Egypt has become the third largest arms importer in the world, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The institute’s “Trends in International Arms Transfers” report reveals that Egypt’s imports of major arms increased in volume by 136 percent from the periods 2011-2015 to 2016-2020. Over the past decade, Egypt spent approximately $44 billion on defense and national security. Since seizing power in 2014, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has concluded arms deals with major countries including France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Russia. With at least one third of Egypt’s population living below the poverty line, Sisi’s unprecedented military spending raises questions about its purposes, priorities, and objectives.
A Surge in Arms Deals
Egypt has spent billions of dollars on weapons imports; in fact, Sisi’s arms deals placed Egypt as the world’s third importer of weapons during the period 2016-2020, amounting to about 5.8 percent of the global market—more than double its arms imports during 2011-2015.
Sisi’s arms deals placed Egypt as the world’s third importer of weapons during the period 2016-2020, amounting to about 5.8 percent of the global market
Egypt is the second largest importer of French weapons and its share increased by 20 percent during 2016-2020, compared to 2011-2015. In February 2015, Egypt and France signed an arms sales deal worth of $5.8 billion that included 24 Rafale fighter jets along with a naval frigate and missiles. More recently, in May 2021, Egypt signed a contract with France worth $4.5 billion to buy another 30 Rafale fighter jets, which increased Egypt’s Rafale fleet to 54; after France, Egypt now has the second largest Rafale fleet in the world. Strikingly, both deals are financed by loans from the French government and French banks, adding to Egypt’s already soaring foreign debt.
Germany’s arms sales in 2021 hit record highs, thanks to Egypt’s massive arms imports. The preliminary figures issued by the Economy Ministry in January show that Germany exported arms worth $10.6 billion in 2021, of which about 45 percent (or $4.8 billion) went to Egypt; this is the highest sale among developing countries, outside of NATO and the European Union. Egypt’s arms imports from Germany include maritime and air defense weapons. According to the arms contracts, the Egyptian navy should receive four Meko A200 corvettes from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), one of which will be built in Egypt. TKMS also had a contract with the Egyptian navy to build four Type 209/1400mod submarines. Most of these arms deals were approved just a few days before the departure of the previous government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. All of the items have all been delivered to Egypt.
With at least one third of Egypt’s population living below the poverty line, Sisi’s unprecedented military spending raises questions about its purposes, priorities, and objectives.
Egypt has also become Italy’s second largest arms buyer. Sisi’s government has signed arms contracts with Italy worth $10-12 billion. These arms deals include six frigates, 24 M-346 trainer jets, 24 Eurofighter Typhoon jets 20 Falaj II OPV, and a military satellite. Egypt has already received two multi-role FREMM frigates, and 25 of 50 Aster-15 missiles it had ordered, “a medium-range vertically launched surface-to-air missile designed to offer defense for warships” and “is used on FREMM frigates,” according to Al-Monitor. While President Sisi did not disclose how Egypt financed these deals, he has benefited from loans and financial aid from his regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On January 25, 2022, the United States approved a major arms sale to Egypt worth $2.5 billion. It includes military aircraft and air defense radar systems. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Egypt has consistently been one of the world’s highest recipients of Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which it uses exclusively to purchase U.S. weapons.” Egypt receives around $1.3 billion annually, which makes it the second largest recipient of the US foreign aid, after Israel. Moreover, in 2020 the Trump Administration notified Congress of the possibility of an equipment sale of $2.3 billion to refurbish 42 of Egypt’s AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, which came from the United States. According to this same congressional report, about 47 percent of Egyptian arms acquisitions between 2010 and 2014 were from the United States. However, that figure dropped to 15 percent during 2015-2019, when France and Russia filled the supply gap at 35 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE financed Egypt’s arms deals with Russia, worth $2 billion in 2014, as a part of their political support to Sisi’s regime
Since 2014, Sisi has been keen to strengthen Egypt’s relations with Russia strategically, economically, and militarily. During 2016-2020, Russia was Egypt’s main weapons supplier; indeed, its arms exports to Cairo increased by 430 percent during the period 2011-2015. According to media reports, Saudi Arabia and the UAE financed Egypt’s arms deals with Russia, worth $2 billion in 2014, as a part of their political support to Sisi’s regime. In addition, Russia is building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant and is providing a loan of $25 billion for the project.
Exploiting Security Threats
After Sisi took power, Egypt faced serious security challenges and threats in the Sinai Peninsula, where it was fighting a radical insurgency and militant Islamists, and on its western borders with Libya, where a chaotic civil war had devastated the country. These threats have decreased significantly. The Egyptian military conducted comprehensive operations, which curtailed the capabilities of militant groups in Sinai. Furthermore, the ashes of the Libyan civil war have somewhat settled after political factions returned to dialogue and launched a new political process at the end of 2021.
Upgrading and modernizing the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) is a crucial element in Sisi’s attempt to maintain military support to his regime
Nevertheless, these particular developments, especially that their threat aspects are waning, do not support Sisi’s focus on arms acquisitions. In fact, most of Sisi’s weapons deals serve his political agenda primarily. First, upgrading and modernizing the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) is a crucial element in Sisi’s attempt to maintain military support to his regime. It is instructive to note that for years, former President Hosni Mubarak and his defense minister, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, neglected to pay attention to modernizing Egypt’s military, a serious oversight that impacted its capabilities, efficiency, and quality. In fact, Mubarak’s unwillingness to upgrade the capabilities of the military forces likely contributed to his fall in 2011 as army generals, including his long-standing and hand-picked minister, Tantawi, decided to abandon him.
