An Egyptian expatriate friend asked me recently about the state of the Egyptian military back home.
It's a difficult question. The military has always been mysterious, and that's just as true in respect to its business interests as its military capabilities. The former, however, appears to be more jealously guarded than the latter.
Nevertheless, several events reported recently by the local media may offer some answers, and they aren't encouraging.
This week the Egyptian air force has found itself trying to explain a series of sonic booms in the sky over our cities. The military says it was a live-fire air defense drill. But amid the jokes -- Egyptians always joke -- rumors began to surface that our airspace had been breached by Israeli fighter jets, given that the Air Force never schedules exercises during national holidays. This prompted the Army spokesperson to issue a series of statements rejecting the rumors. In the process he noted that regional instability and the recent bombing of an arms factory in Sudan (possibly by said Israeli jets, which might well have dodged Egyptian radars on their way south) have made it "essential for Egypt's armed forces to be kept in a state of readiness." Regardless of the real reasons behind it, the entire event speaks volumes: Many Egyptians don't seem prepared to believe official statements any longer.
By contrast, there's no doubt at all about two other events that happened earlier this month. "Egypt army amphibious vehicles sink in Suez Canal," reported Al-Ahram on October 11. According to the article, the engine of one of the tanks failed during a training exercise; the soldiers abandoned ship, but an officer was unable to exit and drowned. The other vehicle, somehow, "capsized when the crew tried to assist their comrades."
Then three days later, on October 14, came the following story (originally in Al-Masry Al-Youm, in Arabic): "Army vehicle stolen at gunpoint in Arish." The five-line item informs us that an SUV without license plates effectively hijacked a military vehicle, forcing the car to stop and its passengers to exit. The thieves took off with the vehicle to an unknown destination.
It's a sad state of affairs when the army deployed in the Sinai -- arguably Egypt's most critical and active front -- has such a low level of readiness. The only way for an army to reach the pathetic point where military personnel in a military vehicle are unable to defend themselves from carjackers is through years and years of utter neglect and complacency -- a situation, in short, in which the army upper echelon is more concerned about what's happening in the army-owned pasta factory than in basic training.
This reality feels even more painful in the light of the recent October 6 remembrance celebrations earlier this month. It was in 1973, 39 years ago, that the Egyptian army heroically crossed the Suez Canal during the 1973 war.
Ultimately, the cost of this laxity is borne by the army's rank and file. Like the junior officer who drowned with the armored vehicle; or more dramatically, events like the August attack by militants on a border post that left 16 Egyptian guards dead and stole a tank.
Military operations are continuing in the Sinai as I write this, so I think these are important things to keep in mind. Lives, after all, are at stake.
They are also worth keeping mind when we hear grandiose speeches about Egypt's military might -- and when we hear the occasional rhetorical threat to cancel the peace treaty with Israel.
Not to mention when someone declares that Egyptians should march on Jerusalem....
Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.