The Egyptian-Israeli Peace and the Military Balance
By DAVID M. WITTY
Technically, the peace between Egypt and Israel has held firm since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, and security relations between the two have significantly improved in recent years and are described as the best ever with continuous communications between the two militaries. In the words of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, there are unprecedented levels of security cooperation with Israel, especially in the Sinai, where insurgents affiliated with the Islamic State threaten both nations. Sisi has touted the strength of his Israeli relations to American Jewish groups, and regionally, he has encouraged boarder Arab cooperation and peace with Israel. There have also been recent new forms of cooperation, such as the import of Israeli gas to Egypt, and Jewish cultural sites in Egypt have need restored. In 2019, 7,000 Egyptian Coptic pilgrims visited Egypt, up from previous years, and Egypt has continued to help settle disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.
The peace treaty with Egypt was Israel’s first with an Arab nation, and it transformed Israel’s strategic position and maintaining it is a vital interest, as is limiting the presence of conventional military forces in the Sinai due to Israel’s lack of strategic depth. In the results of an opinion poll released in March 2019, the majority of Israelis firmly support the peace treaty with Egypt and trust Sisi to assist in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the same poll found that 66 percent of Israelis believed the peace was cold, and 64 percent believed that Egypt was neither Israel’s friend nor enemy. Israeli officials also complain that while Egypt has adhered to the treaty, the peace is not warm and ask why.
In Egypt, Israel will never be popular and is the target of near daily rhetoric perpetuated among the masses by the same leaders who praise the strength of relations on the international stage. History and negatively towards Israel has led Egypt to seek to maintain a military parity with Israel, a parity that is questionable at best. The danger is that Egypt’s embedded cultural biases toward Israel and perceived military parity could badly box the Egyptian leadership into restrictive positions due to popular hatred of Israel and leave few options if a true crisis occurred between the two nations.
The Peace in Egypt
In Egypt, the peace treaty is seen as between Israel and late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who negotiated it, and not with the Egyptian people. At the time the treaty was signed, it was opposed by many Egyptians who said it was a separate peace that betrayed other Arab nations and the Palestinians, and the treaty has since been blamed for many problems in the Arab world. Egypt lost Arab aid and investment for the following decade and was suspended from the Arab League, and its headquarters was moved from Cairo to Tunisia. Most Arab countries broke off relations with Egypt, and it was suspended from the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
While these reverses have been rectified, and Egypt continued to keep the terms of the treaty, it kept Israel at a distance. In 2012, an internationally conducted poll found that 44 percent of Egyptians favored the treaty’s cancelation. While Israel celebrated the 40th anniversary of the signing of the treaty in March 2019, the anniversary in Egypt brought a fresh round of criticism. Israel was called out for its mistreatment of the Palestinians, continued occupation of lands from the 1967 Six Day War, and failure to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 242. Israel was described as responsible for all the tensions in the region and as an expansionist power that cannot be coexisted with until it really commits to peace. Although the treaty ended wars, relations with Israel are not normal since there is no significant policy, diplomatic, or trade cooperation, and it is hard to say there is real security between the two nations. The treaty was one way and did not include other Arab countries, and it did not lead to greater economic growth but rather Egypt’s isolation for a decade. It ended Egypt’s role as a leading Arab state and abandoned the Palestinians.
One of the most common complaints Egyptians have with the treaty is that it blocks full Egyptian sovereignty of the Sinai and does not allow Egypt to properly defend it because the treaty limits Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai, while most Egyptians see Israel as eager to reclaim it. Under the treaty’s terms, most of the Sinai is demilitarized, and other than police and border forces, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) are only allowed to deploy one division into the Sinai that must stay within 55 kilometers of the Suez Canal. There is a large population difference between Israel and Egypt, and Israel is unable to create a large standing military similar to Egypt’s. Demilitarization of the Sinai allows Israel time to mobilize reservists in the unlikely event of a war and supports the Israeli doctrine of fighting on Arab lands. Any increase in Egyptian force levels in the Sinai must be agreed upon by Israel, and Egyptians have called for the treaty’s revision to end military restrictions on deployments. Historically, the EAF has viewed the treaty as humiliating because of the demilitarization of the Sinai. Egypt must coordinate with Israel to deploy forces on its territory, even for training purposes.
However, in recent years, Israel increasingly agrees on short term Egyptian troop increases to fight insurgents in the Sinai, allowing a de-facto revision of the treaty. In 2018, there were more Egyptian troops in the Sinai than any time since the treaty was signed, with 88 battalions with 42,000 troops, which was fully coordinated with Israel, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) closely watches Egyptian military moves. However, one estimate of Egyptian forces in Sinai in 2018 was close to 70,000, which was undoubtably coordinated with Israel.
