[Freemanlist2] Jeffrey Azarva - FROM COLD PEACE TO COLD WAR? THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EGYPT'S MILITARY BUILDUP
Freeman Center For Strategic Studies
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As we approach Passover, we think of freedom from Egyptian bondage. Today the Israeli and Jewish People are in a new kind of bondage. It is a mental bondage, where the media and the Jewish leadership have conspired to keep the truth hidden from us. Very grave dangers are facing us both external and internal. We need a constant source of the truth to strengthen us to face those challenges.
The Freeman Center has been that unrelenting source of knowledge and truth for over 15 years. This Passover, why not make a special donation to show your support for our important educational work. Details on making a contribution are below:
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Dr. Aaron Lerner - IMRA: One reading this important article should also
take into account that the Saudis are also running joint military training
exercises with Egypt.]
FROM COLD PEACE TO COLD WAR?
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EGYPT'S MILITARY BUILDUP
MERIA - The Middle East Review of International Affairs
Published by the GLORIA Center, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya Volume
11, No. 1, Article 6/7 - March 2007
Since the 1978 Camp David Accords, the Egyptian government has undertaken
extraordinary efforts to modernize its military with Western arms and weapon
systems. By bolstering its armored corps, air force, and naval fleet with an
array of U.S. military platforms, the Egyptian armed forces have emerged as
one the region's most formidable forces. But as the post-Husni Mubarak era
looms, questions abound. Who, precisely, is Egypt arming against, and why?
Has Egypt attained operational parity with Israel? How will the military be
affected by a succession crisis? Could Cairo's weapons arsenal fall into the
hands of Islamists? This essay will address these and other questions by
analyzing the regime's procurement of arms, its military doctrine, President
Mubarak's potential heirs, and the Islamist threat.
In March 1999, then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen embarked on a
nine-nation tour of the Middle East to finalize arms agreements worth over
$5 billion with regional governments. No state received more military
hardware than Egypt. Totaling $3.2 billion, Egypt's arms package consisted
of 24 F-16D fighter planes, 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks, and 32 Patriot-3
missiles. Five months later, Cairo inked a $764 million deal for more
sophisticated U.S. weaponry. Few in Egypt and the United States batted an
For the government of Husni Mubarak, exorbitant military expenditures have
always been the rule, not the exception. In the 29 years since the Camp
David Accords, successive U.S. administrations have provided Egypt with
roughly $60 billion in military and economic aid subsidies to reinforce its
adherence to peace. Under U.S. auspices, the Mubarak regime has utilized
$1.3 billion in annual military aid to transform its armed forces from an
unwieldy Soviet-based fighting force to a modernized, well-equipped,
Outfitted with some of the most sophisticated U.S. weapons technology,
Egypt's arsenal has been significantly improved--qualitatively as well as
quantitatively--in nearly every military branch. While assimilating
state-of-the-art weaponry into its order of battle, the Egyptian military
has also decommissioned Soviet equipment or upgraded outdated ordnance. This
unprecedented military buildup, however, extends beyond the mere procurement
and renovation of Western armaments; Egypt has been the beneficiary of joint
military exercises and training programs with the United States dating back
However, while the Egyptian leadership has professed its desire for peace
and emphasized the deterrent nature of the buildup, its stockpiling of arms
should arouse some concern. Already the most advanced army on the African
continent, the Egyptian military faces no appreciable threat on its Libyan
or Sudanese borders. Thus, some analysts believe it has been reconstituted
with one purpose in mind: to achieve military parity with its neighbor
across the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula--Israel.
Many Israeli policymakers, though, see Egypt's conventional military buildup
in a different light. In their analysis, Egypt's self-perception as a
regional power broker necessitates the creation of a potent military. While
Egypt remains a hotbed of anti-Semitism nearly three decades after peace,
for them, such rhetoric is intended only for domestic consumption. The
mainstream Israeli defense establishment, by and large, shares this
assessment, citing the Egyptian military's doctrinal flaws and questionable
combat readiness as an impediment to renewed conflict.
Yet while battle plans are not being drawn up in Cairo, Egypt's
muscle-flexing does raise an eyebrow when other factors are considered. As
the Husni Mubarak era enters its twilight years, no real decision has been
made concerning his successor, though his son certainly appears the
frontrunner. While Egypt's Islamists are unlikely to usurp power anytime
soon, a drastic change in leadership could spawn greater instability in the
Egyptian-Israeli arena. Likewise, Egypt's failure to curtail endemic weapons
smuggling on the Egypt-Gaza border--arms which are funneled to Palestinian
terrorists--has fueled speculation among Israeli hardliners that Cairo may
be girding for war.
