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In search of a legacy, Egypt’s leader buys arms

Egypt appears to be finalizing a deal to buy 46 MiG-29 multirole fighters, worth $US2 billion, according to Russian media reports.

The nation’s recent shopping spree for arms is unprecedented, including billion-dollar deals for the purchase of fighter jets, helicopter carriers, multi-role warships, and high-tech air-defense systems from Russia and France, in addition to an undisclosed number of refurbished Emirati Mirage-2000-9.   

The desire to diversify the nation’s supply source is understandable, especially after the US withheld military cooperation from Egypt following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. As Sisi’s Egypt seems unwilling to compromise on its domestic political performance to fit future American military aid conditions, turning to other military suppliers with no human rights strings attached, and lowering the profile of American cooperation, appears to be the path the government has chosen.

But in order to recalibrate and accomodate new military allies, it is clear some difficult political maneuvering will be necessary. Egypt has to secure alliances and partnerships without irritating traditional Western and regional allies, as well as avoiding posing any threat to neighboring Israel.   

France’s economy and Russia’s expanding strategic interests in the region have met with Egypt’s newfangled ambitions. The turn to France as an alternative Western source of heavy equipment has proven successful over the last couple of years, with all deals concluded in a relatively short period of time and without the need to compromise regional ties.

The turn to Russia, however, which was also keen to strategize its relationship with Egypt beyond refurbishing ageing Russian gear, is different, and might force Egypt to make critical foreign policy decisions. Russia’s stubborn pro-Bashar al-Assad position in the Syrian crisis contradicts that of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, who are Egypt’s main economic lifeline. Debt-laden Egypt, which yielded to the Saudi regional agenda by timidly participating in the onslaught on Yemen, can’t do the same with Syria. This is not only because of Egypt’s consistent opposition to military solutions in Syria, but because ties with Russia place Egypt in a different position.

Despite its military benefits, Egypt’s ambitious turn to Russia will come at the expense of its strong ties with Arab Gulf states. With the exception of Qatar, Egypt relies heavily on Gulf money to support its fragile economy and finance its recent military deals. Both the Saudis and Emiratis are dismayed by the Russian stance in the Syrian conflict and won’t pay a penny to support Putin’s pro-Bashar campaign.

While Western economic sanctions on Russia push the nation to find new populous markets to sell its stacked goods to, Putin’s efforts to gain more clout in the Middle East — especially with the disintegrating Syrian regime — necessitates a new, reliable replacement ally in the region. This is where Egypt comes in, with a president who is promoting a populous marketplace for arms and goods, as well as a mega nuclear project. It is also a reliable regional ally with powerful military capabilities that could potentially realize Russian interests in the region — the neutralizing of Egypt’s military from the Syrian conflict is already a significant gain.     

But given the blurry map of regional alliances, it would be legitimate to ask who, then, will pay for Egypt’s prospective military deals and upgrades, especially as maintaining and fueling these gigantic war craft with suitable ammunition will likely cost more than their value. Egypt’s American-made gunships, for instance, will probably need to be reconfigured before they can operate in the new French helicopter carriers.

Financial hurdles, although substantial, are not the only catch. The newly acquired high-tech equipment will give Egypt a formidable advantage and place it ahead of other Arab militaries. The question is why a country like Egypt, with very few naval or aerial threats, is seeking such extraordinary military hardware, especially as it is not intensely involved — militarily at least — in regional conflict in Yemen, Syria, or even Libya.

There are a few arguments that answer this question. Primarily, the efforts that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is exerting to build a personal legacy, both nationally and internationally — the legacy of a Nasserist-style leader, spearheading the nationwide renaissance of his country. This is manifest not only in his speeches and television interviews, but also in his obsession with mega projects like the Suez Canal, Dabaa nuclear plant, the new capital, and so on.

But how can this legacy materialize when the leader lacks the vision and competence, let alone the political stability and economic resources to see it through? Sisi is desperately in need of a nationally accepted project to mask his hefty failures.

He has turned to the military as his channel for glory. Investing in the Armed Forces will kill multiple birds with one stone: it will portray him as a national hero trying to maintain Egypt’s national security against regional threats, and could, with some media support, redirect people’s attention away from economic strife. Such large investment will also promote Sisi within military ranks, which is important given his eroding popularity amongst discontented segments of society, especially following growing criticisms over lifting subsidies and persistent police abuses.

Such deals with also present Sisi regionally as a force to be feared, who is in control of tremendous firepower and a large military force — an image friends and foes will have to consider when addressing him and his role in the region.  

It remains to be seen how Sisi will build his legacy, as he uses funds for military expansion that could have been spent on alarming domestic ills, from infrastructure to the education system and healthcare. Or even the implementation of a training program for security personnel — that could have been an excellent way to build a genuine legacy.

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Abdallah Hendawy