Why Europe Is Floating Egypt's Navy

The Promise and Pitfalls of Arms Deals With Cairo

Egyptian sailors on board the ENS Anwar El Sadat, an Egpytian helicopter carrier, in Saint-Nazaire, France, September 2016. Stephane Mahe / REUTERS

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.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Egyptian President 

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