The truth, of course, likely lies somewhere between these divergent
ARMING TO THE TEETH
In a November 1995 speech, President Husni Mubarak encapsulated the mission
statement of the Egyptian military, declaring, "...The level of our armed
forces is a source of pride for us all, and [they] are capable of deterring
any danger threatening our national security." Senior officials and
generals in the Egyptian armed forces, such as Minister of Defense and War
Production Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, have echoed similar
sentiments that, while stressing the doctrine of deterrence, have explicitly
stressed the importance of offensive capabilities. While not discounting the
probability of armed conflict with Israel, Egyptian officials view such
offensive-orientated capabilities as a means of enhancing Egyptian
diplomacy, allowing it to operate from a position of strength. The Mubarak
government sees this posture as a prerequisite for regional stability,
inextricably linked to a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli
However, diplomatic leverage alone cannot explain Egypt's buildup. As the
main bastion of regime support, the military's strength serves Mubarak's
interest in stability. Given the paranoia that pervades much of the ruling
elite in Egypt and other Arab mukhabarat states, it is understandable that
the Egyptian leadership views a strong military as its greatest asset. In
this sense, Egypt's bloated defense budget represents a quid pro quo of
sorts. Mubarak furnishes his military brass with weapons and pensions; in
return, they refrain from dabbling in politics and pledge to safeguard his
regime from external threats. Perhaps one can also frame the buildup in
terms of domestic prestige. Owen L. Sirs writes that during the height of
the 1960s, the government's military parades "...served as a sort of
symbolic dialogue between the Egyptian regime and its people." While
today's demonstrations may lack the pomp and grandeur reminiscent of the
Nasser era, they still serve to showcase the country's modernization and
Other motives drive Egypt's strategic objectives as well. Ostracized by its
neighbors in the 1980s for blazing a trail to peace, Egyptian leadership
found vindication in the peace process of the 1990s. Yet with this historic
opportunity came two distinct choices. As Robert Satloff notes, Egypt could
either "...expand the circle of peace via widening Arab normalization with
Israel or [choose] to follow a different path, one that views Israel as a
fundamental challenge to Egypt's self-perception as a regional power... and
makes anti-normalization a fixture of Egyptian policy." Perhaps
threatened by the Jewish state's regional assimilation and military prowess,
Egypt has opted for the latter. Thus, it has embarked on a sustained
campaign to contain Israel and alter the Middle East's balance of power.
Flush with billions in U.S. military aid since the 1980s, the Egyptian
government has significantly revamped its conventional forces, paying
particular heed to its armored corps, air, and naval forces. Today, Egypt,
no longer a beneficiary of its erstwhile Soviet patron, can boast of a
Western-style fighting force--comprised of 450,000 regular servicemen--that
approaches the quantitative and qualitative levels of the Israeli military
in certain sectors. Israel is, of course, more concerned with preserving its
edge in the latter. That is, given the sheer size of Israel's Arab
neighbors, it is imperative that the Jewish state compensate for its
inevitable quantitative weakness by maintaining its advantage in weapons
systems, training, and technological know-how.
Still, the qualitative gap has shrunk as Egypt catapulted itself into the
upper echelon of Middle Eastern arms importers during the past decade. From
2001 to 2004 alone, Egypt paid $6.5 billion in arms transfer agreements,
$5.7 billion of which was used to purchase U.S. weaponry. During this
period, Egypt supplanted Saudi Arabia as the primary recipient of
U.S.-manufactured arms in the Middle East.
Among Egypt's most noteworthy acquisitions has been its procurement of
American-made M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, whose components are partly
assembled on Egyptian production lines. When the U.S. Department of Defense
first licensed production of the M1A1 tank (commensurate with the Israeli
Merkava tank) in Egypt in 1988, the decision raised alarm in some U.S. and
Israeli policy circles, given the sensitive transfer of technology involved,
the method of co-production, and the fiscal constraints it would place on an
already burdened Egyptian economy. Yezid Sayigh notes that this industrial
strategy of in-country assemblage, prevalent in the Middle East, enables the
arms importer to "...acquire the necessary production skills and military
technology gradually, with the eventual aim of producing indigenous
systems." Israeli analysts believe that by the time the current contract
is completed in 2008, Egypt's armored corps will have amassed 880 M1A1s.
In 1999, Israeli defense officials became concerned when Egypt acquired
10,800 rounds of 120mm KEW-A1 ammunition for its Abrams battle tanks.
Composed of depleted uranium, this armor-piercing ammunition--long possessed
by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)--was used by U.S. Abrams crews to
decimate 4,000 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles during Operation Desert
Storm and is said to be able to neutralize any armor system in
existence. None of this is to mention Egypt's 835 upgraded and U.S.-made
M-60A3 tanks that also saw action in the 1991 Gulf crisis.
The influx of sophisticated, Western weapons into Egypt is not limited to
the renovation of its armored corps. This buildup also extends to the
Egyptian Air Force (EAF), which now sports roughly 220 F-16 fighter planes,
in comparison with the approximately 240 F-16s in the Israeli arsenal.
Israeli strategic analysts, such as Ret. Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, are
quick to point that while this margin has narrowed substantially since the
1980s, the status of the Israeli Air Force's qualitative edge should not be
confused with quantitative parity in military platforms. "We say they aren't
the same planes. The level of the pilots and the quality of the weapons
systems are not identical," Brom stated. There are also reports that
Israel will be the first Middle Eastern state equipped with the F-22 and
F-35, the F-16's successors.
Still, other IDF officials disagree with Brom's assessment and believe that
the EAF's growth has forced Israel to alter its air combat techniques. Those
critics point to the EAF's recent integration of 36 AH-64A Apache attack
helicopters, each capable of carrying 16 laser-guided, anti-tank, Hellfire
missiles. It is worth noting, though, that while permitted to upgrade
the Apaches to their more advanced prototype (the AH-64D), Egypt has been
prevented from acquiring the helicopter's most coveted feature--the Longbow
radar--which has first-rate target identification capabilities.
Nonetheless, the Israeli Air Force maintains only a handful more of Apaches
than its Egyptian counterpart.
While apprehensive about the buildup of the Egyptian ground and air forces,
some Israeli officials, especially Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz and former
commander-in-chief of the Israeli Navy, Major General Yedidia Ya'ari,
consider the overhaul of the Egyptian navy to be the most significant aspect
of the military's modernization program. The Jaffee Center for Strategic
Studies' 2003-2004 Middle East Strategic Balance report notes that Egypt
acquired two Knox class frigates and four Oliver Hazard Perry frigates from
the United States in the 1990s. Obtained as excess defense articles from
the Pentagon, the Perry-class frigates are "capable of over-the-horizon
combat and anti-submarine warfare."
However, it was the November 2001 Bush Administration decision to sell Egypt
53 satellite-guided Harpoon Block II missiles, which can exploit Israel's
lack of strategic depth by evading its current air defense systems, that has
truly caused consternation in Jerusalem. This purchase could signal a
strategic shift in Egypt's naval doctrine--one that would allow it to
project its open-sea capabilities even further in the eastern Mediterranean
Sea and place a stranglehold on Israel's most important maritime lifelines.
Though the U.S. State Department downplayed the missiles' offensive nature,
one must remember that Egypt's geographic position gives its fleet--which
maintains principal naval bases at Ras al-Tin on the Mediterranean and at
Safajeh and Hurghada on the Red Sea--the capability to blockade both of
Israel's sea links with the outside world.
The United States will likely continue to refrain from selling the Egyptian
government advanced weapon systems that would allow the EAF, or any other
branch of the Egyptian armed forces, to enjoy operational parity with their
Israeli counterparts. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said as
much during his visit to the region in 1999, when he reassured then Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States remained committed
to "...Israel's qualitative edge and military capability to protect its own
In the past, though, the United States has demonstrated a willingness to
export some of its most sensitive military technologies to regional
governments, as evidenced by the Clinton Administration's sale of the
AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range-Air-to-Air-Missile (AMRAAM) to the United Arab
Emirates in 1998. Prior to this transfer, only Israel had been cleared
to purchase the AMRAAM among Middle Eastern states. However, contracts
were soon inked in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, with the United States
selling Cairo a lesser ground-launched version of the missile in 2000 only
because of vociferous Israeli objections. Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu's blase reaction to these and other related developments belied
Israel's true concern. In 2004, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom vehemently opposed--and ultimately won
restrictions on--a U.S.-AMRAAM sale to Jordan based on fears that the
technology would eventually be sold to Egypt. Though purchasing the
AMRAAM system had once been the sole prerogative of NATO member states (and
Israel), the flurry of U.S. sales to non-NATO Arab governments, including
Egypt, signaled that U.S. arms transfer sales could indeed trump strategic
WESTERN WEAPONS, SOVIET DOCTRINE?
While detractors of the gloom-and-doom scenario in the Israeli defense
establishment will not dispute the Egyptian military's modernization, their
sanguine assessments assume that it will be mired in its antiquated
Soviet-style military doctrine for the foreseeable future. Undoubtedly,
Egypt's military ranks are still characterized by a rigid command structure;
one that strategic analysts say precludes the implementation of the
Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)--a military concept espousing the use
of precision-guided weaponry, information technology, and integrated command
and control systems with real-time capabilities.
That the Egyptian armed forces have failed to fully adopt the RMA paradigm
thus far is true. Even with continued American aid at current levels, the
Egyptian armed forces would encounter a serious economic crunch in financing
such an initiative. Yet that is not to say they do not possess some of the
requisite skills. The military has been the beneficiary of numerous joint
initiatives and training exercises with Western forces dating back to the
large-scale "Operation Bright Star" maneuvers kicked off in 1983. Held
biennially in the Egyptian desert, "Bright Star" stresses interoperability
and has exposed thousands of Egyptian military personnel to U.S. advanced
training techniques and expertise in tactical ground, air, naval, and
special operations. Mubarak's deployment of 30,000 troops, including
commando and paratrooper units paired alongside U.S. forces, into the
Kuwaiti theater during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 illustrated Egypt's
ability to apply RMA techniques in actual combat.
U.S. programs such as Peace Vector and the International Military Education
and Training initiative (IMET) have provided additional know-how to the
Egyptian military in tactical training and weapons maintenance. Under the
third installment of the Peace Vector program (PV III), which began in
August 1991, Egyptian Air Force pilots have logged thousands of flight hours
with their American counterparts in tactical operations. Other projects
in the PV III program have included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers'
construction of a self-sufficient F-16 air base located in Ismailiyya, Egypt
(adjacent to the Suez Canal and demilitarized Sinai), which can accommodate
a population of up to 20,000 personnel. Under IMET, 6,600 Egyptian
soldiers have participated in U.S. military education courses since 1995 in
an effort to instill U.S. values, doctrines, and procedures.
Despite such assistance, logistical support, and extensive coordination, the
mainstream Israeli defense establishment continues to perpetuate the belief
that the Egyptian military's mere knowledge of the RMA doctrine does not
necessarily imply its implementation. The Badr-96 and Jabal Pharon-98
exercises debunk this myth. In September 1996, the Egyptian armed forces
staged a ten day maneuver near the Suez Canal, the largest operation of its
kind since the late 1970s. The target of the exercise was explicit: Israel.
Badr-96--the same code-name used for Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal in
the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Badr-73)--simulated a large-scale amphibious
landing on the Sinai Peninsula coast by a mechanized infantry battalion.
