’ https://nzivnet.com/articles/5534; Al-Ahram Online, ” Egypt receives second shipment of MRAP vehicles from US”, September 29th, 2016, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/244913/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-receives-second-shipment-of-MRAP-vehicles-fr.aspx, https://www.armyrecognition.com/october_2016_global_defense_security_news

_industry/egypt_takes_delivery_of_second_batch_of_mrap_vehicles_from_united_states_20310162.html. Of the 762 MRAP vehicles, 90 are ambulances, 12 rescue vehicles and 660 are armored personnel carriers, each one is capable of carrying ten soldiers, including 2 crew members, Dylan Malyasov, “Egyptian company develops new «Temsah» armored personnel carrier”, Defence Blog, October 23th, 2016, http://defence-blog.com/army/egyptian-company-develops-new-temsah-armored-personnel-carrier.html; Dylan Malyasov, “Tatra to supply trucks chassis to Jordan and Egypt”, Defence Blog, May 4, 2016, http://defence-blog.com/army/tatra-to-supply-trucks-chassis-to-jordan-and-egypt.html; Defence Web, 29 April 2016, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=43308&catid=74&Itemid=30

[14] Israel Defense, July 31st 2017, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/30543; Defenceweb, July 24th, 2017, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=48661:egypt-evaluating-new-artillery&catid=50:Land&Itemid=105

[15] Tass (Russian), March 6th, 2015, http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/1812666; Jeremy Binnie, “Egyptian S-300VM SAM delivery confirmed”, Jane’s Defense Weekly, June 6th, 2017, http://www.janes.com/article/71180/egyptian-s-300vm-sam-delivery-confirmed; https://www.newsru.com/finance/20feb2017/idex2017_c400.html; Izvestia (Russian), October 26th, 2016, https://iz.ru/news/640469

[16] In July 2017, the Egyptian Ministry of Defense published a video displaying the system https://youtu.be/JifU42Nj9UY?t=42,

[17] The Military Balance 2016, pp. 324-325

[18] See, for example, Shaul Shay, ” The Egypt – Russia nuclear deal”, IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy, November 2015, http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/Egypt_nuclear_plant2015(1).pdf; Reuters, “Russia to lend Egypt $25 billion to build nuclear power plant”, May 29, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-russia-nuclear/russia-to-lend-egypt-25-billion-to-build-nuclear-power-plant-idUSKCN0YA1G5

[19] Times of Israel, May 28, 2015, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-said-unfazed-by-sale-of-s-300-missiles-to-egypt/

[20] The Military Balance, 2010 Ibid., 2016 Ibid. ; “Egypt”, F-16.net, http://www.f-16.net/f-16_users_article4.html; Bilal Khan, “First Egyptian MiG-29M2 (or MiG-35) Spotted”, Quwa, April 2, 2017, http://quwa.org/2017/04/02/first-egyptian-mig-29m2-mig-35-spotted; RIA/Novosti, (Russian), November 9, 2015, https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20151109/1317240976.html; Egypt Independent, October 15th, 2016, http://www.egyptindependent.com/egypt-receive-8-more-french-fighter-jets-2017/; Of the Egyptian aircraft, 20 are from the relatively new Block 52, and most of the others are from the older Block 40; The A / B models are from old-fashioned Block 15, but all aircraft have been or are scheduled to undergo system upgrades. Some sources, such as a Russian RIA / Novosti report, claimed that Egypt had purchased an even more advanced MiG-35 model – but since the M-35 had just commenced regular production, at the time of writing, this was probably a mistake.

[21] Defense Blog, June 8th, 2017, http://defence-blog.com/news/fisrt-egypts-ka-52-aligator-attack-helicopter-spotted-in-russia.html; Reuters, December 21, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/r-egypt-receives-10-apache-helicopters-from-us-sources-2014-12; TASS, July 18, 2017, http://tass.com/defense/956802. Those helicopters were also spotted in their base in Egypt, for example: https://www.facebook.com/EGYDEFPORTAL/photos/

a.354222674690208.1073741828.353276948118114/1362698237175975/?type=3&permPage=1, December 31st, 2017.

