Ever since ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ as-Sīsī took power in Egypt in the summer of 2013 it was questioned by all to which “camp” would he belong to. The pro-American camp, joining forces with the Gulf states, or would he take a more conciliatory approach towards the Axis of Resistance? As we discussed in an earlier issue, in this context the relations between Egypt and Iran are pivotal, but highly controversial.
In a number of questions we got clear answers as Egypt joined the Saudi war in Yemen – if only for a limited time -, the blockade of Qatar, and built very fruitful ties with the Emirates. However, in a number of cases as-Sīsī carefully distanced himself from the most controversial quests of its Gulf allies. He did not take a specifically antagonistic approach against Iran, and in a number of cases made positive gestures towards Syria, like when he sent warplane pilots there in 2016 – which was denied by the Egyptian government -, and when the intelligence cooperation was boosted at the same time between the two sides. Though these steps even at time were viewed less as approaches towards Damascus, but much more towards the Russians. This careful maneuvering was, however, many times understood as Egypt is once again conducting a policy on its own, more concern with its own priorities in Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia, than the less pressing matters of its perceived allies in the Gulf.
In this regard the purchase of modern sophisticated weapons can serve as a major indicator of friendship towards a specific camp, would it be the pro-American, or the pro-Russian one. Here again there was a careful balance as as-Sīsī was buying Russian arms and on 17 October 2018 signed a strategic partnership with Russia, but at the same time constantly asked for American military support since 2016 and conducted advanced negotiations in the same matter with European partners. At the top of the agenda was the Egyptian bid for modern warplanes. Modern F-16s and F-22 Raptors, and even Apache helicopters were asked for to guards the border areas in the Sinai-peninsula, all being blocked by the US for long. Cairo tried to circumvent these obstacles by buying modern French Rafales and Russian Ka-52s. That already caused tension between Cairo and Washington, but matters rapidly worsened recently, as as-Sīsī tries to buy Su-35s from Russia, for which Washington is threatening with sanctions. The events resemble the recent clashes between Washington and Ankara, for Turkey buying Russian S-400 air defense systems, which eventually ended with Turkish disregard for the American threats and finalizing the deal.
That has a special angle for Egypt now, since there is a stiff rivalry between Egypt and Turkey ever since as-Sīsī took power. In one hand, the matter is important for the general Russian-American rivalry now in the Middle East, but on the other it entered the realm of the Egyptian-Turkish competition. Where is Egypt heading? Why is it such an important matter to even risk American animosity, and why is America blocking the purchase to such a valued ally? What is the core of the American worry now, and in what ways does Washington try to sanction Egypt? This will be our topic this week.
Allowed for Turkey, but not for Egypt?
As mentioned, there are striking similarities with what happened to Turkey just recently, when Ankara after all American threats bought the S-400 air defense system. In both cases, the buyer for long begged the US for more advanced tools in the most pressing matters, only to be turned down and kept in bay with promises. Turkey kept asking for modern American Patriot systems, which were only deployed there by European NATO allies in the beginning of the Syrian war, and later to were withdrawn. Turkey practically had no effective modern air defense, when it was facing tensions with Russian in 2015, and had to rely on the vague promises joint NATO protection. Only after trying all other paths Ankara decided to resort to Russian arms, which caused fury and a number of sanctions by Washington, which indeed had detrimental effects on the Turkish economy. And the Turkish purchase was especially embarrassing, though probably that was not the intention, after the American air defense was humiliated in Saudi Arabia in the hit on the Aramco facilities. This, while the Russian arms, even the older models, proved to be very effective in Syria in a number of cases.
Just the same way, as we saw, Egypt was applying for modern warplanes and helicopters for long. Only to be turned down. As long as Obama was in charge the pretext was the military coup, in which as-Sīsī came to power, but after Trump’s victory relations seemed to improve. Trump not only welcomed the Egyptian President in a number of instances in the White House, but he was highly praised. That, however, never lead to the promised arms Egypt so desperately tried to get a hold on. The second attempt was to obtain French planes, which again in a number of times were crossed by Washington. That eventually lead as-Sīsī to turn to the Russians, which move is now especially favorable as the scandals over the F-22s keep soaring. In this regard the Russian Su-35s are viewed by experts as an equally effective and capable fifth generation fighter, but more reliable and considerably less expensive. Especially that the Russian arms deal policy is much more flexible, not at all attached to political and ideological considerations so familiar to the American ways of conduct. Thus appearing to be a much more sustainable source of equipment, spare parts and training.