Designed first to repel an Israeli attack, the battalion--coupled with
border guards, paratroopers, and special forces--would then engage in a
counteroffensive to seize control of the entire Sinai and penetrate Israeli
Hailed by the Egyptian media as a stern warning to Prime Minister Netanyahu,
Badr-96 evoked stirring nationalistic sentiments from the 1973 war. The
state-controlled newspaper al-Ahram was one of several media outlets to
engage in saber-rattling. An editorial published by the paper's managing
editor read "...The lessons of Badr-73 and Badr-96 take us back to the
starting point... that the end of war does not necessarily mean the
achievement of peace, and vice-versa."
Similarly, the Jabal Pharon exercise on April 22, 1998 sought to create a
scenario whereby the Egyptian Third Army, in conjunction with naval and air
force personnel, conducted operations in the rugged terrain of the
Sinai. Once more, the target was the Israeli Defense Forces. On August
12, 2001, in the midst of the al-Aqsa Intifada and three days after a Hamas
suicide bombing rocked Jerusalem, London's Sunday Times reported that a
senior Egyptian official allegedly threatened to deploy the Egyptian Third
Army into Sinai--at the late Yasir Arafat's behest--if Israel moved into the
occupied territories to thwart Palestinian terrorism. That another
Badr-like exercise ensued the following month at Ismailiyya should be
sufficient evidence to suggest that the Egyptian military--which enjoys a
symbiotic relationship with Mubarak and the state--feels constrained by the
security measures imposed on it by the 1979 treaty. As a result, some
Israeli officials see these exercises as an inherent Egyptian desire to
remilitarize the Sinai. Whether that ambition translates into capability is
contested, given the assertion of military experts that any successful
military operation in the Sinai Peninsula requires RMA-style warfare.
It is here, precisely, where Egypt's acquisition of the M1A1 Abrams tank and
the AH-64A helicopter could have dire consequences. As the tank battles of
the 1967 and 1973 wars have illustrated, the peninsula is an ideal
battleground for armored, mobile warfare. Theoretically, an Egyptian foray
into Sinai, in which M1A1s are given aerial cover by AH-64A Apaches and
F-16s, would enable mechanized forces to seize the strategic Mitla and Giddi
passes in central Sinai before an Israeli counterattack. By controlling
these access routes, vital for east-west movement, the Egyptian armored
corps could then traverse the entire peninsula in a relatively short period
This scenario, though, is not universally accepted. While the M1A1's
superior long-range capabilities were put on display in the Iraqi desert in
1991 and 2003, Stephen A. Cook believes that the "...Egyptians are able to
employ them [M1A1s] only as set battlefield pieces. This is a function of
the fact that Egypt's land forces... cannot refuel and re-supply its forces
beyond a limited range." Other Israeli analysts counter that the Suez
Canal zone's weak logistical infrastructure, which includes bridges (some of
which are pontoons), ferries, and the Ahmad Hamdi tunnel, renders the
movement of Egypt's M1A1s highly susceptible to an Israeli air attack with
THE DAY AFTER MUBARAK
Most Israeli policymakers, though anxious about the buildup on the Nile,
portray Egypt as something of a paper tiger; one that derives too many
rewards from peace to foolishly self-inflict death and destruction on its
own people. Their conventional wisdom holds that President Mubarak's
quarter-century of authoritarian rule has actually acted as a bulwark
against not only those extremist elements in Egyptian society who wish death
upon Israel, but against the military's adventurism as well. Even if that
assumption were true, Egypt faces a looming presidential succession that
could completely invalidate this strategic assessment. In 2003, Shaul Mofaz
voiced his uncertainty over the matter, stating, "Within a few years Egypt's
leadership might be replaced and the new regime might have a different
attitude toward Israel."
While President Mubarak at age 78 is in reputedly "good health," his
fainting during a televised parliament session in 2003 and his sudden
two-week absence for medical treatment abroad in 2004 paint a different
picture of stability. Mubarak has also eschewed pressure over the years
to appoint a vice president, most recently during an April 9, 2006 interview
with al-Arabiyya TV. Mubarak stated: "The constitution gives me the right of
appointing a vice-president. The vice-president has no work except as he
performs only directives of the president. This is the point and I'm not
ready to appoint a vice-president..."
Despite a constitutional provision specifying the temporary transfer of
power to the speaker of parliament following the president's permanent
incapacitation, vice presidents have, in practice, assumed the mantle of
leadership before. Thus, Mubarak's gambit in maintaining this vacancy has
not only clouded the issue of succession, but has generated much unease in
Egypt and elsewhere as well. In recent years, this decision appears to have
cleared the path for heir apparent Gamal Mubarak, Husni's son and one of
three deputy secretary-generals in his father's ruling National Democratic
Party (NDP). The liberal-minded Gamal continues to burnish his image at
home and abroad. During the fourth annual NDP conference in September 2006,
he proposed an Egyptian nuclear program and openly defied Washington's
vision of a "new Middle East," stating: "We will not accept initiatives made
abroad." Still, his "inheritance" of the presidency is not a foregone
In a January 1, 2004 press conference, the elder Mubarak reassured Egyptians
that he would not emulate the "Syria model," which witnessed Bashar
al-Asad's rise to power after his father's death in 2000. "We are not a
monarchy. We are the Republic of Egypt... we are not Syria and Gamal Mubarak
will not be the next president of Egypt," Mubarak declared. Gamal echoed
similar sentiments during 2005's "Cairo Spring," when his father introduced
political reforms authorizing Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential
election. Eager to shed the label of heir apparent, Gamal stated: "I am
absolutely clear in my mind and the president's mind that this story of
father and son has nothing to do with reality."
