Egypt’s geographical position endowed the country with a relatively large
maritime space, and the control over one of the most important water
passages in the world; the Suez Canal. This key position entails a double
approach reconciling economic interests and security threats in the
Mediterranean and Red Sea. The emerging challenges in the Middle East and
North Africa deriving from the globalization of terror, failed states, energy
security obligations and the increase of armed conflicts must be addressed
by adapting the political and military demands.

In recent years, political instability has led Egyptian institutions to focus on
internal security issues following the revolutions in 2011 and 2013 which had
undermined Egypt’s active role on the regional scene. However, since 2014
the Armed Forces have launched a significant modernisation program of the
entire military as part of a strategic plan aimed at meeting future geopolitical
aspirations and imposing Egypt as the only Arab country with the ability to
deal with political and security issues on a regional scale.

This new approach driven by growing economic, security and political
requirements implies a complete rethinking of the need to elaborate a real
Egyptian maritime policy, since the navy is considered one of the most
important military branches, offering a wide range of diplomatic instruments.
Therefore, the navy has experienced a significant development of its doctrine
over the past years, with the acquisition of two Mistral class carriers designed
for amphibious landing, command and force projection capabilities. This
ability offers Egypt naval forces the means to become a green-water navy,
capable of projecting power offshore in a regional range adding an offensive
dimension to the naval doctrine.

Egypt’s naval expansion strategy has evolved through time, and thus can not
be analyzed without a real understanding of the potential threats to Egyptian
national security. Three major factors must be taken into account in this
analysis:

Maritime and Coastal Assets

Egypt has a relatively large maritime space in the Mediterranean Sea and in
the Red Sea, having more than 2600km of coastline resulting in a highly
intense maritime traffic. This vast marine space gives Egypt various maritime
and coastal assets.

The discoveries of oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean continue to
increase in number year by year, and were recently marked by the discovery
of the giant Zohr field, holding up nearly 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. This field
alone could be worth around $100 billion, and represent the largest gas
discovery ever made in the Mediterranean. Through increasing its gas
reserve, Egypt seeks to become an energy hub in the region, following
massive foreign investments in the energy sector with more than 73 oil and
gas exploration deals signed in the past three years worth at least $15 billion.
These significant discoveries will lead to a remaking of regional alliances and
force Egypt’s neighbors to review their aspirations to become main gas
exporting countries.

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In December 2015 a summit between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece was held to
boost economic, energy and political cooperation, as a result of this changing
regional gas outlook. This diplomatic initiative undertaken by President AlSissi
was motivated mostly by the deterioration of the Egyptian – Turkish
relationships and Erdogan’s will to launch natural gas exploration in the
Mediterranean as early as 2014. Again this year, Turkey threatened to take
measures against Greece and Cyprus if explorations are carried out near the
Cypriot maritime spaces. These threats have pushed Egypt to elevate
cooperation with its allies to the military level. Later in 2016, Cypriot Defense
Minister visited Cairo where a military cooperation program was signed, while
Greek Naval and Air Forces conducted the joint military drill Medusa 2016 as
part of the framework of cooperation between the two countries to confront
the growing challenges in the Mediterranean.

It is clear that these new discoveries valued in multi-billion dollars in the
Mediterranean will attract the attention of state and non-state actors. On the
other hand, the Egyptian Navy has to establish a robust and constant
presence in the Mediterranean to face any challenges in disputed maritime
domains and to provide security to energy infrastructures, such as
safeguarding pipelines and gas fields.

Red Sea, a center of interest

Egypt is an important transit for global commerce through the Suez Canal
and the Red Sea, handling 8% of world trade. This reinforces the strategic
importance of this maritime route from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean.
The creation of an Egyptian southern fleet aims not only at protecting this
vital navigation route to international trade but also to face emerging threats
at the entrance of the Red Sea. Former assistant defense minister Hossam
Suweilam made a reference to a ’new Red Sea Strategy’ in order to impose
full control of territorial waters in this area and protect Egypt’s interests.

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Back in 2015, President Al-Sissi stated that securing the strategic Bab alMandab
Strait ‘is a battle of life and death’ for Egypt due to its political,
economic, military and strategic value. Gate to the Suez Canal, Bab alMandab
has witnessed various military activities over the past years. The
military intervention in Yemen has resulted in several operations undertaken
by the Houthis against UAE and Saudi ships in the Gulf of Aden leading to
constant threats in the area.

Meanwhile, western countries and Turkey include a geopolitical range in the
Red Sea, since it represents a primary oil artery and a world navigation route.
This leads to the second concern; the establishment of multiple foreign
military bases by the United States, China, France, Turkey and UAE in Eritrea,
Djibouti and Somalia. In fact, the presence of military from a hostile country
like Turkey, considering the current state of relations, in an area that has a
direct influence on the passage of ships towards the Suez Canal is going
against Egypt’s interests.

The creation of the southern fleet will represent a counter-weight to the
military incursion in the Horn of Africa, and implies the need for the Egyptian
navy to develop a strong and large fleet able to secure the entire Red Sea
space.

Turkish Naval Threat

In July 2017, Turkish President voiced his country’s ambition to build an
aircraft carrier as part of a Turkish navy massive modernization program,
undertaken since 2010, to upgrade its entire naval forces in term of structure,
technology and shipbuilding industry. If completed, this project would boost
the force projection capability of the Turkish Navy. This restructuring process
has been labelled ‘Turkish Armed Forces 2030 Vision’ which is part of
Erdogan’s plan to make of Turkey a regional military power.

Actually Turkey has the strongest naval forces in the Mediterranean and has
an advantage in terms of number and technology. Within its 2030 vision,
turkey is undertaking the construction of 12 multipurpose Ada-class
corvettes and light frigates as part of the MILGEM project (4 completed), 4
TF-2000 frigates designed for anti-aircraft warfare, 2 Bayraktar class landing
ships (1 completed) dedicated for amphibious missions and capable of
transporting 18 tanks, 1 TCG Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) that will be
capable of operating 12 F-35B stealth fighters, 12 helicopters and hosting 29
main battle tanks (MBT), while a 10-year program was launched in 2015 to
locally build 6 Type-214 submarines.

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The Turkish Navy is without a doubt becoming a regional military power and
seeks to impose a naval superiority in the Mediterranean. In this way, the
Egyptian naval expansion shows a real response to the Turkish naval
modernization, in case of any threat in the contested Cypriot maritime space
as Turkey is categorized as a hostile country by regional actors like Egypt,
Greece and Cyprus.

The Egyptian naval forces must respond to this emerging economic, political
and military considerations by developing its naval capability. Egypt’s will to
build a green-water navy is the first step to be in alignement with future
geopolitical aspirations and to respond to rising threats in the region. This
evolution implies an increase of military demands to complete the escort
group for the northern and southern fleets, in which the two Mistral- class
carriers are used as command and control ships. These escort fleets should
be able to perform anti-air and anti-submarine warfares and provide a
complete protection to both carriers inside and outside the Egyptian maritime
space. This new vision signals Egypt’s endeavor to enhance its role in the
region by establishing a constant presence in the Red Sea and the
Mediterranean in order to secure Egypt national security and if required,
conduct military expedition abroad. The naval expansion plan still has a long
way go to meet Egypt’s ambitions but it is going to reinforce the country’s
strategic role regionally on the long-term.

This article was written by Bassem A. Youssef El-Telawy. You can follow him on Twitter @BTelawy

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