There are also indications of direct Israeli involvement in the Sinai. It has been reported that the EAF asked Israeli intelligence to help monitor insurgent communications, and insurgents have fired rockets into Israel. Other reports describe Israeli airstrikes in Sinai by unmarked drones, helicopters, and jets. In Egypt, only a small circle knows of the strikes, and Egypt and Israel both conceal news of Israeli involvement to avoid anger from the Egyptian public. The strikes are also known in Washington circles, where Israeli supporters say Egypt should stop denouncing Israel in international forums. In early 2019, President Sisi said in a 60 Minutes interview that Israel and Egypt were cooperating together in Sinai, which he later tried to stop from being aired. Since the interview, all domestic Egyptian media was prevented from discussing it.
An anniversary that Egyptians do celebrate is October 6, 1973, the start of the October War, or the Yom Kippur War, when the EAF successfully crossed the Suez Canal and destroyed Israel’s Bar Lev Line in the Sinai. It was the only time the Egyptians were relatively successful against the IDF, although the war ended with the Israelis having successfully crossed the canal into mainland Egypt, coming within a 100 miles of Cairo, and the Egyptian Third Army was cut off. Anyone who has lived in Egypt realizes the tremendous emphasis Egyptians place on this anniversary, which is considered a turning point in their long history. Sisi has referred to the October War as “the biggest defeat of the enemy.” Annually, the October War celebrations are huge national commemorations, with special events organized at community levels such as theatrical performances, concerts, and plays free to the public to commemorate the “glorious October victory.” There are special promotional videos produced by the EAF showing the defeat of Israeli forces, and official national logos for each year’s celebration.
While there are some diplomatic, security, and economic relations between Israel and Egypt, otherwise relations are not normal, and Israel is still considered the enemy. The Egyptian government uses negative rhetoric and discourages Egyptians from visiting Israel, and few have made the trip other than Coptic pilgrims, and travel by ordinary citizens is impossible. Officials are openly hostile to Israel and Egyptian artists and intellectuals boycott it, all of which makes high level Egyptian-Israeli interactions difficult. Schools teach negative images of Jews and universities students are given anti-Israeli propaganda. The EAF see the IDF as its main enemy. There are stories in the popular press of Israeli conspiracies, Israeli-U.S. conspiracies, and Israeli-Qatari conspiracies, to give a few examples. A conspiracy propagated by Egyptian state television in late 2010 was that shark attacks off the coast of southern Sinai were controlled by Israel and designed to hurt tourism. The theory was circulated in Egypt and supported by the South Sinai governor. An Egyptian program on state television equated normalizing relations with Israel as treason, and Egyptians embrace the conspiracy theory that they are the victims of Zionism. Prominent Egyptians make anti-Israel comments, such as a statement from a sitting member of parliament that he would be the first to take up arms against Israel, and a member of the Supreme Islamic Council and Azhar University claimed on television that Islamic radicals are funded by Zionism. In short, there are no normalized relations at the public level, and Egyptians are malevolent towards Israel. In an opinion poll conducted in 2015, Egyptians ranked Israel as the most hostile country.
In a similar theme, in 2019, Egypt released its most expensive movie, The Passage, which opened the day before the anniversary of the Six Day War. The movie is set during the war and the following War of Attrition. It depicts Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War as an institutional failure and not the fault of the EAF or the people, and focuses on an Egyptian battalion’s successful raid into occupied Sinai to destroy an Israeli base and free Egyptian prisoners. Israelis in the movie are cruel warmongers with a chief villain who tortures and kills Egyptian prisoners, while the Egyptians are kind and resolved to liberate capture land. Some commentators believe the movie is intended to show Egyptians who the real enemy is. The movie did well at the box office, was released in other Arab countries, and was shown of Egyptian television. The Department of Morale Affairs of the EAF assisted with the production, and Sisi commented that the film depicts the Egyptian spirit and that Egyptians needed a movie like this every six months.