Of course, actions speak louder than words in the Middle East. The recent
consolidation of key policy positions by Gamal and his associates within the
NDP belies such statements. However, in a country where the Free Officers
Movement's 1952 coup d'etat still resonates--every president since has been
drawn from the military's ranks--Gamal's non-military background could
present a problem. Edward S. Walker Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to both
Israel and Egypt, warns that if Gamal is truly bent on economic reform,
"...the entire military and security structure could easily lose its
privileges, its special treatment, its informal retirement benefits..."
Such a development, in which the Egyptian military loses its patronage,
could loosen the government's reins on the armed forces and unnerve Israeli
leadership. At the very least, the armed forces would be hard-pressed to
accept such a monarchical-style transition.
Other potential successors do not elicit much Israeli confidence either
where the military is concerned. One is current Defense Minister Muhammad
Hussein Tantawi, who believes that only the "endless development of military
systems and the arms race" will guarantee Egyptian national security.
Egyptian security sources revealed that had the 1995 plot to assassinate
Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia succeeded, Tantawi, a Mubarak confidant for
many years, would have become president "without a doubt." Tantawi's
advanced age and failing health, though, likely decrease his prospects of
General Omar Sulayman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, remains another
candidate in the offing. Arguably the second most powerful man in Egypt,
Sulayman, aged 70, raised his public profile considerably after he was
handed the Palestinian dossier following the intifada's outbreak in
2000. A career military officer and Mubarak's right-hand man, Sulayman
was also responsible for quelling the Islamist insurgency in Egypt during
the 1990s. Some Israeli policymakers suggest Sulayman's role as an
interlocutor between the Palestinians and Israelis and between Hamas and the
Palestinian Authority, particularly during the 2003 hudna (cease-fire)
negotiations, juxtaposes his tough anti-Islamist terror stance.
Sulayman has often met with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror
chiefs in Cairo, Gaza, Ramallah, and Damascus--gestures which have not only
conferred legitimacy upon such groups, but have also served to undercut a
weakened and once-secular Palestinian Authority. While he publicly
sought to broker an unconditional cease-fire between Palestinian terror
factions and Israel in 2003, as required by the Quartet's road map for
peace, Sulayman privately demanded that the former only halt its attacks
within the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and 1949 armistice lines for a period of
Though Sulayman did in fact engineer an official, albeit brief, cessation of
violence on June 29, 2003, his intervention came under close Israeli
scrutiny. Oded Granot, an Israeli journalist, suggested that Sulayman's
efforts were perhaps motivated more by an urge to "quiet" the Egyptian
street during the Iraq War's infancy, lest anti-government protests break
out, than by a genuine desire for peace. Israeli officials reserved harsher
criticism for Sulayman. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom believed that the
general's efforts would implicitly endanger the Jewish state by creating a
"ticking time bomb;" a respite that would allow Gaza's terrorist
infrastructure to regroup and replenish via the Philadelphia Corridor and
Seven weeks later, the hudna began unraveling. On August 19, 2003, a Hamas
operative blew himself up while riding a Jerusalem bus. At the same
time, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon reported that after the Israeli army
discovered and destroyed several smuggling tunnels in Gaza, smoke billowed
from their opposite end--in some cases from inside Egyptian military
No picture of Egypt's de facto strategy toward Israel can be considered
complete without examining the Gaza tunnel phenomenon. While in past years
the IDF and Israeli intelligence have monitored Egypt's conventional arms
buildup with unease, their attention has often been diverted to another
front where Cairo's true intentions have increasingly been called into
question--the Egypt-Gaza Strip border.
On August 22, 2005, the Israeli government completed its disengagement from
the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation. Israel's Disengagement Plan had
called for the evacuation of all Jewish settlements and military
installations in Gaza, with one exception. The plan stated that the IDF
would not redeploy in the Philadelphia Corridor, an eight-mile border zone
between Gaza and Egypt notorious for its arms-smuggling tunnels.
As disengagement approached, the decision to retain control of the corridor
became untenable, despite the concerns of Israeli policymakers that
withdrawing troops from the area, including the Rafah border crossing with
Egypt, would result in the militarization of Gaza as a terror base. Israeli
leaders determined that maintaining an Israeli presence in the border strip
would be a lasting source of Palestinian and Arab antagonism and would
undercut their government's claims of complete withdrawal.
The Israeli government looked toward Cairo as the most viable alternative to
patrol the border and stem the flow of contraband into Gaza. Though some
Israeli officials remained skeptical of Egypt's commitment, the two
governments signed the "Agreed Arrangements Regarding the Deployment of a
Designated Force of Border Guards along the Border in the Rafah Area" on
September 1, 2005.
Pursuant to the agreement, Egypt dispatched a border guard force to the
corridor (comprised of 750 armed personnel) to replace the Egyptian police
force mandated by the 1979 peace treaty. Permitted weaponry included assault
rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns. Though subject to
the treaty, which stipulates the Sinai Peninsula's demilitarization, the
Agreed Arrangements raised fears in Israel over the Egyptian force's
objectives in the Sinai and the overall stability of the peace agreement.
