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Military Threats to Israel: Egypt

(Updated August 2011)

Islamic activism is deeply rooted in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political movement which advocates a gradual process of Islamicization, was first established in Egypt in 1928 and still maintains a strong presence in Egypt.

Since 1992, these Muslim extremists have targeted elements within Egyptian society they consider foreign or anti-Muslim. Their activities have been characterized by deadly attacks on tourists, journalists, secular intellectuals, government officials and Coptic Christians. Since the onset of this wave of violence, almost 1,000 people have been killed. Following the conviction of Egyptian cleric Sheikh Abdel Rahman in the New York City terrorist plot, Egyptian followers vowed to seek revenge on American targets.

While Egypt remains formally at peace with Israel and honors its Camp David commitments, Cairo has nevertheless amassed a substantial offensive military capability in recent years. Prudent Israeli military planners have no choice but to carefully monitor Egypt's buildup, should regional events take a dramatic turn for the worse. If the present regime in Cairo should be overthrown, the prospect for continued stable relations with Israel would diminish substantially.

Despite its status as a U.S. ally, Egypt has purchased Scud missiles from North Korea and is thought to possess chemical weapons. Its army, air force and navy now field a wide range of the most sophisticated Western arms, many identical to Israel's own weapons. Egyptian forces recently staged large-scale military training exercises which included simulated operations crossing into the Sinai against an unnamed adversary to the east.

In December 2003, Israel protested Egypt's use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, to spy on Israeli military facilities. Israel reportedly threatned to shoot down the drones whose flights violate the peace treaty and prompted increased concern over Egypt's military buildup.

A 2003 study by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies reported that Egypt's air force has undergone the most significant modernization of any military in the Arab world. "From the point of view of weapon systems," the author concluded, "the military-technological gap between the Egyptian and Israeli Air Forces is gradually narrowing." In addition, the “Egyptian Air Force’s increasing confidence is reflected in its acquisition of aircraft for deep-penetration strikes into enemy territory.”

Earlier in the year, Egypt requested F15 jets armed with JDAM (joint direct attack munition) "smart" bombs. These sophisticated weapons were used by U.S. forces in the 2003 war with Iraq. The Bush Administration has not agreed to the request to date, in part because of Israeli protests, and intelligence showing that Israel was the "enemy" in all of Egypt's war games.

Egypt purchased $6.5 billion worth of arms between 2001 and 2004. By comparison, Israel spent $4.4 billion. Egypt now has some of the most sophisticated U.S.-made weapons, including Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter planes, and Apache attack helicopters.

Sources: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Jerusalem Post, (December 21, 2003); Shai Feldman and Yiftah Shapir, Eds., The Middle East Military Balance, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001); Anthony Cordesman, "Syrian Military Forces and Capabilities," Center for Strategic and International Studies, (April 15, 2003); Shmuel L. Gordon, “Dimensions of Quality A New Approach to Net Assessment of Airpower,” Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Memorandum No. 64, (May 2003); Aluf Benn, “Israel worried about possible new Russia-Syria arms deals,” Haaretz, (October 26, 2005).