BEIRUT

Middle East

Egypt's most senior military commander promises army overhaul

Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi meets with Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo August 22, 2012. (REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout)

CAIRO: Egypt's most senior military commander has promised better training and more modern weaponry for the army in an apparent effort to satisfy officers' demands for change, which have multiplied after an uprising last year.

Commander-in-Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also the defence minister, was appointed by the country's first Islamist president Mohamed Mursi only last month and is under pressure to shake up a military which until recently had held the balance of power in Egypt for decades.

Addressing troops last week during the first military drill in a series to mark the 39th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel, Sisi tried to reassure troops that change was on its way despite the fact that the drill was being conducted using old weaponry such as the Soviet BM-21, a rocket launcher which has been in service for 40 years.

"We will devise a comprehensive programme that develops real training for the forces in all military branches to maximise the performance of individual officers and soldiers during my time here," he said, according to a live recording of his speech obtained by Reuters on Saturday.

Addressing troops participating in the drill, which took place along Egypt's western border with Libya, Sisi, 57, acknowledged that Egypt's military capabilities trailed those of other armies.

The army would replace some of its arsenal within 3-6 months and was working to extend the range of a missile system known as "Saqr" to 45 kilometres, he said.

"Regarding the status of our military equipment, we may feel that some of it is modest but we must work with what arsenal we have. We will not be able to change all of our hardware completely. What we can do is achieve the highest standards of shooting and efficiency. This will compensate for the modest equipment we are gradually trying to replace," he said.

Egypt receives $1.3 billion in military aid annually from the United States but officials say that is not enough for the country to keep up with rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Officers have said the U.S. money benefits American arms manufacturers as it forces Egypt to buy outdated weaponry.

Sisi's comments appeared to be aimed at army officers who have said they view Egypt's revolution - which toppled veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak last year - as their own chance to win better salaries and improved conditions and training.

Sisi is also under pressure to tighten up security in the Sinai Peninsula, a desert area which borders Israel, and to crack down hard on Islamist militants operating there.

President Mursi sacked Sisi's predecessor, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi last month along with other senior military and police officials after an attack blamed on Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards in the area.

Israel, which has repeatedly urged Egypt's new rulers to tackle the Sinai problem is looking on nervously and is uneasy that Egypt is now being governed by Islamists.

Israeli troops used to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, the scene of several conflicts between it and Cairo, but withdrew in 1982.

To many officers, Sisi's words were a break with previous senior commanders who had been criticised for not developing the army's capacities.

Unlike previous drills, Sisi organised a discussion between lower ranking officers and commanders to try to ensure that lessons were learned and that the concerns of officers were heard.

One commander later remarked that Sisi "had introduced a new approach" to communications between officers and their superiors.

Officers say Sisi's elevation to the country's most senior military role upset many senior commanders who had a longer and richer record of service than him.

Earlier this month, Sisi - in coordination with Mursi - issued a list of long-serving generals who he said would retire, opening the door to more promotions, local papers reported.

 

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