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The Egyptian Threat and the Prospects for War
in the Middle East

Shawn Pine
Policy Paper No. 110, 2000


In September 1999, Brigadier-General Amos Gilad, head of the research division of military intelligence, reported that Egypt, despite its massive military build-up, was not seen as a threat to Israel. Unfortunately, Gilad's remarks were not an isolated utterance. Indeed, it appears that Israeli strategic planners have taken an exceedingly myopic view vis-à-vis Egypt. For the past two decades, while Israeli intelligence and strategic planners have been asleep, Egypt has systematically reinvented its military in order to position itself to achieve its strategic objectives. Indeed, history may note that the failure of Israeli intelligence and strategic planners to anticipate, preempt, and formulate a viable response to the two-decade long Egyptian military build-up was its greatest blunder, rivaling in its failure to anticipate and respond to Egyptian intentions prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

This article analyzes the congruence between Egyptian intentions (regional strategic objectives), and its capabilities (military force). Egypt has three medium and long-term strategic objectives. First, Egypt desires to create a credible deterrent to counter regional military threats. Second, it desires to supplant Israel and become the primary strategic partner of the United States in the region. Finally, it hopes to reassert its historic leadership role and become the regional hegemony. Egypt is entering a period in which it has a window of opportunity to achieve its medium and long-term strategic goals. The external destruction of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, the internal turmoil of Iran following the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the deaths of Hafez Assad of Syria and King Hussein of Jordan, have opened a window of opportunity for Egypt to reassert its leadership role of the Arab world and emerge as the regional leadership.

Ironically, the only threat to Egypt's regional supremacy is Israel. Only Israel possesses the requisite technological expertise, economic might, and military superiority to challenge Egypt. For this reason Egypt has a vested interest to insure that Israel is not assimilated into the region. In this respect, Israel and Egypt are engaged in a zero-sum game, in which Israel's assimilation into the region weakens Egypt's ability to achieve its strategic objectives. This accounts for Egypt's incessant anti-Israeli rhetoric and its vociferous opposition to Israel in virtually every area.

Compounding the challenge to Israel is the massive regional influx of state-of-the-art Western military hardware, in unprecedented quantities. This unfettered, massive proliferation of modern Western weaponry is shifting the regional balance of power in favor of the Arab states. This is especially true in the case of Egypt. Today, Egypt can field a military that rivals Israel in both quantity and quality. Only recently have Israeli strategic planners realized the growing confluence between Egyptian strategic objectives and its ability to project the requisite force to achieve those objectives. However, Israeli concerns are muted by the conflicting messages it is sending to the United States and other Western allies.

Unless current trends are reversed, the prospects of a future Arab-Israeli war will increase exponentially as more and more weapons find their way to the Middle East. This will occur regardless of the outcome of the current peace process. Indeed, it appears that the Israeli policy of withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, without achieving real peace, will only exacerbate the likelihood of future conflict.

For the complete article (in English), click here.