The Strategic Alliance between Egypt and France

Following President Hollande's visit to Egypt and other Middle East countries, Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay discusses the relationship between the two countries, with an emphasis on military cooperation

French President Francois Hollande with the Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (Photo: AP)

French President Francois Hollande arrived to Egypt on April 17, 2016, in a trip in which the two countries signed deals worth about 2 billion euros. His visit to Cairo comes as part of a Middle East tour that includes visits to Jordan and Lebanon. The delegation accompanying Hollande includes over 60 French businessmen. The French president was last in Egypt on August 6, 2015, when he attended the inauguration of the new Suez Canal.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Hollande signed memorandums of agreement in a number of fields and projects, including training, electricity, generating renewable energy, the Cairo metro, and sewage system projects. According to the Egyptian State Information Service, the value of trade between Egypt and France amounts to 2.6 billion euros annually, and France is Egypt’s sixth largest importer.

The two presidents discussed the crisis in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the French initiative for the Middle East peace process. Hollande’s visit also included meetings with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, local cultural figures, and French expats.

On the sidelines of the two-day visit by French President Francois Hollande to Cairo, French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, met his counterpart, Egypt’s Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and visited the base, which hosts a number of Rafale jet fighters purchased by Egypt last year.

The Egyptian minister stressed the strong military ties between both countries, highlighting France’s “backing for Egypt’s people and its armed forced in the fight against terrorism” as well as cooperation in bolstering the capabilities of the Egyptian military. Le Drian was quoted in the statement as saying that “Egypt and France are one thing. This is a message that we want to stress."

The military cooperation between Egypt and France

Egypt is France’s number one weapons customer. In just 18 months, Egypt ordered roughly US $8 billion worth of French weapons and services. During the current visit of President Hollande, France and Egypt signed 1 billion euros (US $1.12 billion) worth of deals with France to purchase warships and a military satellite.

One of the contracts sees French naval shipbuilder DCNS build four naval vessels, including two Gowind corvettes. The value of this contract is estimated at between 300 and 400 million euros. DCNS, which is mostly owned by the French state, has already sold four small Gowinds to Cairo in 2014.

As part of another deal worth around 600 million euros, Airbus Space Systems (part of European plane maker Airbus Group), and defense group Thales will jointly supply Cairo with a military telecommunication satellite. It was initially reported that Egypt was in talks to buy two French military satellites, but Cairo found the bill too expensive, with Russia and South Korea providing cheaper offers.

Military cooperation between the two countries began in early 2014 with the purchase of four Gowind corvettes, derived from the DCNS L’Adroit offshore patrol vessel. The value of the contract is estimated at about €1 billion, but the corvettes will also add €400 million worth of MBDA’s MICA Vertical Launch air-defense missiles and MM-40 Exocet anti-ship missiles, and DCNS’ torpedoes for €100-200 million. Deliveries are scheduled to start in 2017.

In February 2015, Egypt became the first export buyer of the Dassault Rafale, with an order of 24 aircraft. Paris has already delivered six of the multi-role combat jets to Cairo. It was reported that half of the funding for the deal would be financed by French banks, while the remainder will be paid from the Egyptian side.

In February 2015, Cairo also signed a deal to purchase a FREMM (Frégate Européenne Multi-Missions) multipurpose frigate. The FREMM frigate, the Tahya Misr, was delivered in June 2015. 

In October 2015, the two countries signed a deal for the sale of two French Mistral helicopter carriers whose sale to Russia was cancelled by Paris due to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The first Mistral will land in Egypt in June 2016.

In March 2016, Egypt and France conducted joint military exercise in the Mediterranean in which the Rafale warplanes that were purchased by Cairo last year took part.

Summary

Ties with the United States plummeted after Egypt's army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, with Washington freezing its annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Egypt has learned its lessons and decided to reduce the overreliance on one provider (the US) and diversifying the sources of Egypt’s armaments became a strategic priority. As a part of the new Egyptian policy, France became a significant source of arms supply.

Egypt has one of the biggest armed forces in the Middle East and the current arm deals will help Egypt to upgrade and modernize its military hardware.

Egypt’s traditional reliance, since 1979, on US arms and assistance may be gradually shifting towards other players such as France, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and Russia. The increasing number of Egypt’s armament deals with France represents a concrete step by Egypt to decrease its reliance on US defense capabilities and may indicate a change in the regional balance of power.

Egypt faces chronic economic problems and is heavily dependent on outside support. A main question is who will pay for Egypt’s prospective military deals and upgrades?

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are the largest arms market in the world and the buying powers of the wealthy Sunni states stretch beyond their own borders.

Egypt is the most populous Arab state with the strongest armed forces in the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states see Egypt as a pillar of the moderate Sunni coalition in the conflict with Iran over the geostrategic dominance in the region and the threat of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Therefore, the stability of the El-Sisi regime in Egypt and the military strength of Egypt are strategic interests of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the Egyptian military overthrew President Morsi in 2013, several Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have provided substantial financial aid to shore up the Egypt's embattled economy. The newly acquired high-tech equipment will give Egypt a formidable advantage and place it ahead of other Arab militaries.

The second question is why a country like Egypt, with very few naval or aerial threats, is seeking such extraordinary military hardware, especially as it is not intensely involved — militarily at least — in regional conflict in Syria, or even Libya.

There are a few arguments that answer this question. Egypt throughout most of its history was a regional power and President El-Sisi want to return Egypt to a leading position. This is manifested in his investments in the Armed Forces and mega projects like the new Suez Canal, Dabaa nuclear plant, the bridge that will connect Sinai with Saudi Arabia the new capital, and so on.

As a leading regional power, Egypt is building its military capabilities as a response to the other regional military powers like Israel, Iran and Turkey and not just as a direct response to the current threats to the national security of Egypt.

Israel has a fundamental interest in the peace agreement with Egypt and the reliance of Egypt upon the United States. Egypt’s current arms buying policy is based on increased dependence on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. At present, as the interests of Israel, Egypt and the Gulf State are aligned because of Iran and radical Islam, do not anticipate damage to Israel’s security interests.

However, in the long term, this trend is liable to give Egypt more room to maneuver and act against Israeli interests and a reduction in Egypt’s dependence on the United States will be against the strategic interests of Israel.

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