Second, overhauling the Egyptian military helps Sisi to enhance his image as the “modernizer” of the EAF. He is keen to be seen as such among the rank-and-file of the military and in the eyes of the wider public, even if that requires spending and borrowing billions of dollars. Sisi draws on what he believes is the Egyptian people’s admiration and trust in their military; by adding more weapons to its arsenal, he aims to enhance his image and position in the public mind.
Sisi can use arms sales as tools to secure and buy the allegiance and loyalty of generals and officers, who are benefiting and profiting from financial commissions and training privileges
Third, upgrading and modernizing the Egyptian army is vital in Sisi’s coup-proofing strategy, where he has full control over all arms deals and directs and supervises the use of new military equipment. In addition, Sisi can use arms sales as tools to secure and buy the allegiance and loyalty of generals and officers, who are benefiting and profiting from financial commissions and training privileges.
Sisi is diversifying weapons suppliers to appease his suppliers and secure their political support
Finally, while diversifying weapons suppliers sounds like a good military strategy for any country, in Sisi’s case it has another objective: to appease his suppliers and secure their political support. Such a strategy and strengthening the military partnership with Russia enables Sisi to maneuver with other suppliers, particularly the United States, which tends to put conditions on its military aid to Egypt.
Securing External Support
Like other authoritarian regimes in the region, external support is crucial for the survival of Sisi’s regime. As he rose to power after staging a coup against the late President Mohamed Morsi, who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Sisi relies on arms deals to compensate for the lack of internal legitimacy of his rule. Therefore, Egypt’s multibillion-dollar arms imports can be seen as political bribes to global powers in exchange for their political support.
Egypt’s multibillion-dollar arms imports can be seen as political bribes to global powers in exchange for their political support
To that end, Sisi aims to secure the silence of his weapons suppliers, particularly those in the West, regarding his serious human rights violations. This strategy has paid off so far. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to tie arms sales to Egypt to improving Cairo’s human rights record. He bluntly said, “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements (over human rights).” Like his western counterparts, Macron justifies his policy of selling weapons to the Sisi regime because of its role “in the fight against terrorism.” This justification is used to cover up France’s complicity in Sisi’s war on terrorism, which could amount to war crimes according to human rights organizations. On November 21, 2021, the investigative website Disclose revealed the complicity of French military intelligence in killing dozens of civilians in Egypt’s western desert region. The organization obtained “hundreds of classified French official documents which reveal abuses committed during a secret military operation by France in Egypt.” The operation was code-named “Sirli,” during which French forces were complicit in at least 19 bombings against civilians between 2016 and 2018.
Sisi aims to secure the silence of his weapons suppliers, particularly those in the West, regarding his serious human rights violations, a strategy that has paid off so far
Another striking example of Sisi’s maneuvers with western actors is Italy. He increased arms imports from Italy significantly over the past few years perhaps to divert or mitigate the political ramifications of the brutal killing of the Italian doctoral student, Giulio Regeni, who was murdered in Cairo in January 2016. In May 2021, the Italian judiciary officially accused members of Egyptian security forces of involvement in the murder of Regeni and ordered them to stand trial. In addition, an Italian parliament commission concluded in December 2021 that Egypt’s security services were responsible for torturing and killing Regeni. In fact, six years have passed and none of those involved in his murder stood trial or were charged until now. To a great extent, Sisi’s regime seems to be succeeding in wooing different Italian governments with his major arms purchases and halting the progress of Regeni’s case, thereby avoiding any political or criminal consequences that could affect his officers and security personnel.
US military aid to Egypt is considered vital for ensuring that the Sisi regime, like Mubarak’s before him, continues to serve US interests in the region
Furthermore, Sisi has managed to avoid serious punishment by the Biden Administration regarding Egypt’s human rights violations. Clearly, President Biden failed to deliver on his presidential campaign promise not to give Sisi a “blank check”; to be sure, the United States continues its business as usual with Egypt. While the Biden Administration blocked $130 million of military aid to Egypt in January, it authorized a major arms sale worth $2.5 billion to Sisi’s regime during the very same week. Egypt has been one of the largest US arms importers for decades, and this continues under the current administration. In fact, US military aid to Egypt is considered vital for ensuring that the Sisi regime, like Mubarak’s before him, continues to serve US interests in the region. As Jeremy Sharp puts it, “Successive U.S. Administrations have justified aid to Egypt as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running cooperation with the Egyptian military.” This is a fact that Sisi realizes and knows how to shrewdly exploit in order to maintain US support for his regime.
Sisi is willing to go several steps further and provide more services to US interests than any of his predecessors. For example, in January 2018, Washington and Cairo signed the bilateral Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), which provides the Egyptian military with “encrypted communications equipment and systems” to allow secure communication with the US military. The agreement would also give the United States access to Egypt’s military facilities and stipulates “that U.S. communications and encryption equipment must be maintained and repaired in country by U.S. personnel, not Egyptian technicians.” It is noteworthy that for his part, and during his 30-year reign, Mubarak rejected US pressure to sign CISMOA, perceiving it as curbing Egypt’s national security and sovereignty.
Egyptian President Sisi would do anything to secure the support of his western allies, even if that means continuing to purchase their weapons and piling up Egypt’s external debt
In conclusion, it appears that Egyptian President Sisi would do anything to secure the support of his western allies, even if that means continuing to purchase their weapons and piling up Egypt’s external debt, which reached unprecedented levels since Sisi took office in 2014.