[22] A photograph of an Egyptian UAV operator with the unit’s emblem, as well as a picture taken in an Egyptian UAV hangar, was uploaded to a forum dealing with African armies in September 2017. http://www.nairaland.com/1386870/african-militaries-security-services-strictly/1393

[23] Al-Ahram (English), May 7, 2016, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/208260/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-to-purchase-French-military-satellite-on-Tue.aspx; Michel Cabirol, ” Armement : la France va signer de nouveaux contrats en Egypte”, La Tribune, April 15th, 2016, http://www.latribune.fr/entreprises-finance/industrie/aeronautique-defense/armement-la-france-va-signer-de-nouveaux-contrats-en-egypte-564682.html For comparison, the Israeli ‘Saar 5’ ships have a maximum weight of 1,200 tons, and the future ‘Saar 6’ ships will weigh about 2,000 tons. Of course weight is a ‘rule of thumb’ and does not prove the capabilities of any ship.

[24] Shaul Shay, “Egypt’s New Modern Submarine Fleet”, Israel Defense, December 13th, 2015, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/egypts-new-modern-submarine-fleet; Al-Ahram (English), August 8th, 2017, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/274970/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-receives-second-Type-submarine-from-Germany.aspx ; Sputnik News, June 25th 2016, https://sputniknews.com/world/201606251041953909-russia-egypt-corvette ; “USA Delivered the Last Two Ambassador MK III Fast Missile Craft (Ezzat Class) to Egyptian Navy”, Navy Recognition, June 25th, 2015, http://bit.ly/2jBgpyr

[25] Hillel Frisch, “Guns and Butter in the Egyptian Army”, in Barry Rubin and Thomas E. Keany (Eds.), Armed Forces in the Middle East: Politics and Strategy, London: Frank Cass, 2002, p. 99.

[26] US Naval Institute News, December 8th, 2014, https://news.usni.org/2014/12/08/russia-france-give-us-mistrals-refund; Reuters, September 23rd, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-egypt-mistral/france-egypt-agree-950-million-euro-mistral-warship-deal-idUSKCN0RN18Z20150923

[27]Algeria has an amphibious assault ship, the Ba’al Abbas, which can carry about the same number of marines but much less tanks and helicopters, and its thrust is 8,800 tons; Turkey also has smaller LST’s (Landing Ship, Tank) and amphibious assault ships.

[28] Egypt Daily News, October 8th, 2016, https://dailynewsegypt.com/2016/10/08/egypt-middle-east-country-mistral-helicopter-carriers-navy-commander/

[29] See, for example, Naeel Shama, “Egypt’s Power Game: Why Cairo is Boosting its Military Power”, Jadaliyya, September 6th, 2017, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/27111/egypt%E2%80%99s-power-game_why-cairo-is-boosting-its-milit

[30] Haaretz, 22 August 2012, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/world/1.1806711 ; Khalid Khassan, “Will Sisi fulfill his ‘Sinai promise’?”, Al-Monitor, April 24th, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/egypt-sinai-development-plan-sisi-failure-promise.html; Al-Masry Al-Youm, (English), March 8th 2016, http://www.egyptindependent.com/sisi-unveils-le10bn-development-plan-sinai/


For an official review of Egyptian national projects, see, for example, Ahmad Abu El Hassan Zarad, “The Mega National Projects…A Locomotive of Development”, Egypt State Information Service, n.d. (October 2016), http://www.sis.gov.eg/section/337/4683?lang=en-us; Oxford Business Group, ” Egypt addresses major transport infrastructure projects”, n.d. (2016), https://www.oxfordbusinessgroup.com/overview/top-speed-addressing-bottlenecks-through-major-infrastructure-projects; World Highways website, “Egypt’s road programme is now restarting”, February 2014, http://www.worldhighways.com/sections/emergent/features/egypts-road-programme-is-now-restarting; Egypt Daily News, May 1st, 2017, https://dailynewsegypt.com/2017/05/01/transportation-ministry-begins-two-road-railway-development-projects-july; The Guardian, March 16th, 2015,

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/mar/16/new-cairo-egypt-plans-capital-city-desert;The Capital Cairo project website, http://thecapitalcairo.com/index.html /

