November 19, 2015
As I wrote the other day, the Al-Baghdadi Gang has truly found tragic ways to combine brutality with stupidity. Attacking Russia and France in the same month, as Robert Pape of the University of Chicago wrote in the Boston Globe, is clearly an indication of desperation. Dealing with his thugs is requiring a lot of bombs and thousands of troops, but Daesh has already lost a third of the ground it once held. Yet even after a Syrian or Iraqi or Kurdish flag is planted in Ar-Raqqa, some of those hoods will slip away to do damage elsewhere. Dealing with that will require mobile and agile forces, and that’s why we should reflect again on Egypt’s recent decision to acquire the two spare helicopter carriers that France has on hand. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate, strategic, and dramatic break with past patterns of military procurement in the Middle East.

For context, think about tanks. Many countries in the Middle East have big fleets, but with Egypt, it’s something special—perhaps 1,100 M1A1s, 700 M60s, and 1,200 T-62s. T-62s! True, the Gulf States may like to consider the Egyptian Army a pan-Arab strategic reserve. But all those tanks are overkill in Yemen, where Egypt’s role has been modest. A few hundred of those tanks could crush ISIS, but Egypt’s role in Syria has been non-existant. The Egyptians took no part in overthrowing Qaddafi in 2011; with that force they should have been able to roll over him, but they chose (perhaps wisely) no substantial role in that war. They don’t need that much armor for defense against the Sudanese. They certainly don’t need it for suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. An Israeli incursion is pretty implausible. In short, as Shana Marshall of George Washington University put it in 2013, “there's no conceivable scenario in which they'd need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.” So what’s the story?

As I wrote last year, the main reason that the Egyptians have kept getting more tanks is that the Americans, until very recently, had been paying for those tanks, as part of a lingering payoff from the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The old line generals were happy to take new tanks for the prestige they thought new tanks conferred. Maintaining an unhelpfully big army has let whatever government has been resident in Cairo avoid the obvious need to cut public payrolls and generate real economic activity. General Dynamics shareholders have done well from that ongoing venture, but American taxpayers not so much. For the generals, though, the prestige has gotten stale. For it’s not of Egypt that most of the world thinks when thinking of Arab military prowess. Today, it’s that Little Sparta of the UAE, with the training and mobility to make a difference at a distance.

Now Egypt seems to have something more strategic in mind. As is widely known, the Élysée palace announced in September that French President Hollande had concluded a deal with President Sisi for Egypt to buy, with Saudi funding, the two helicopter carriers denied to Russia for its occupation of Crimea. France, of course, now has all the more reason to care about Middle Eastern security. The Saudis are usually long on money, but short on qualified staff. Somewhere in that huge establishment the Egyptian military can find the sailors to crew two helicopter carriers, which as most French-designed ships, were built with considerable automation in mind. Maintaining marines on helicopter carriers around the Middle East has for decades been an American job—at American expense—so the burden-sharing will be greatly appreciated.

As my colleague Bilal Saab wrote this past summer in The New Containment, we might have thought that Egypt’s political influence had “sharply decreased due to the upheavals of the past four years,” but things are worse elsewhere. Syria and Iraq are torn asunder. Lebanon may have broken free from the Assadists, but it is still substantially controlled by Hezbollah. Libya might even fondly remember Qaddafi at this point. The Al-Baghdadi Gang’s stranglehold on a few provinces of Syria and Iraq may not last, but that degree of depravity can’t be allowed to take root elsewhere. Lasting security in the Middle East may be elusive without real political and economic development, but at some point, someone is going to need to dispatch some commandos, to create the space for that change. Egypt may be stepping up.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.