Since taking power, Egypt’s President Sisi has invested heavily in acquiring a variety of advanced materiel for his country’s armed forces, in addition to embarking on major infrastructure projects that cannot be justified in civilian terms alone. Cairo’s purchases, writes Yagil Henkin, do not suggest a military equipping itself to fight irregular forces—such as the Islamic State insurgents Egypt currently faces in the Sinai, or the insurgent groups it might have to fight in Libya. Furthermore, the infrastructure buildup is overwhelmingly in the east, in and near Sinai, rather than near the borders with Libya or Sudan. Henkin seeks to explain what might motivate Sisi, and how Jerusalem should react:
It’s hard to tell what’s driving the Egyptian military buildup. There are many possible reasons for a military buildup . . . : preserving [Egypt’s] status in the Arab world, . . . creating an infrastructure for future Russian deployment [in Egypt’s borders], preparation for a conflict with Israel or for the re-militarization of the Sinai, [and] strengthening the internal status of the government and the ruling class, in a country in which the army is, in many ways, the state itself. . . .
President Sisi has stated that he is not afraid of an invasion because no organized army is threatening Egypt, but that Egypt needs a big army due to the unstable situation and the “vacuum” in the Middle East. According to his statements, the Egyptian buildup partially can be interpreted as [preparation] for the rapid deployment of troops throughout the Middle East. Sisi has indeed declared his support of a united Arab force to deal with problems in the Middle East, and said that Egypt will play a part in this force. . . . However, the bulk of the Egyptian army is built as a heavy mechanized and armored force, and will not be able quickly to reach other countries, from Libya to Saudi Arabia. . . .
[T]he upshot is that Israel must maintain a basic capacity for mechanized warfare against modern armies. It must not assume that the present situation, in which Israel has had a crushing material military advantage versus its enemies (as in the Second Lebanon War and in recent wars against Hamas), will remain the same against other possible adversaries. . . . If the Muslim Brotherhood had remained in power in Egypt and had succeeded in carrying out an Erdogan-like revolution (that is, the purging of the army and bringing it under Brotherhood control), Israel would have found itself much more concerned [than it is now]. . . .
Israel must keep a careful eye on the changes in Egypt and their implications; and, at the same time, increase cooperation with Egypt as much as possible. Cooperation does not necessarily prevent future conflict, but it reduces misunderstandings and creates de-facto alliances. Such alliances reduce the chances of unintentional escalation. In other words, Israel’s great challenge is to maintain and improve relations with Egypt, and at the same time be prepared, without causing unintended escalation, for a situation in which the optimistic scenarios do not materialize.