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It has been six decades since Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal. His message, though, still resonates: Egypt is geopolitically indispensable, and it knows it. Through the Suez Canal, the country lies at the nexus of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Since 1859, when Egyptians first began digging the Suez under French supervision, the canal has complicated ties between Cairo and the rest of the world. When Nasser nationalized the waterway in 1956, France joined forces with the United Kingdom to reacquire it. In response, Nasser sunk 40 ships, closing the waterway to all shipping.
In the two decades that followed, France became Israel’s chief foreign ally. The main forms of support were France’s sale of Fouga Magister jet fighters to Israel and its assistance with the nuclear program at Dimona. As Paris cultivated Tel Aviv as an ally, Cairo backed the anti-colonial revolt in Algeria. Meanwhile, between 1967 and 1975, the canal was closed to all shipping. As the Nasserist era ended, however, France pivoted away from Israel and began to restore its traditional trade relationship with Cairo. After Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, the Suez Canal became one of the most secured naval routes in the world, handling 7.5 percent of the world’s total ocean trade.
Now, the French-Egyptian relationship is set to deepen. France is looking to Egypt as a military partner to deal with the threat to trade from terrorist groups along with the Mediterranean migrant crisis. It is investing in turning Egypt into a major force in the region. “I believe that, given the current context, it’s very important that Egypt is able to act to uphold stability and to be in security, not only stability on its own territory, but stability in the region,” French President Francois Hollande remarked in February 2015 as his government moved to sell Cairo the latest in French military hardware and schedule a series of joint exercises.
And those were just the latest deals. Since 2015, Paris has sold four Gowind 2,500-ton corvettes—compact 335-foot escort and patrol vessels—to Egypt. These are intended for the interdiction of non-state actors, ranging from sea-faring jihadists to immigrant-loaded dinghies. Egypt has also acquired two French BPC-210 Mistral Class amphibious assault ships (BPC/LHD). These will be equipped with 50 Russian Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopters that can launch anti-tank guided missiles. Meanwhile, Egypt’s naval arsenal will have the support of a French-made reconnaissance satellite for surveillance. NATO and Egypt have established diplomatic channels to coordinate their responses to the Libyan crisis. This step is seen as creating a way to exchange intelligence about Libya and the migrant crisis.
Egypt is already France’s leading arms customer, with approximately $8 billion in annual arms and services deals. France’s 2015 sale of 25 Rafale fighter jets to Egypt alone netted France $5.9 billion. In April 2016, Egypt and France agreed on a $1.1 billion program that includes a military satellite communication system.
French assistance extends beyond equipment. Egypt’s navy has recently conducted two exercises with France: the Ramses 2016 maneuvers in March and the Cleopatra exercises in June 2016. According to Israel Defense, “the exercises included firing live ammunition to repel and destroy hostile surface and air targets and conducting refueling and supply missions. They also oversaw the launch of night-time sorties by anti-submarine helicopters.” Such maneuvers are mainly seen as counterterrorism tactics.
Sisi’s critics say that the weapons binge is more about intimidating the army’s domestic opponents than about refugees or terrorism.
Partially as a result of such investments, Cairo is now a significant player in the Mediterranean region. According to a former top Israeli national security official, “the Egyptian navy is stronger than ever before.” Egypt has one of the most highly equipped navies in the region and globally, with a fleet of 319 ships. For a long time, Egypt’s navy was fully dependent on old Soviet-era vessels; Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s deals are intended to change all that.
Why is France so eager to make Egypt stronger? Located on the Mediterranean as well, France has fears about the increase in terrorism and the number of immigrants crossing the sea to enter Europe. Given the disorder in most other countries in the region, Cairo is the only southern Mediterranean state that can help police the region and secure Europe’s southern borders.
The same logic guides other European powers. The United Kingdom and Egypt have conducted joint exercises counterterrorism exercises. “Britain and Egypt have opened a new page in the long and proud history of the two great navies,” British ambassador to Egypt John Casson said during his visit to the naval exercise ceremony. The occasion marked the first visit of a British ship to the Alexandria naval base in eight years because of the political unrest that Egypt faced after the 2011 revolution. “Events ebb and flow, but our shared interests are permanent and they demand constant partnership.”
Meanwhile, the military partnership with Berlin was center-stage last year with the transfer of four German submarines to the Egyptian fleet at Alexandria. And in March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to Egypt since 2013. In remarks during a joint press conference with Sisi, she endorsed him as Europe’s key southern Mediterranean guardian.
For Germany, the refugee crisis is key. Berlin hopes that Cairo can augment the European-Turkish deal that has blocked the Balkan route for Syrian refugees. According to one source close to Cairo, Germany wants Egypt to return refugees to the eastern coast of Libya under Egypt’s protection. Egyptian security is worried about having to protect refugees in both Egypt and Libya, which is apparently why Sisi didn’t finalize the deal with Germany.
Still, with Libya not sufficiently able (or willing) to head off African refugees trying to make their way to Europe, the EU is also eager to find other partners for patrol duty in the neighborhood. Enter Egypt, where despite internal economic and security issues, a powerful military stands ready to police the waters of Mediterranean for pay. After a disaster in October 2016 that resulted in the drowning of 200 of its own nationals, Cairo passed legislation to combat migration with tough sentencing penalties for boat operators and immigrant smugglers.
“If we are able to find a solution for Libya we will establish more stability in the region and the Mediterranean and this will reflect on Europe’s security,” Sisi said in a joint press conference with Merkel during her visit to Cairo. The president said that Egypt was looking at options to help deal with refugees before they end up as victims in the Mediterranean. The country has pledged to keep more from setting off to the north by sea. And Egypt’s acquisition of ships and a surveillance satellite will help it do so. It will also help address terrorism, as the southern Mediterranean is exposed to ISIS. In 2014, the group hijacked an Egyptian missile ship in the Mediterranean naval base of Damietta.
To be sure, such deals have their drawbacks. Egypt is already the leading arms importer globally among developing nations, and Sisi’s critics say that the weapons binge is more about intimidating the army’s domestic opponents than about refugees or terrorism. Maged Mandour of the Carnegie Endowment has written that the two Egyptian Mistral carriers could easily be used to control vital cities such as Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez—the first city to slip from the regime’s control in 2011—along the northern coast and the canal.
But Europeans are less concerned. “We are happy that our Egyptian counterparts agreed to ease restrictions on political foundations,” said Merkel at the joint press conference with Sisi, where she also hailed the imminent signing of an EU-Egypt association agreement aimed at framing and enshrining the Cairo’s relationship with European institutions. According to EU stats, the European Union contributes almost 75 percent of foreign direct investment in Egypt. The EU remains Egypt’s most important export market, accounting for 29.4 percent of Egyptian exports.
Turning Egypt into a major power supporting EU aims in the Mediterranean will require more EU investments in Egypt’s weakened economy and more deals to modernize and diversify Egypt’s arms sources. But doing so will also push Brussels to turn a blind eye to Cairo’s record of human rights violations and its crackdown on liberal and Islamist opposition.