Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Regional logistics

Ahmed Eleiba reviews Egypt’s place within changing security arrangements

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Egyptian military strenuously denies the existence of US military bases in Egypt. According to military sources and national security and intelligence experts, the US not only has no bases in Egypt but the enormous advances in military technology means it does not need them. The war in Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime offers vivid testimony to this. No bases in the Arab region were used in spite of the facilities they offer; nor were the fifth and sixth fleets in the Gulf and the Mediterranean brought into play.

There are areas of US military influence in the Horn of Africa and using them entails logistical support across the strategic map, including countries where central bases do not exist, such as Egypt. This fact necessitates that the US coordinates with Cairo in a variety of ways and in many forms, some temporary and others — such as the presence of US soldiers in the multinational forces that are stationed in Sinai — more permanent.

Regional security arrangements have changed considerably since the onset of the Arab Spring, and developments in the Middle East have enhanced Cairo’s role within the strategic framework. Reliable sources say the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government has offered Washington “more than facilities” in order to ensure Washington’s continued support during the Muslim Brothers’ crisis-ridden bid to secure control over the state.

In a meeting with Al-Ahram Weekly, officials at the US embassy in Cairo confirmed the impression of a continuing close relationship between Egypt’s Armed Forces, the US Defense Department and the administration in Washington. It has not, however, precluded US concerns with respect to the Egyptian army’s involvement in politics, even if US officials have not publicly stated such concerns. The meeting also underscored the extent to which the US is concerned with the situation in Sinai.

In a telephone interview from Doha military expert Safwat Al-Zayat said that conventionally the Arab world is divided into three regional security zones: the Gulf (where Iran is regarded as a threat), Egypt (which combines the Israel/Palestine, Islamist organisations such as Hamas and Hizbullah and Sudan files), and North Africa, from Libya to Morocco (where Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups are regarded as a threat to US strategic interests).

Following the Camp David accords in 1979 Washington sought to keep Cairo as a key player in its overall security vision for the region. But with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent military/strategic changes the Gulf countries increasingly looked to Washington to protect them from Tehran’s expansionist ambitions in the Gulf. As a consequence Egypt’s Gulf role declined.

General Mohamed Ali Bilal, commander of Egyptian forces in the Gulf war, agrees with this assessment of the recent past. As for the present, he stated: “Yes, there is a US military presence in Egypt. This is well-known and it exists in accordance with various agreements, some public, such as Camp David, others unwritten or implicit and essentially stemming from Camp David.”

Today Cairo is part of a set of regional equations in which the Iranian factor is a prime determinant. Cairo’s rapprochement with Tehran may be useful in the context of the regional game and regional security arrangements, say sources close to decision-making centres in Egypt. Strategic experts, though, question just how independent Cairo is in forging ahead with rapprochement. Egypt would not have embarked in this direction without first getting the green light from Washington, they maintain. Such a green light would have allowed Egypt some leverage to alleviate anxieties in the Gulf, if necessary, and with respect to the Syrian question. According to sources, Cairo, Tehran and Ankara are agreed that using military force in Syria will only complicate an already tangled situation.

There seems to be a general willingness to opt for pragmatism rather than court direct military involvement which could then precipitate renewed conflict between the parties, especially Egypt and Iran. Nevertheless, says Al-Zayat, as Egypt seeks to expand its regional influence it could act as coordinator in this context. It cannot form an axis with Tehran but it is trying to alter a status quo that had existed for more than three decades, and is trying to impart a moderate Islamist stamp on this shift in which the Muslim Brotherhood would act as the chief guarantors. Such thinking is evidenced by the role that Egypt played in the last Israeli war on Gaza. Then Cairo emerged as guarantor of the truce between Hamas and Tel Aviv, a significant precedent in the handling of this conflict.

Intelligence affairs expert Lieutenant-General Hossam Kheirallah describes the regional zone that Egypt is in as turbulent and unstable. These conditions could lead to an American presence in a form we have not seen before, not necessarily to secure US interests but in order to prepare for coming phases, particularly in Syria. With respect to new arrangements for regional security, he expects the Bright Star military manoeuvres to resume in Egypt after years of having been suspended owing to Washington’s preoccupations with Afghanistan and then the war in Libya.

According to Kheirallah, military and logistic cooperation between Cairo and Washington allows for US fighter planes headed to Afghanistan to pass through Egyptian airspace and for planes to be fuelled and serviced in the East Cairo and Wadi Qena airports. In addition, US naval craft and nuclear submarines are given priority passage through the Suez Canal and some points in the Red Sea have been designated as staging platforms for mobile naval bases, as was the case during Desert Storm when US forces launched missile attacks against Iraqi targets from such bases.

“I think Washington learned some important lessons in the 1980s when Iran planted mines in the Suez Canal in order to obstruct navigation,” says Kheirallah. “The US stepped forward to help Egypt clear the mines and secure the canal, and since then has been determined never to allow such a threat to the canal again. Thirty years later and Iranian ships are again passing back and forth between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean through the canal. The first time this occurred was when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was in power during the transitional phase. This indicates just how regional security arrangements and the Egyptian role in them have changed.”

The US wants Egypt to stabilise, not to move in directions opposed to US policy in the region, and to take part in the war against terror. With respect to the latter, arrangements are in progress regarding Sinai. Washington also expects Egypt to respect its peace treaty with Israel and to permit for the passage of US naval vessels through the Suez Canal. Such are the constants of Egypt’s role in the new regional security arrangements even at a time when the overall strategic environment has changed, says Al-Zayat.

“Cairo does not have the luxury to depart from this framework,” he adds. “Not only is it totally dependent on Washington for arms and training, the situation in Egypt today is different. Egypt is in crisis domestically and the Egyptian authorities are not about to risk an attempt to change these strategies.”

 

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