[32] In effect, a bypass of several dozen kilometers, not an entire canal. Work on the bypass expansion began on August 5, 2014, and on August 6, 2015, the first ship passed. In regard to economic results, see for example, Michel Giorgio, “El-Sisi’s ambitions sinking in the Suez Canal”, Il Manifesto, March 30th, 2016, https://global.ilmanifesto.it/suez-canal-expansion-bust-egyptian-regime; Khalid Khassan, “New Suez Canal income slowly sinking”, Al Monitor, September 11th, 2017, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/09/egypt-new-suez-canal-revenues-drop-trade-giant-project.html

[33] Globes, 28 July 2017, http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001199046; https://nzivnet.com/articles/10518; For the broadcasts from the opening ceremony, which show the enormous size of the base, see, for example, Russia Today (Arabic), July 22nd, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYzw34zOFDo as well as, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zT3a3yJ83No. For a tour of the base and some of its compound and characteristics, see, Masr Online, 22 July (Arabic), 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpT3PrN-J2I. It is possible however to make reservations and to say that the Egyptian claims are quite exaggerated. Although extensive construction has been carried out in the camp, the base itself is not new, and it has existed in a somewhat different format since the early 1980s. The Egyptians’ claims regarding a new and extensive camp were apparently intended for internal propaganda purposes. My thanks to Eli Dekel for this comment.

[34] Al Ahram (English), January 26th, 2017, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/256919/Egypt/Politics-/Sisi-ratifies-Saudi-Sinai-development-programme.aspx; “New Infrastructure Project at Suez Canal Takes Shape”, Dredging Today, February 9th, 2017, http://www.dredgingtoday.com/2017/02/09/new-infrastructure-project-at-suez-canal-takes-shape/; “Egypt – Tunnels under the Suez Canal”, Systra, n.d., https://www.systra.com/en-project/egypt-tunnels-under-the-suez-canal; “Contributing to the development of the Suez Canal area”, Arcadis Design, N.D., https://www.arcadis.com/en/global/what-we-do/our-projects/europe/netherlands/a-tunnel-under-the-suez-canal/

[35] For example, located in the area of 30 degrees, 30 minutes 18 seconds north by 32 degrees, 21 minutes, 42 seconds east (about 2 kilometers east of the Suez Canal and about 11 kilometers north of the Great Bitter Lake) was a small base with nine bunkers, and next to it is an installation with hangars for vehicles. Starting in 2016, 11 60 x 40 m hangars were built there (another is currently under construction), 10 three-story barracks, two mosques and dozens of other structures and sheds which required drying up part of the nearby swamp. Guard towers and fences around the bases can be identified clearly.

However, there are also some atypical sites: for example, a site near Bader City in the Cairo area, located at 30 degrees, 10 minutes, 43.68 seconds north by 31 degrees, 45 minutes, 46.08 seconds east, which shares some features with other military sites, however at the moment it does not appear to be under military use and does not even have a fence around the complex.

[36]For example, an existing camp near Bader City (30 degrees, 11 minutes, 35 seconds north by 31 degrees, 47 minutes) was greatly expanded in two stages. In the first stage, between 2005 and 2010, a camp was set up for the forces of a mechanized brigade, at least (on April 2, 2010, at least 200 vehicles could be counted, most of them armored vehicles), and between 2010 and 2017 an additional, even bigger, compound was set up, and to the north is a training area with tents that are erected and dismantled as needed (for example, in August 2016 there were dozens of tents and dozens of armored vehicles in the training area, but in April 2017 there was not a single tent or vehicle).

[37]”Peace Treaty between the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt”, March-April 1979, Appendix 1, Section 2-3, Knesset Website, http://www.knesset.gov.il/process/docs/egypt.htm

[38] Letter from Eli Dekel, 5 September 2017

[39] See, for example, the expansion of Katameya Airport, southeast of Bader City, located at 30 degrees, 4 minutes, 30 seconds north, 31 degrees, 50 minutes, 6 seconds east, which had been neglected for years. In 2014-2017 its runways were repainted and covered with new Asphalt, new hardened aircraft shelters were built, as well as a runway and terminal. However, as of the time of writing this article, not one civil flight has been observed, nor are they likely to be necessary. Cairo International Airport is only about three quarters of an hour away from the aforementioned military airport.

[40] A rule of thumb states that the height of each storage tank will be a third of its diameter. There are occasional deviations, but on average the rule is a good way to estimate the capacity of upright tanks (this rule does not apply to horizontal tanks).

