I spent the month of November 2007 in the Sinai desert as an American Army officer participating in Operation Bright Star, the multinational military exercise hosted by Egypt. Bright Star recently made headlines when the White House pulled out of this year’s rotation, signaling a withdrawal of support for the Egyptian government in the wake of its latest brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In the past, Bright Star has been a fairly routine, though large-scale training mission, but in light of its sudden relevance to geo-politics, I thought I’d offer some observations for the unacquainted.
Operation Bright Star is officially a biennial training mission for militaries with a significant stake in Middle Eastern affairs to show good faith and partnership by conducting joint training missions—the high point of which is the chance to observe painstakingly rehearsed, controlled explosions. It’s also a long-standing symbol of the partnership between Egypt and the United States, a means of cementing that relationship, and a chance for U.S. officials to observe some of the returns on the 1.3 billion dollars annually that Washington has given Cairo in aid.
At the dawn of the 1980’s following the Camp David Accords, Bright Star was conceived as a way for Egypt, the U.S., and partner states in the region and Europe to strengthen military ties ahead of any potential conflict. The exercise has grown massively in scale in the intervening years and now encompasses both the operational and tactical echelon, meaning that both generals and sergeants are fully engaged in the training scenario at their respective levels.
One enduring benefit of the exercise has been the opportunity for key leader engagements, the military term for hobnobbing. The opportunity for senior U.S. officers to meet and work alongside their Middle Eastern counterparts is of no small consequence. Recently, many profiles of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Commander of Egyptian forces and that state’s de facto political leader, made note of his time as a student at the U.S. Army War College in rural Pennsylvania, the Army’s final stop en route to promotion to the general ranks. He was a classmate of several current generals in the U.S. military, a factor that stands, at the very least, to color the nature of discussions between the countries and present channels outside of Washington for attempting to influence his decisions. Bright Star presents the opportunity for sharing doctrine, tactics, and analysis, but at its core it has always been focused on personal engagement and fostering relationships that may yield diplomatic opportunities—or, as appears to be the case now, may not.
Back in 2007, my own trip to Egypt was mostly spent coordinating transportation for VIPs passing through the Cairo airport en route to the good stuff (machine guns!) that I thought I might get to do before I was handed the clipboard and charged with travel arrangements. The lack of excitement didn’t bother me too much, and I didn’t mind the opportunity to visit the Middle East again under different circumstances. Bright Star came only about a year after I returned from a twelve-month deployment as a platoon leader in Iraq, charged with clearing the IED-riddled highways surrounding the Baghdad International Airport. Back in the desert again, I was wearing a suit rather than 25 lbs of body armor, and a walkie-talkie instead of a Beretta 9mm pistol.
The point of Bright Star from my vantage was less about the tactical aspect of joint training or any benefits to military preparedness, it was fundamentally about preserving our relationship with Egypt by making it personal and seeing to it up close. It was a lesson about partnership that I’d learned in Iraq and I liked getting the chance to once again interact with foreign militaries, albeit with Pakistani paratroopers in Egypt rather than Polish infantrymen in Iraq.
I have two souvenirs from the Middle East. From Iraq, I brought back the pieces of shrapnel pulled from my HMMWV following two IED attacks on a string of bad days. Next to the shrapnel sits a yellow booklet depicting two ancient Egyptian figures that reads in big block letters “SOLDIER’S GUIDE EGYPT,” filled with warnings about the ways Americans might run afoul of Egyptian mores and sensitivities. It’s a different sort of relic, from a time before the Arab Spring, before Mubarak was deposed and Morsi ascended, before Morsi was deposed and the army took over. The warnings in the Egyptian guidebook aren’t about shrapnel, they’re guidelines for not offending friends.