Silence over arms: Egypt's secret pact with Europe

Al-Sisi's strategy: reducing arms dependence on the United States

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

The remnants of what was dubbed the 'Arab Spring' are still making waves in the arid Egypt. Since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president of the country after taking power in a coup d'état in 2013, Egypt has embarked on a journey to rearm and establish solid ties with its European 'neighbours'. 

In fact, from the moment Al Sisi was 'crowned' as Egypt's president (2014), EU countries and the UK began to increase arms sales, competing directly against the US, the country's largest supplier so far1.  

In total, between 2013 and 2020, arms licences worth $11 billion, or around €10.83 billion, were exported, and up to at least 54 arms sales deals, out of the 75 pre-established ones, were made - between 2014 and 2019-. The total figure for the country's total military expenditure is €13.5 billion. This has made Egypt the third largest arms importer in the world and the second largest in the Middle East and North Africa, after Saudi Arabia2

PHOTO/REUTERS - Members of the Egyptian Army stand next to a tank in a military convoy

However, in addition to European countries and the UK, Russia and China have also joined the arms race in Egypt. However, the main country with which Al-Sisi has maintained and continues to maintain strong relations is undoubtedly France, which between 2010 and 2019 became the country's main arms supplier - along with Russia - to the tune of more than 7.5 billion euros. Some of the weapons sold to the Arab country include 16 Super-530D missiles or 500 air-to-surface missiles and a FREMM frigate with 15 anti-ship missiles, among other examples. 

However, the most recent acquisition took place last May. France then confirmed the sale of 30 Dassault Rafale fighters. This is an addendum to the contract signed in 2015 and, as then, includes the delivery of associated equipment. In other words, an increasingly close link has gradually been forged between Europe and the Egyptian Ministry of Defence. Specifically, the fighters will arrive on Pharaonic soil over the next three years and the total sum of their sale comprises 3.95 billion euros, according to the French daily Disclose. 

REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES - A Rafale fighter of the French Air Force
Al-Sisi's objective

First and foremost, the former marshal's strategy aims to modernise the Egyptian military and thus reduce the country's still minor dependence on the United States. 

Despite the fact that the International Monetary Fund has had to act twice to rescue Egypt from bankruptcy, Al-Sisi continues to prioritise defence policy over all ministries. 

Although Egypt has a poor human rights record, it is legitimate to ask whether Egypt has managed to reform its relations with European governments through what is already being called the 'Silence for Arms' treaty. 

In this context it is worth noting the EU's need for the hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees that Egypt accepted in exchange for arms contracts. Indeed, according to a document leaked to the Arab media outlet Middle East Eyes, dated 2017, Sameh Shoukry, then head of the Foreign Ministry's office, even wrote notes linking Egypt's arms needs to the deal, specifically outside the official document that was subsequently signed.

In 2020, a year in which Europe was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, French President Enmanuel Macron stated that he would not make arms sales to Egypt conditional on human rights as his aim was not to weaken the country's military capacity in the region. 

REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES - File photo December 7, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Elysee Palace in Paris

Following Macron's announcement, France signed another 4 billion euro deal in 2021, adding another 30 fighter jets. 

For its part, Germany has increased arms sales to Egypt by as much as 205 per cent since 2013, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. In 2020, Italy signed a €10bn deal with Egypt that included the purchase of six 24 M3 frigates, 24 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets, a military industrial satellite and 20 Fajal II OPV missile launchers. 

Spain has exported more than €50 million in arms to Egypt since 2012 and has approved up to 46 licences for arms exports. It has also added 93 million euros to the above sum in recent years. On top of this, in 2021 arms manufacturer EM&E signed an agreement to supply naval and guided weapons to Egypt. 

Finally, the United Kingdom, which is no longer part of the European Union since Brexit, is also involved in this 'treaty', supplying Egypt with military equipment including machine guns, helicopters and parts for combat vehicles. 

Egypt has definitely become a key market for the defence industry in Europe, specifically for arms exports, after all: Business is Business, as the Anglo-Saxons would say.


1 - Until 2009, 75% of the country's military equipment depended solely on the United States. Since 2013, this percentage has fallen to 23%, according to SIPRI data.

2 - Whose military expenditure is apparently 17 times that of Egypt.