[41] The reservoirs are near the Croatian memorial monument at the former El-Shatt refugee camp The camp existed between 1944-1946, it held refugees from the Dalmatia region who had been evacuated following a German attack on Dalmatia in 1944. The tanks are located at 30 degrees, one minute, 59.40 seconds north by 32 degrees, 36 minutes, 23.40 seconds east.

[42]  This was speculated years ago; For example, on the Sunday Times in October 27th, 2013, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/putin-cosies-up-to-cairo-as-us-cools-5btwbfvfpft; for the base-sharing agreement negotiations see The New York Times, November 30th, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/world/middleeast/russia-egypt-air-bases.html. It is impossible to know yet if the possible agreement was the reason for this construction – if so, it would imply that Egypt and Russia had secret talks years ago.

[43] My thanks to Eli Dekel for drawing my attention to this. See, for example, in the ammunition base located 13 km south west of Ismailia, on the eastern side of the Suez Canal, at 30 degrees 30 minutes 48 seconds north 32 degrees, 24 minutes, 4.80 seconds east. In an aerial photograph from the end of September 2004 there were 16 bunkers, it was the same in 2010. Since then there has been a construction boom, and as of the last photograph, from April 2016, there were 41 bunkers there.

[44] On most bases, we can count the tank transporter capacity in the hangars by comparing Google Earth images. For example, a study of the tank transporter base near the Cairo-Sweis road, located at 30 degrees, 6 minutes, 56.67 seconds North by 31 degrees, 29 minutes, 47.04 seconds, shows us dozens of transporters entering and leaving the sheds over time, and once – in February – March 2016 – a formation of no less than sixty five trucks with transporters and many dozens of separate trucks and transporters – this is in addition to the few dozen additional trucks and carriers seen peeping out of the sheds. A transporter base was built in the new Mohammed Naguib base, and in a Google Earth image from 2015 no activity was observed. However, in an Egyptian Defense Ministry film of July 2017 dedicated to the base, other than the new buildings, we also see the transporter sheds and in them about a dozen Renault Tank transporters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpT3PrN-J2I, probably out of 15 purchased by the Egyptians in 2011, (Defense Web, “Egypt buys 15 Kerax”, January 3rd, 2011, . An Egyptian website claimed that at the Mohammed Najib base there will be 450 carriers at any given moment (quoted from Globes, 28 July 2017, http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1001199046) and this estimate seems reliable, since it fits with the size of the sheds.

[45] Ministry of Defense, 29 August 2017, http://www.mod.gov.il/Defence-and-Security/articles/Pages/29.8.17.aspx; Yediot Ahronot, 14 May, 2015, https://www.yediot.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4657321,00.html. The technical term is “drag head”, but the term “semi trailer” is much more well-known.

[46] See, defense complexes about 6 kilometers north-west-west of the Meliz airport, located at 30 degrees, 25 minutes, 17.35 seconds north, by 33 degrees, 4 minutes, 48 seconds east.

Already in 2012 in the Third Army’s exercise in the Sinai it was possible to see that the trenches in the outpost that was filmed were so full of sand that the upper part of the solders kneeling down in them stuck out. Channel 2, 24 April 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPyY09BeXMQ

[47] Waypoint 30 degrees, 6 minutes, 9.15 seconds north by 31 degrees, 31 minutes, 25.25 seconds east. A ‘steering wheel’ outpost is a round post, with an inner protection ring and partitions between the sections of the post – reminiscent of a steering wheel in its shape.

[48] See, for example, Ynet, 18 February 2014, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4489030,00.html

[49] See, for example, Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002, pp. 126-131

[50] See BBC, “On This Day”, November 24, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/24/newsid_4356000/4356024.stm; Panagiotis Dimitrakis, “The 1978 Battle of Larnaca Airport, Cyprus, and UK Diplomacy”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 7th, 2009, http://www.rubincenter.org/2009/06/dimitrakis-2009-06-07/

[51] Norvell B. De Atkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars”, Middle East Quarterly, December 1999, http://www.meforum.org/441/why-arabs-lose-wars

[52] For example, in 2015 an Egyptian Army deserter claimed that many soldiers only receive basic training. Emily Crane Linn, “After Fleeing the Army, One Egyptian Soldier Witnessed a Massacre”, War is Boring website, August 24th, 2015, http://warisboring.com/after-fleeing-the-army-one-egyptian-soldier-witnessed-a-massacre/ . Egypt Daily News, November 26th, 2016, https://dailynewsegypt.com/2016/11/26/601291 ; Aziz al-Afandi, “Conscripts with connections get easy military service in Egypt”, The New Arab, April 6th, 2015, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/features/2015/4/6/conscripts-with-connections-get-easy-military-service-in-egypt/. Although some of the sources are biased, the similarity between phenomena described above by De Atkine and the above descriptions hint at a continuation of the phenomena.

