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With Obama Gone, Trump Pentagon Resumes Major Egyptian War Game

The Bright Star exercise will focus on counterterrorism, key for the battle in the Sinai Peninsula.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In the latest sign the Trump administration is looking to overturn Obama-era policy at home and abroad, the U.S. military is preparing to restart a long-running military exercise with Egypt after President Barack Obama cancelled it in 2013 to protest the killing of hundreds of protesters in Cairo.

The restart next month of the biennial Bright Star exercise, a bilateral effort now focused on counterterrorism operations, comes as Egypt struggles to contain a potent insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula. Though Egypt may invite other countries such as Sudan as observers, only U.S. and Egyptian forces will take the field, U.S. defense officials said.

The renewal comes just months after Trump welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House in April, showering him with praise for fighting extremists at home and in North Africa. The Obama administration struggled to craft a coherent policy toward Egypt after the 2011 uprising there, abandoning longtime U.S. support for ousted President Hosni Mubarak, then warily embracing the democratically elected Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, then growing distant from Sisi after the military reasserted control in 2013.

Unlike in past years, however, Bright Star will feature a smaller U.S. military footprint, a U.S. official with knowledge of the planning told Foreign Policy, with “several hundred” personnel taking part, as opposed to the thousands that deployed from the early 1980s until it was called off.

In previous years, hundreds of U.S. airborne troops dropped into the Egyptian desert and Marines stormed the beaches; the largest Bright Star took place in 1999 and included about 70,000 troops from 11 nations.

But there’s little need for that kind of show this time around, said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Cairo has no real peer threat in the region, but its borders with Libya and Sudan are increasingly causes for concern. Instead, battling Islamist terrorists who have gobbled up parts of the Sinai Peninsula is Cairo’s main worry — yet proving a tough task for Egypt’s traditionally focused military.

The work next month will be focused primarily on counterterrorism, detecting and eliminating roadside bombs, and border security operations — all tasks crucial to ending the yearslong insurgency in Sinai, which has seen the influx of Islamic State fighters and funding over the past two years. The largest group in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, is responsible for dozens of roadside bombs and other attacks, and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in late 2014. The group currently controls large swaths of the peninsula.

“The Egyptian military has been fighting and losing an insurgency in the Sinai for the last several years,” Schenker said, and has shown little interest in restructuring its large and lumbering military to fight an entrenched insurgency. “A smaller exercise focused on these highly technical things is the best thing that Egypt could get.”

The exercise was last held in 2009, as Cairo called off the 2011 event due to the Egyptian revolution that eventually ousted Mubarak, and president Obama halted the follow-on event in 2013 after Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of civilian protesters.

Obama is widely seen as having given Sisi the cold shoulder. But he’d started to roll back some of the penalties imposed on Egypt well before Trump took office. In March 2015, he ended the freeze on $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, resuming the shipment of F-16 fighter planes, Abrams tanks, Harpoon missiles, and other equipment.

Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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