While observers often perceive the corridor's smuggling as an exclusive
Palestinian enterprise, Israeli concerns have been
augmented by what Major General Doron Almog, former head of the IDF's
Southern Command, calls "a parallel Egyptian mechanism for smuggling and
infiltration" extending into Sinai and the mainland. Black market forces
may often serve as the impetus for this mechanism--smuggling is a very
profitable business--but in the end, it can only function with what Almog
refers to as the "official acquiescence" of the Mubarak regime.
Several factors suggest that Egypt's failure to curb the influx of weapons
at Rafah--a town physically straddling the Egyptian-Gazan border--is a
product of inaction, not inability. First, an army general on active service
presides over the Sinai governorate that stretches 100 miles behind
Rafah. In an authoritarian country like Egypt, where the armed forces
are the guarantor of internal stability, the military is cognizant of all
that goes on under its nose. Second, there are only two access roads in the
Sinai; countering the movement of weaponry bound for Rafah should be a
relatively easy undertaking. Finally, while the IDF's counter-smuggling
operations in the corridor have almost always met fierce opposition from
local inhabitants, Egyptian patrols encounter no such armed resistance in
The Egyptian military has proven capable of reducing the security threat in
the past. When the Israeli military outpost of Termit, located in Rafah,
came under attack in 2001, Egyptian Rafah was conspicuously quiet. That
is, despite the presence of illegal arms and Palestinians in that area of
the city, Israeli soldiers were only ambushed from within Gaza. The Egyptian
army had restrained all violent activity on its side of the border. In past
years, it is also true that Egypt has arrested smugglers and detonated
tunnels, but only when it has been politically expedient. Unfortunately,
these instances are few and far between.
Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, and Avi
Dichter, minister of internal security, are two of the outspoken leaders in
Israel sounding the alarm. On August 29, 2006, Diskin referred to the Sinai
Peninsula and Rafah border area as a veritable "Garden of Eden" for weapons
smuggling. On September 27, 2006, he again spoke of the exponential increase
in smuggling since Israel's 2005 Gaza withdrawal, estimating that nineteen
tons of weapons and explosives were burrowed into the strip during the past
year. Holding Egyptian officials directly accountable, he said, "The
Egyptians know who the smugglers are and don't deal with them. They received
intelligence on this from us and didn't use it. We're talking about an
escalation that is endangering us." Three days after his remarks, four
Egyptian policemen were caught attempting to smuggle ammunitions and hand
grenades to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Alluding to this incident
and other tunnel discoveries, Dichter urged White House officials in October
2006 to ratchet up pressure on Cairo, criticizing its government's failure
to employ the "considerable capabilities" at its disposal.
Whether or not smuggling activities are officially sanctioned by the Mubarak
government is irrelevant. What does matter is that the current regime's
see-no-evil policy at Philadelphia--what Almog refers to as a "release valve
for [Egyptian] public sympathy for the Palestinian armed
struggle"--significantly raises the stakes for Israel's national
security by allowing arms and material to be pumped into Gaza at a dizzying
THE ISLAMIST THREAT
Some suggest that Egypt's radical Islamist movement, closely allied with
like-minded Palestinian groups, has been the prime beneficiary of the
government's Philadelphia strategy. Not only has unimpeded smuggling at
Rafah stoked the flames of Egypt's Islamist movement, it has permitted
homegrown jihadists and those in the Palestinian territories the opportunity
to attack the Mubarak government and Israelis simultaneously. The October
2004 suicide bombings at Tab'a, a popular resort location for Israelis in
Egypt, were perpetrated by Sinai Bedouins and Hamas operatives. A
Palestinian group in Gaza, Monotheism and Jihad, physically trained an
Egyptian terror cell in the use of explosives and firearms before carrying
out the April 2006 bombings at Sinai's Dahab resort.
That the corridor and its environs could become a personal fiefdom for
Egyptian extremists is one reason that Israeli prognosticators fear an
Islamist takeover in Cairo. Although considered improbable today, the
specter of an Islamic revolution following Husni Mubarak's rule should not
be dismissed. Coupled with the Egyptian military buildup, it would have
grave consequences for regional security.
To be sure, the toppling of the secular Mubarak regime by Islamist
extremists would have far-reaching effects. The extensive American aid and
assistance programs would cease automatically. The Egyptian military's
already shoddy weapons maintenance would be exacerbated. Jihadists would
annul the 1979 treaty. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Egypt would thus
become nothing more than a massive arms depot to which somebody had thrown
away the key. Despite government efforts to the contrary, Islamists and the
military have not always remained mutually exclusive entities.
Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood's most violent offshoots--such as
al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya and Jama'at al-Jihad--have had past success in
infiltrating the military's ranks. Among the members of Jama'at al-Jihad,
the group that carried out Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination, were an army
colonel on active duty and a reserve lieutenant colonel. Other members
were drawn from a broad swath of Egyptian society, including state security
forces and military intelligence. In December 1986, a ring of four military
officers and 29 Islamists affiliated with the same group was arrested and
charged with waging jihad against the Mubarak regime. By the end of the
decade, the government's purge had resulted in the detention of some 10,000
Islamists suspected of infiltration.
That the regime has grown wary should not come as a surprise. In prosecuting
its own "war on terror" against radical Islamists in the 1980s and 1990s,
the state began implementing policies to counteract the threat. Yet rarely
has the military entered into this calculus. Fearing its exposure to
fundamentalist ideologies, the government has rarely summoned the armed
forces into action. Instead, counterterrorism operations have often been
delegated to state security services, but even they have not been immune
from this phenomenon. Thus, the regime has left no stone unturned in
stemming the tide of infiltration. In addition to restricting the military's
rules of engagement, it has begun constructing a host of military cities in
remote locations, such as Mubarak Military City in the Nile Delta region, to
ward off Islamist influence.
