Home Furnishings and Body Armour
At the end of November, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi opened the second Egypt Defence Expo (EDEX). The former field marshal delivered a perfunctory welcome, but the importance of the event was clear. Egypt is the world’s third largest arms importer (after Saudi Arabia and India). Shopping around the international arms bazaar is one way it manages its relations with its patron states. After the 2013 coup that brought the army back to power – and the souring atmosphere in Washington over Sisi’s human rights record – Egypt started weaning itself off American weapons. By the time of the first Defence Expo in 2018, France was its biggest supplier. Sisi’s spending spree has also brought in German submarines, Italian frigates and Russian armaments, far exceeding Egypt’s actual defence needs.
EDEX was run with the help of Clarion Events, a British company. The expo’s sponsors included France’s Dassault and America’s Lockheed Martin. Firms from China, Russia, India and Pakistan were also present. There’s nothing like an arms fair for getting geopolitical rivals to put aside their differences. I stopped at a Jordanian booth, where a few Egyptian officers invited me to join them in trying out a shoulder-held rocket launcher designed for desert use. The firm’s representative was Russian. I pointed out the irony of so many adversaries coming together under one giant roof to sell each other weapons. ‘We are just a business,’ she said.
France has lent Egypt billions of euros to buy arms from French companies – most recently for thirty Dassault Rafale fighter jets. Macron has said that ‘the heart of our relationship is fighting terrorism’ in North Africa. According to a French intelligence report leaked last month, however, Egyptian forces in the Libyan Desert are chiefly concerned with stopping migrants and smugglers. Then again, that’s the de facto deal Egypt has sold its European partners. A senior European envoy in Cairo recently told me he was ‘grateful’ for all that Egypt did to ‘keep back the highway’ of African and Arab migrants. European reprimands over Egypt’s thousands of political prisoners, he said, wouldn’t fundamentally change a relationship based on investment and mutual security.
The French stand – the largest foreign concession at the fair along with the Emirati display – was roped off and minders turned away journalists’ questions. But the Egyptian stands were packed: with cadets in heavy gold epaulettes, soldiers modelling new fatigues, and officers who normally go nowhere near the foreign press. The army-owned Egyptian National Company was founded in 2019. A general showed me its anti-sniper suits that were designed to protect soldiers clearing roadside bombs in the North Sinai, where Egyptian forces have been fighting Islamist militants for years. He said the expo should ‘raise awareness about everything the army does to put Egypt on top of the world’, handing me a glossy catalogue of ‘textiles, home furnishings and body armour’. ‘Pure Egyptian cotton,’ he said, showing me a swatch.
Egypt’s army is increasingly ‘just a business’. It runs restaurants, produces TV series, builds holiday resorts, and manufactures pasta and other foodstuffs. Army-owned ventures don’t pay tax, and their financing is mostly a black box – much like the true scale of the defence budget. Probably its largest project is building a new capital city in the desert outside Cairo. It’s projected to cost $60 billion and cover an area the size of Paris. The gargantuan undertaking, which includes a vast new presidential palace topped by a small pyramid, has been funded in part by shaking down Egypt’s top plutocrats. When I toured the construction site recently, the former army officer showing me around bragged that the authorities had released Hisham Talaat Mustafa – a multibillionaire real estate tycoon jailed for ordering the murder of his ex-girlfriend – in return for his investing in the city.
EDEX – like the charade of a new ‘national human rights strategy’ – is mostly about the optics. Only minor deals seem to come out of it: Korean howitzers, maybe, after Sisi met with the chief of Hanwha Defence. But the opening ceremony treated delegates to a dramatic video, declaring the weapons expo proof that Egypt was again a ‘major regional power’ and ‘revitalising tourism’, as shots of European holidaymakers were intercut with military manoeuvres by land, sea and air. A diva in a black gala dress delivered a song scripted by the army’s moral affairs department: ‘Nous sommes ici pour chanter pour la paix.’
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Egypt can’t use oil money to fund its ambitions to rebuild as a regional economic and military power; instead, it has taken on vast amounts of debt. Army-led investments have inflated the economy’s growth figures, while the private sector is shrinking and Egyptians are getting poorer. This raises questions about the country’s future: how much longer can the show go on?