Egypt on Thursday concluded its second international weapons fair, as one of the Middle East’s largest armies looks to grow its arsenal while moving away from U.S. suppliers.
The four-day expo featuring hundreds of exhibitors comes as the country climbs the ranks of the world’s top arms importers. Egyptian authorities did not immediately announce any new weapons deals resulting from the fair.
Under Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the government has overseen a widespread crackdown on dissent while expanding the already significant role the military has played in society for decades.
The United States has tried to call the country out on its human rights records, while still maintaining a relationship it says is key to regional stability.
The Biden administration, like its predecessors, has raised human rights questions before releasing military aid and hardware to the country. El-Sissi, a former general, has begun to look elsewhere for firepower to maintain the Egyptian army's reputation as one of the region’s largest and standing forces.
Egypt has diversified away from American suppliers in recent years, according to Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s defense magazine. He said negotiations resulting from the expo are underway for Egypt to get South Korean-made howitzer artillery guns. On Monday, el-Sissi also met with the CEO of the South Korean maker of the guns, Hanwha Defense, according to Egypt's state news agency.
In September, the U.S. released nearly $200 million in military aid to Egypt but withheld another $130 million due to concerns over rights violations. American officials have long said that maintaining a relationship with Egypt is key to regional security.
Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, said that Egypt's “shopping spree" is not only about defense priorities.
El-Sissi is also buying “the goodwill of the seller nations and at the same time discouraging U.S. pressure on issues such as his horrific human rights and anti-democracy record,” Sayigh said in an emailed response to questions.
He said he believes the president is also trying to ensure the continued support of military officers.
In addition to a years-long fight against insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt has been expanding its naval powers after the discovery of significant gas deposits in its Mediterranean waters. Binnie said that the navy was the Egyptian military’s most neglected branch for decades.
He said that a lot of the new naval equipment Egypt has acquired has been from European countries but also Chinese and Russian suppliers; Italian frigates, German submarines, and French fighter jets are all on its shopping list.
Egypt’s military can be secretive about its holdings and facilities, and does not disclose any financial details related to its civilian projects.
According to a report spanning 2016-2020 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Egypt is in third place behind Saudi Arabia and India when it comes to buying weapons. Its imports grew by 136% in comparison to the previous five years.
Over that period, Russia has supplied 41% of Egyptian imports, France, has contributed 28% and the U.S. 8.7%, according to the report. For decades prior to 2016, the U.S. had been Egypt’s largest weapons supplier, with an annual $1.3 billion in military aid.
The wider Middle East is the fastest growing regional market for weapons, according to the peace research institute, with a regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran driving several conflicts, including civil war in Yemen.
At Egypt's weapons fair this week, a Russian firm showed off helicopters and a Chinese pavilion displayed air-to-surface missiles. The main event at a booth representing the United Arab Emirates was an armored vehicle meant to move through shallow water. Oleg Salapov, director of after-sales support at Russian Helicopters said that the expo was a good opportunity to show how existing fleets in the region, like Egypt’s, could be modernized.
Through the fair, Egypt is also trying to portray itself as producer of military equipment. That’s less realistic, according to analysts.
At the Egyptian pavilion, an engineer showed off the “RoboCat M300,” a robot that is meant to unearth improvised explosive devises buried up to a meter underground. Egyptian-made armored cars stood nearby.
Egypt is unlikely to reach significant military-grade production soon. At the last EDEX, held in 2018, Egypt won only minor contracts, according to Yazigh.
“I regard it generally as part of the el-Sissi administration’s wider public relation exercise,” he said.