The two matters are not the same, as not the same equipment is in question, but again a trusted ally is buying Russian cutting edge technology instead of the American counterpart, shaming the American technology and possibly leading other allies to do the same. There are other concerns as well, however, as Egyptian experts pointed out. The main issue with Turkey was that by applying the S-400 system a NATO ally would utilize a non-NATO technology, which is arguably a breach of the common defense doctrine. Egypt is not a NATO member, therefore the same rules would not apply. Yet the reason, why Cairo suspects that the US is intentionally leaving the Egyptian Air Force underdeveloped is that Washington is giving preference to its Gulf allies, like the Emirates, since they are more reliable in common matters like Iran. Letting Egypt obtain the same level of technology would make it less dependent on Gulf support. And also, that could mean a threat to Israeli air superiority. To keep the Israelis ahead in the region the Americans already equipped them with F-22s. Should the Egyptians gain something in the same level, especially something still unknown how effective it would be against the American weapons is a possible challenge for the Israelis. More so, than they are facing concerns by possible Iranian footholds in Syria, and by their air superiority already being questioned by the Russian air defense. Adding a matter in the south to the challenges in the north is not something Tel Aviv really welcomes, and that is absolutely kept in mind in Washington.
So in which ways Washington is trying to block the Egyptian purchase? In the case of Turkey a sort of common NATO pressure was applied, as no NATO member should support financially the Russian arms industry, while the NATO has serious concerns against Russia. Since Egypt is not a NATO member, the same rules don’t apply. Therefore Washington is trying to apply the so called CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) bill passed 2017, which originally aimed to curb Iranian, North Korean and Russian military activities, and specifically bans dealing with these countries arms industries. The act was already heavily criticized, even by Europeans, and backfired a number of instances, like in 2018, when India bought the S-400 and continued to buy Iranian oil. So far the Egyptian consider the CAATSA as an American internal law not applicable to them, and disregard the threats, but the game is still not over.
Egypt is especially adamant to bow to the American threats now, when in a similar struggle Washington used the same tactics and apparently failed with Turkey. The matter is that the two Middle Eastern powers face each other in a number of fields, and steadily counter each other’s moves. Therefore Egypt cannot appear weaker than Turkey, and as Egyptian experts pointed out, the matter of these planes are not like in the Cold War, when these weapons were purchased to be used almost immediately, but to keep strategic parity alive.
A heated competition
It is in a number of ways puzzling why Egypt is so desperate to spend huge sums on the military and on major projects, like the New Suez Channel and the new capital, while huge social challenges press the government. Growing urban unemployment, poverty, the staggering level of services are just some of the issues.
One of the possible explanations was that this way Egypt, and especially that establishment of as-Sīsī is keeping its international allies happy this way, by showing itself as a reliable market. Though some elements of the new initiatives, like the New Suez Channel and the new administrational capital are solving some problems, the arms purchases are not in this league. Especially that by now Cairo is buying important Russian equipments, which is causing tension, at least with Washington.
The explanation for that probably comes in the frame of the regional competition. By regional competition in the Middle East people usually think about a Russian-American one in the grand scale, and a Gulf-Iran one in the local level. Yet in Egyptian understanding these are less important. Ever since the present establishment took power – back -, it saw its biggest threat in the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly was in control under Mursī. That was eradicated, even Mursī died in a suspicious court hearing, and his son as well in an equally suspicious hearth attack, but the threat did not diminish in the eyes of as-Sīsī’s leadership, as organization is not only deep-rooted, but is also supported by one of the most capable regional adversary, Turkey.
In this regard, it is not paranoid by Egypt to feel itself under siege by Turkey. Both internally and regionally. In Libya they are supporting the opposite sides, which so far not only lead to cooperate with the UAE, but even with Algeria. That, however, is not a successful and reassuring quest, since the both the UAE and Algeria have other, much more pressing considerations now, the government supported by Turkey is gaining the bigger international recognition, and there is no sign clear American support for Cairo’s bid.