[53] Egyptian Ministry of Defense, May 17th 2017, https://youtu.be/IuHtGtL9OgE. Even though the captions accompanying the films released by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense said that the Defense Minister had reviewed the division after its capabilities and equipment were upgraded, in the video itself one can see outdated vehicles next to the ‘Abrams tanks’ , including Chaparral antiaircraft launchers which were removed from US military service two decades ago.

[54] Al-Ahram (English), October 20th, 2014, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/113537/Egypt/Politics-/Egypts-army-prepares-for-major-Badr–exercise.aspx; Shaul Shay, “Egypt: The “Badr 2014″ Military Exercise”, December 5th, 2014, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/egypt-badr-2014-military-exercise; Al-Ahram (English), October 29th, 2014,

[55] Shaul Shay, ” Egypt’s Annual Exercise and the Libyan Border”, Israel Defense, November 8th, 2015, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/egypts-annual-exercise-and-libyan-border

 [56] See, for example, Channel 2, 24 April 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPyY09BeXMQ

 [57] Egypt’s official news service claimed that “Ra’ed 27” was the “largest” exercise, but did not elaborate. It seems that this is more about the public relations version of “very big” than directly comparing it to other Egypt, State Information Service, May 12th, 2017, http://www.sis.gov.eg/Story/110038

[58] Michael Battles, “U.S., Egypt kick off Exercise Bright Star 2017”, U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs, September 13th, 2017, http://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/1308877/us-egypt-kick-off-exercise-bright-star-2017 ;Ynet, 24 October 2016, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4869670,00.html; Ami Rochas Domba, “Joint Russian-Egyptian exercise on Egyptian soil”, Israel Defense, 16 October 2016, ; Al Ahram (English), October 12th, 2016, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContentP/1/245635/Egypt/Egypt,-Russias-firstever-joint-military-drills-to-.aspx; Shaul Shay, Exercise “Protectors of Friendship 2″ And the Egyptian-Russian Strategic Relations”, Israel Defense, September 26th, 2017, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/31239 ; Egypt Daily News, June 25th, 2016, https://dailynewsegypt.com/2016/06/25/russia-announces-2nd-round-naval-exercises-egypt; Arab Sensor, August 3, 2017, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4869670,00.html; Egypt, Ministry of Defense, August 1st, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nscx8pdgx3M Ami Rochas Domba, “Report: Israel , Egypt, Greece to conduct joint drill“, Israel Defense, 3 October 2017, http://www.israeldefense.co.il/he/node/31306

[59] For example, a new training facility was built in mid 2013, a few kilometers north of the remains of the Dahar-el-Baida Palace and Katameya Airport, located at 30 degrees, 10 minutes, 42.55 seconds north, 31 degrees, 51 minutes, 48 seconds east. Before this construction there were tank covered fighting positions, perhaps for live-fire training, but there were no permanent buildings. A permanent camp was greatly expanded about seven kilometers west of it.

[60] See, for example, Naeel Shama, “Egypt’s Power Game: Why Cairo is Boosting its Military Power”, Jadaliyya, September 6th, 2017, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/27111/egypt%E2%80%99s-power-game_why-cairo-is-boosting-its-milit; Richard Spencer, “Gulf arms race triggered by Iranian aggression”, The Telegraph, 22 November 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/unitedarabemirates/6630729/Gulf-arms-race-triggered-by-Iranian-aggression.html

[61] See, Nan Tian et. Al, Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2016, SIPRI, April 2017, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Trends-world-military-expenditure-2016.pdf; The Military Balance, 2016, p. 317 Map 6.