The regime's precautionary steps have often been supplemented by stern
counterterrorism measures--measures which not only broke the Islamist
insurgency's back in the 1990s but have also allowed relative quiet to
prevail since. While the threat posed by al-Jihad and al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya
has not evaporated--even with the latter's renunciation of violence--the
radical Islamist leadership in Egypt remains fractured and marginalized.
Mubarak's cooption of the movement's mainstream and less militant elements,
coupled with the recent release of 950 al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya members in
April 2006, has further moderated their ranks.
Despite episodic violence, Mubarak's balancing act has thus far allowed him
to secure the allegiance of the military--the regime's most significant
pillar of strength--while thwarting the Islamists' attempt at regime change.
Still, the latter's quest for power in Egypt lies within the realm of
possibility, given Mubarak's border policies at Rafah and his failure to
appoint a vice president and surefire successor.
As the Egyptian armed forces continue to upgrade the quantity and quality of
their military platforms to unparalleled heights--levels rivaling those of
Israel--they have positioned themselves to be a major player on the Middle
Eastern block. The path charted by Egypt during the coming years, though,
will go a long way toward determining the significance of its meteoric rise
from an archaic, Soviet-styled military to a Western-armed, twenty-first
While justifiably concerned about the neighborhood in which they operate,
the Egyptian military's unrelenting buildup appears
to have already met its stated objectives of deterrence. The continued
integration of Western weaponry into Egypt's armored corps, air force, and
naval fleet has thus raised the question: To what end? Egyptian defense
officials will riposte that a strong military is essential for enhancing
regional security, protecting strategic maritime routes, and strengthening
Though the Egyptian armed forces do serve these and other interests, one
cannot neglect the fact that rearmament is also geared toward changing the
military status quo vis-a-vis Israel. Of course, this is not to suggest that
Egypt is on the warpath, moving toward a confrontation with Israel tomorrow
or the day after. Full-blown hostilities, reminiscent of past Arab-Israeli
wars, that would reap wholesale death and destruction are not, one would
think, in Cairo's best interests. Yet in an explosive region such as this,
policymaking is not often equated with best interests.
Viewed in the context of Egypt's regional ambitions, limited rapprochement
with Israel, and potential succession crisis--with
all its implications for the peace treaty and an Islamist resurgence--the
military's buildup resembles a powder keg forming on Israel's doorstep.
Three decades of peace notwithstanding, the Egyptian-Israeli front remains a
tinderbox, one in which a cold peace may just become a cold war.
*Jeffrey Azarva is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute
in Washington, DC.
 David Honig, "A Mighty Arsenal: Egypt's Military Buildup: 1979-1999,"
Policy Watch, No. 447,(The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March
 United States Government Accountability Office, Report to the U.S. House
Committee on International Relations, "State and DoD Need to Assess How the
Foreign Military Financing Program for Egypt Achieves U.S. Foreign Policy
and Security Goals," April 2006, GAO-06-437.
 Hillel Frisch, "Arab Armies: Religious, Economic, and Structural
Dimensions," Mideast Security and Policy Studies, No. 54 (June 2003), p. 95.
 Owen L. Sirs, Nasser and the Missile Age in the Middle East (London and
New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 98.
 Robert Satloff, Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on
International Relations, April 10, 1997.
 Richard F. Grimmett, "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,
1997-2004," Congressional Research Service (RL33051), August 29, 2005, p.
 Ibid, p. 28.
 Yezid Sayigh, Arab Military Industry: Capability, Performance, and
Impact (London: Brassey's, 1992), p. 63.
 Though granted a license by the Pentagon to produce the M1A1 model in
1988, the Egyptian government first began assembling the Abrams tank after
the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The first assembly contract lasted from 1991
until 1998 and resulted in the production of 555 combat tanks.
 Arieh O'Sullivan, "Egypt--The New Enemy?" The Jerusalem Post, August
 Yiftah S. Shapir (ed.), "The Middle East Military Balance," The Jaffee
Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, February 20, 2006.
 Amnon Barzilai, "Should We Be Up in Arms Over Egypt's Buildup?"
Ha'aretz, January 18, 2005.
 Honig, "A Mighty Arsenal: Egypt's Military Buildup: 1979-1999."
 Shlomo Brom and Yiftah S. Shapir, The Middle East Strategic Balance:
The Egyptian Armed Forces (Sussex Academic Press, The Jaffee Center for
Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, 2004), p. 97.
 Ibid, p. 98.
 Honig, "A Mighty Arsenal."
 Federation of American Scientists, "Harpoon Missile Sale to Egypt
Launches Debate," Arms Sales Monitor, No. 47 (January 2002), p. 3.
 Wade Boese, "U.S. Announces New Arms Sales to Middle East Worth
Billions," Arms Control Today, March 1999.
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p.100.
 Boese, "U.S. Announces New Arms Sales to Middle East Worth Billions."
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p. 100.
 "Report: Israel trying to block US sale of missile system to Jordan,"
Agence France Presse, August 1, 2004.
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p. 101.
 Clyde R. Mark, "Egypt-United States Relations," Congressional Research
Service (IB93087), August 20, 2003, p. 9.