The Military Balance
In light of the ongoing negatively associated with Israel, it is necessary to examine Egyptian military procurements of recent years. In the period of 2015-2019, Egypt was the world’s third largest arms importer with 5.8 percent of all worldwide imports, a 212 percent increase from the period of 2010-2014. In the same period, Egypt ordered or had delivered 94 combat jets, 69 combat helicopters, almost 5,700 armored personnel carriers and light armored vehicles, 120 tanks, nine frigates, five corvettes, two helicopter amphibious assault ships, four submarines, 550 air to surface missiles, 921 surface to air missiles, 1080 air to air missiles, 2,665 anti-tank rockets, 125 torpedoes, 120 anti-ship missiles, 60 unmanned aerial vehicles, and three Russian S-300 air defense systems. Egypt has the seventh largest navy in the world, and it was the first in the region to acquire amphibious helicopter assault ships.
It is also necessary to view Egypt’s acquisitions and its military strength in light of Egypt’s defense needs. President Sisi speaks of asymmetric threats. There is the ongoing insurgency in the Sinai, and at times, terrorism has spread into Egypt west of the Suez Canal. Libya has become a location for the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates and terrorists have entered Egypt from Libya. Sudan, to the south, is not in full control of its borders and Egypt has a long term border dispute with it over the Halayeb Triangle. There have been long term disputes between Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which began in 2010 without Egypt’s agreement and which could negatively affect Egypt’s share of Nile water. Likewise, there are Turkish threats against recently discovered Egyptian gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as insecurity in the Red Sea due to the war in Yemen. Egypt does need to be able to project power into the Mediterranean and possibly take action over Ethiopia’s dam. President Sisi is also pushing to increase Egyptian counter terrorism and border control capabilities, and is updating Egyptian doctrine and interoperability with partner forces. He has also made some structural changes such as establishing a counter terrorism command the Sinai, created a southern fleet in the Red Sea, and refitted two bases near the Libyan border.
However, many of the arms in Egypt’s current inventory and recent acquisitions do not appear to match Egypt’s defense needs given its peace with Israel. Sisi said the recent purchases were to keep up with developments that occurred over the past 20 years and that “those who do not have a national army and contemporary arms do not have security.” Recent weapon procurements have mainly been those associated with conventional warfare, power projection, or offensive action, and such weapons are not suited for use in the Sinai. Likewise, recent training exercises by the EAF have concentrated on major combat operations in conventional warfare such as coordination between infantry, armor, and paratroopers to assault enemy lines and destroy enemy reserve forces. Even the naval procurements do not match needs to protect natural gas fields in the Mediterranean since they would be better defended by smaller vessels and anti-missile systems, not by helicopters launched from amphibious assault ships which can debark forces on an advisory’s coast. There has been criticism of Egypt’s procurement of conventional weapons while fighting a counterinsurgency, but there is a belief that the insurgency in the Sinai and its associated terrorism are temporary and not threats to national survival.
Both Egyptian existing force structure and recent procurements suggest Egypt still believes it needs to maintain a large conventional force to confront regular armies in the region, most importantly Israel, which is still considered an enemy, in an unlikely but potential war that could threaten it borders, government, and national survival. Egypt’s recent weapons buys of fighter jets, attack helicopters, anti-tank missiles, air defense systems, submarines, and helicopter carrier ships do not indicate any shift of the EAF’s priorities, only that it continues to value a large military force for traditional warfare. Egyptians also points out that Egypt still needs to buy weapons because Israel continues to arms itself with the most sophisticated weapons despite the fact that it has a peace treaty with Egypt, and the armies of two of Israel’s greatest conventional threats, Iraq and Syria, have largely been decimated in internal conflicts. In spite of recent cooperation between the two, Egypt still sees Israel as its traditional enemy because it is the greatest conventional threat.
In 2020, the U.S. based Global Fire Power index ranked Egypt as having the nineth most powerful military in the world based on factors such as available manpower, number of military personnel, equipment, and defense budget, while Israel was ranked as having the 18th most powerful military. Nuclear capabilities are not included in the index, but nevertheless, Egyptians make much of the annual Global Fire Power rankings, pointing out the superiority of the EAF over the IDF, and statements are made in the media that the EAF is the only force with the ability to inflict heavy losses on Israel. During celebrations of the October War in 2018, Sisi said Egypt could defeat Israel again if necessary.
While Egypt is not planning a new war with Israel, the EAF’s perceived superiority over the IDF, or at least its perceived parity, and the general hostility towards Israel could badly force the hands of Egyptian leaders if a true crisis were to occur between the two nations. In addition, the arms limitations of the peace treaty in the Sinai have largely been nullified. A following article will take a further examination of the Egyptian-Israeli military balance.
David M. Witty is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and Foreign Area Officer. He has over thirteen years of experience living and working in the Middle East, including seven years in Egypt. He is an adjunct professor at Norwich University’s Online Security Studies Program. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidMWitty1.