The similar competition was witnessed in the south. As Egypt was busy to put pressure on Ethiopia about the projected new dam on the Nile, which is a key question for Egypt, Turkey made a deal in Sudan to set up a key naval base. That seems to be halted for the time being as the Sudanese revolution toppled al-Bašīr and the new government seems to be much closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But the currents in Sudan are still in motion and the faith of this alarming base is not yet finalized.
Yet above all these, the most pressing matter for Egypt is Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially to its Egyptian wing. As mentioned last week, Egypt utilized a key Emirati asset, a certain Muḥammad Daḥlan to hit back, who recently exposed in an Egyptian channel how Turkey gave shelter and new identity to a number of Brotherhood members, even to former ministers of Mursī. Therefore it is only understandable that as-Sīsī tries to counter Erdoğan, almost in a personal level, in every possible way. That is a vital question for the Egyptian establishment, which is still vulnerable. As recent protests show, even more vulnerable as it would have seemed even a year ago. Seeing an emergence for the Russian influence in the region now, it is understandable that Egypt is trying to score points with Moscow, since the relations between Russia and Turkey are now essential. That is why Cairo is trying to score point in Syria, but not finding applicable tools there, arms purchase might just be another successful way.
In such a context Egypt cannot appear to be weak. Not towards Turkey, but even less in the eyes of the regional actors lingering between Cairo and Ankara. If Ankara could set a deal even against American pressure and could enforce its own terms in Syria – at least by the general impression -, than Egypt cannot buckle under similar threat. Because that would be a discouraging message to the allies in Libya, Sudan, and so many other places that Turkey is a more potent ally. This is a race almost completely isolated from the other main race, the Saudi quest for hegemony, which is manifesting in so many regional conflicts. Though not entirely, because so far as-Sīsī much more opted for the support from the Gulf, and for the American support behind it. That, however, failed to bring results and Egypt clearly sees how the Saudi ventures now head to a catastrophe. Thus it is time for some rearrangement.
In this matter the question of the most modern warplanes is not a directly military consideration, though for many in the region it has alarming military implications, but a strategic struggle to stay in parity with the biggest rival.
Threats to be unconsidered?
Now as-Sīsī maneuvered itself into a delicate situation. Would he simply not raised the question, he could have evaded the American fury, but now that he started it, for a number of reasons he cannot back down. Thought in the light of the recent protests he might just will do that exactly.
Egypt witnesses considerable protests since September 2019, mostly fueled from abroad. One of the most cited figures of this movement, which has “corruption” by the establishment and the army at the top of its list of grievances is a certain Muḥammad ‘Alī, a popular Egyptian blogger currently residing in Spain. Formerly he was a businessman in Egypt with close connections to the military establishment, but in 2016 he disappeared, only to re-emerge recently and accuse the president and the army with widespread corruption.
That would not be a significant case for Egypt, as the county saw many protest movements before 2011 and after 2013, and these were mostly successfully contained. Even the lesson of 2011 is not a specifically threatening one for the military establishment, as at the end it managed to reestablish itself behind a new president. There is, however, something different this time.
As the protests started the government seemed less concerned, especially that the main media corporations did not vent the fury in the English press. Even in the Arab channels it was not a major theme. But the claims, the organizational style and the whole appearance has unmistakable similarities with the movements in Algeria and Sudan, and recently in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. The last ones were most directly supported and aggravated by Riyadh, with which Cairo’s relations are still good. But as-Sīsī surely knows that the Americans also have much to do with these events and the toppling of government by protests is well in the American toolbox. That is a very alarming prospect for Cairo now, as all these targeted governments fell with the exception of Iran, the last being Iraq only this week.
So as-Sīsī, while pursuing his own strategic quest to contain Turkey, might have kicked a nerve of the Americans and also managed to upset the Israelis, who are held so dearly by the Trump administration. These circumstances, thought with all likelihood that was not the attention, caused dilemma. As-Sīsī’s main concern might had nothing to do with the American aspirations in the region, but feeling left alone and in need to make a significant step, believing that now it is possibly, might have crossed a line unintentionally.
Therefore the purchase of the sophisticated Russian planes might have huge consequences for Egypt, far away from the direct military considerations.
Once again we can see that the Middle East is a very complex chessboard, where not everything is as it seems.