 David A. Silverstein, "Keeping an Eye on the Allies," Backgrounder
Update, No. 154 (The Heritage Foundation, February 4, 1991).
 Remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis J. Ricciardone at Abu
Suwaye Air Base, June 21, 2006.
 See http://www.perini.com/pmsi/federal_defense_body.htm.
 Michael Coulter, "Review of U.S. Policy and Assistance Programs to
Egypt," Testimony to the U.S. House Committee on International Relations,
May 17, 2006.
 Yossef Bodanksy and Vaughn S. Forrest, "Approaching the New Cycle of
Arab-Israeli Fighting," Task Force on Terrorism & Unconventional Warfare,
U.S. House of Representatives, December 10, 1996.
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p. 102-03.
 Satloff, Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on International
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p. 103.
 Uzi Mahnaimi, "Egypt Threatens Show of Armed Force to Aid Arafat,"
Sunday Times (London), August 12, 2001.
 See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/egypt/army.htm.
 Stephen A. Cook, "Egypt--Still America's Partner?" Middle East
Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2, (June 2000).
 Reuven Pedatzurr, "A New Threat Pops Up--Egypt," Ha'aretz, October 22,
 Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "Mubarak the Pharaoh," The Wall Street Journal,
July 15, 2004.
 Mubarak Interview with al-Arabiya Satellite Channel, Egypt State
Information Service, April 9, 2006; see
 See Egypt's constitution in English:
 Gamal Essam El-Din, "Reintroducing Gamal Mubarak," al-Ahram Weekly,
March 30-April 5, 2006.
 Michael Slackman and Mona el-Naggar, "Mubarak's Son Proposes Nuclear
Program," New York Times, September 20, 2006.
 El Pais (Madrid), March 28, 2000.
 Anton LaGuardia, "Mubarak's Heir Apparent Hails 'Cairo Spring'" The
Daily Telegraph, June 14, 2005.
 "The Future of Egypt," The Middle East Review of International Affairs
(MERIA), Vol. 10, No. 2 (June 2006).
 Frisch, "Arab Armies," p. 96.
 Daniel Sobelman, "Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?" Middle East
Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring 2001).
 Hossam Hamalawy, "Powerful Egyptian Spy Chief No Longer Behind the
Scenes," Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2005.
 Yuval Steinitz, "The Growing Threat to Israel's Qualitative Military
Edge," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 3, No. 10 (Jerusalem Center for Public
Affairs, December 11, 2003).
 Oded Granot, "An Israeli View: The Egyptian Initiative for a Unilateral
Ceasefire," http://www.bitterlemons.org, No. 6, February 10, 2003.
 Eli Kazhdan and David Keyes, "The Inevitable Disintegration of the
Hudna," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 3, No. 5 (August 26, 2003).
 Molly Moore, "In Jerusalem, A Scene 'Like a Horror Movie,'" The
Washington Post, August 20, 2003.
 Mark Lavie, "Israel: Peace Plan in Deep Freeze Until Palestinians Crack
Down on Militants," Associated Press, August 11, 2003.
 Michael Herzog, "A New Reality on the Egypt-Gaza Border (Part II):
Analysis of the New Israel-Egypt Agreement," Peace Watch, No. 520 (The
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 21, 2005).
 During the 18-month-long negotiations, Sulayman and Tantawi sought to
package the agreement as the first phase in the deployment of thousands of
Egyptian troops to the Israel-Egypt border. Israel rejected this proposal,
citing Annex I, Article II in the1979 treaty. This annex, which delineated
four security zones in the Sinai, prohibits Egypt from stationing any armed
personnel, except civil police, in the zone closest to the Israeli border.
 Brooke Neuman, "A New Reality on the Egypt-Gaza Border (Part I):
Analysis of the New Israel-Egypt Agreement," Peace Watch, No. 518 (The
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 19, 2005).
 Doron Almog, "Tunnel-Vision in Gaza," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 11,
No. 3 (Summer 2004).
 Hillel Frisch, "Eye of the Sphinx: Egypt's Military Doctrine," The
Journal of International Security Affairs, No. 2 (Winter 2002), p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 13.
 "Shin Bet Chief Accuses Egypt of Allowing Weapons Smuggling into Gaza
Strip," Ha'aretz, September 27, 2006.
 "Sinai: Egyptian Policeman Try to Smuggle Arms to Gaza,"
http://www.ynetnews.com, September 30, 2006.
 Yitzhak Benhorin, "Dichter Urges U.S. Pressure on Cairo over Gaza Arms
Smuggling," http://www.ynetnews.com, October 19, 2006.
 Almog, "Tunnel-Vision in Gaza."
 Aaron Klein, "Palestinians Plotting Egypt Attack?"
http://www.ynetnews.com, September 13, 2006.
 Daniel Williams, "Cairo Links Sinai Attacks to Palestinians: Gaza
Extremists Said to Train Egyptians," Washington Post, May 24, 2006.
 John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999), p. 146.
 Ibid, p. 98.
 Jonathan Spyer, "Failure and Longevity: The Dominant Political Order in
the Middle East," MERIA, Vol. 10, No. 2 (June 2006).
 Challiss McDonough, "Egypt Frees 950 Gamaa Islamiya Prisoners," Voice
of America News, April 12, 2006.
MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Cameron Brown, Yeru Aharoni, Yechiam Brot, Deborah
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA)
Center, Interdisciplinary University.
Site: http://meria.idc.ac.il - Email: gloria at idc.ac.il
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