[62] The supporters of this theory include Lt. Col. (res.) Eli Dekel, in a conversation with the author, and Ehud Eilam, whose book, The Next War between Israel and Egypt: Examining a High-intensity War between Two of the Strongest Militaries in the Middle East (London, Valentine Mitchell, 2014), describes a scenario of high-intensity fighting between Israel and Egypt, and claims that Israel will encounter many difficulties in the event of such a war, despite its technological superiority. Also see, Uri Milstein, “40 Years Since Sadat’s Visit: Will Common Interests Keep Peace?”, Maariv, 17 November 2017, http://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-609158

[63] Alhaya (Arabic), April 26th, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2Oww5GNqBE; The Guardian, March 28th, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/28/egypts-president-backs-united-arab-force-to-tackle-regional-security-threats

[64] Egypt has conducted airstrikes in Libya in the past, and during the course of 2017, reports of Egyptian destruction of smuggled arms convoys from Libya were published on various occasions. The New Arab, May 9th, 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/5/9/egyptian-planes-destroy-arms-convoy-coming-from-libya; AP, October 23rd, 2017, http://www.nydailynews.com/newswires/news/world/egypt-destroys-arms-convoy-crossing-border-libya-article-1.3582698

[65] The roads that connect Egypt with Libya are two-way roads and it is possible to transfer on them deliveries of a large amount of supplies for large units without running into any special problems. The rail line from Cairo to Mersa-Metrouh can of course transport large military forces.

[66] See, for example, Elizabeth Kier, “Culture and the French Military Doctrine Before WWII”, in Peter Katzenstein (Ed.), “The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics”, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996

[67] Amos Yadlin, “Preface,” from Yigal Sheffy’s, Early Warning Countdown: The “Rotem” Affair and the Israeli Security Perception, 1957-1960, Tel Aviv: Ma’arachot, 2008: p. 8

[68] Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22, 1957, Re-Print: Echo books, 2013, pp. 144-145

[69] For example, in 2012, a survey found that about three-quarters of respondents supported the cancellation of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt (Globes, 21 October 2012) http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1000791440); And in September 2015 it was found that most Egyptians consider Israel to be the most hostile country, http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Poll-shows-Egyptians-view-Israel-as-most-hostile-state-419403). In October 2017, a poll found that 29% of Egyptians supported the idea that Arab countries should cooperate with Israel on issues such as technology, counter-terrorism and the containment of Iran, still a small number but more than previously. Washington Institute for Near East Policy Poll, October 12th, 2017, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/egyptians-surprisingly-open-to-key-trump-policies-new-poll-shows .

It is difficult to know what influence the policy of el-Sisi, who supports cooperation with Israel more than any of his predecessors and enjoys great popularity, will have – will he try and succeed in changing public opinion in relation to Israel in Egypt?

[70] The Arab Weekly, September 17th, 2017, http://www.thearabweekly.com/Opinion/9249/Cairo-facing-calls-to-increase-Sinai-military-presence. Some estimate the number deployed in the Sinai today as higher than that. For example, Eli Dekel, “The Military Infrastructure in Sinai,” lecture, 23 September 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGdNR3a1tnA

Picture of ד"ר יגיל הנקין

ד"ר יגיל הנקין

Dr. Henkin is a military historian, specializing in urban warfare, counterinsurgency, irregular warfare, and Israeli military history. He teaches military history at the IDF Command and Staff College, and is a reservist with the IDF history department. He is the author of Either We Win or We Perish: A History of the First Chechen War, 1994-1996 (Hebrew, 2007); The 1956 Suez War and the New World Order in the Middle East: Exodus in Reverse (2015); and the forthcoming Like Fish in the Bush: Rhodesia at War, 1965-1980 (Hebrew, 2017). He also published Uneasy Red, a guide to the Omaha Beach battle site in Normandy (2014), and co-authored (with Jaacob Saar) the Israel National Trail Guide (3rd Edition, 2016).

Recent publications

A lecture by Dr. Uzi Rubin, July 16, 2024....
Closing remarks of the “Africa and Israel: Building Strategic and Economic Bridges” which took place...
The lecture was part of the session on the Middle East Regional Powers' Struggle in...

By signing up, you agree to our user agreement (including the class action waiver and arbitration provisions), our privacy policy and cookie statement, and to receive marketing and billing emails from jiss. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up for the newsletter

For up-to-date analysis and commentary.

Are You In?

Join 8,000+ Subscribers who enjoy our weekly digest