x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Right time for Egyptian army to try new strategy

US decision to hold back military hardware in aid package could nudge Egyptian generals to lay more stress on counterterrorism techniques, analysts say.

Egyptian security forces stand by their armoured personnel carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula last year. AFP
Egyptian security forces stand by their armoured personnel carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula last year. AFP

CAIRO // The suspension of a portion of US military aid to Egypt is an opportunity to shift the army’s focus away from conventional warfare and toward more effective counter-terrorism operations, military analysts say.

Last month, the Obama administration announced it was suspending part of its annual US$1.3 billion (Dh4.78bn) in military aid to Egypt, including the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 tank kits and Harpoon missiles.

The freeze was in response to the removal from power of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in July by the miltary after mass protests against his rule. Hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators were killed and thousands arrested in the ensuing violence, which has also seen attacks on churches and security forces across the country, allegedly by hardline Islamists.

The type of military support that will continue to be given is likely to be discussed by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Egyptian officials when he visits Cairo today for the first time since Mr Morsi’s downfall. The US is also withholding $260m in cash aid as it monitors Egypt’s transition to democratic rule.

But as a low-level insurgency has intensified in the Sinai Peninsula – with near-daily attacks on police and army – a tranche of $100 million earmarked by the US for counter-terrorism in Egypt will still be disbursed, US officials said last month .

Former Egyptian army officers say they recognise that this type of transformation – with an emphasis on intelligence gathering, surveillance and elite kill-or-capture missions – is necessary as shadowy groups take up arms against the state. But, they say, the military is unlikely to embrace the change.

“Having the US train our officers on the strategies of fighting terrorism can be something on the side,” said a former air force colonel from the Nile Delta province of Mansoura.

“But not as a replacement [for the heavier weapons],” he said. “The aid can’t be shifted. The US isn’t giving the aid as charity.”

Egypt’s resistance to such an adjustment is anchored partly in the long-held belief among Egypt’s top brass that big-ticket items and heavy weaponry such as F-16 fighter jets and tanks bring prestige.

Egypt maintains the Arab world’s largest and most formidable army, with more than 460,000 troops. But its swollen ranks of largely untrained forces have not seen combat with another state’s conventional forces in four decades – and the military’s thousands of expensive tanks and combat aircraft are either languishing in storage or obsolete.

In September, the US defence contractor Raytheon won a $9.9m contract to use its sensor technology to detect tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, long used for smuggling weapons and fighters, as well as goods for Gaza’s besieged population.

The US wants to boost funds and projects such as these both in the interim and once full assistance resumes, says Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

This transfer would slow Egypt’s procurement of tanks, artillery and other major combat weapons from US defence manufacturers.

In lieu of these items would be the increased provision of modern technology to monitor the country’s borders, additional training of more flexible troop units, and programmes to develop the capabilities of financial investigators looking to disrupt the funding of militant networks that have flourished amid the turmoil of recent years.

Militant Islamists have been emboldened in Egypt since the 2011 uprising that removed Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades of rule. Subsequent governments released former militants from prison and radical groups have strengthened ties to groups in other countries in the region.

Analysts say Egypt’s military is not equipped to cope with the increased threat.

As of 2010, Egypt maintained just 37 unarmed aircraft designed for intelligence and surveillance use, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC. It is unlikely this number has increased substantially since then, analysts say.

In contrast, the centre said Egypt has roughly 460 combat aircraft, and an additional 110 attack helicopters, based on the same 2010 statistics. It also has nearly 4,000 tanks and another 4,000 armoured personnel carriers.

“The army wasn’t trained to fight terrorism,” said Mohamed Kadry, a former brigadier general. “A terrorist doesn’t have an advanced tank or fighter jets. But he can still kill 25 soldiers in different parts of Sinai on a daily basis.”

Indeed under the command of current defence minister Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the army has wheeled out some of its fiercest battle tanks, attack helicopters and even F-16 fighter jets to quash militants based in the north of the Sinai Peninsula.

But because the peace treaty with Israel restricts Egypt’s military deployment in Sinai, military intelligence there is weak, both Mr Springborg and residents in North Sinai say.

As a result, the army’s campaign has so far failed to halt attacks, and angered local residents caught in the crossfire.

Fighting militancy there, where Bedouin tribal communities have long been either neglected or oppressed by the state, “would require different equipment – a different mindset,” Mr Springborg says.

He says the US could offer expertise based on its experiences battling insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. But still, said Brig Gen Said, “I don’t think the Egyptian military would approve” a more substantial focus on counterterrorism operations if it curtails the acquisition of advanced weapons systems.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae