Pursuing alternatives to American weapons

Egypt purchased two French warships at the end of September and rumors of new arms deals have since been circulating.


AIN reported on Monday that Egypt and France were negotiating the sale of an undisclosed number of French NH90 helicopters. The purchases are largely seen as an attempt to decrease the nation’s reliance on American arms.


France also sent Egypt three Rafale fighter jets in July, as part of a 5.2 billion Euro deal. They were the first of a larger dispatch of 24 jets.


The deals between France and Egypt will be partially financed by the French government, with France loaning Egypt 3.2 billion Euro.


Egypt has also been turning to Russia for arms. Russia provided Egypt with a warship in August this year, and the two countries signed an arms deal worth US$3.5 million in September 2014.


Issandr Amrani, project director at the International Crisis Group, believes that over the last two years Egypt has made a concerted effort to increase its sources of weapons, so as to reduce reliance on the US.


Amrani sees this as both a political and strategic move. “Weapons deals aren’t necessarily only about getting weapons, they are also about building relationships with the nations that are supplying them. Especially with all these purchases from France, Egypt is acquiring something that the Saudis and Emiratis wanted, the support of a major European power.”


But amid Egypt’s quest for new alliances, the US has sought to reiterate its support, as evidenced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Cairo in August, when he met with his Egyptian counterpart and emphasized the importance of counterterrorism and maintaining Egypt’s security.


The US has continued to supply Egypt with arms and is still the primary source of military aid to Egypt. This assistance was temporarily suspended following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, due to US laws prohibiting the supply of aid to an unelected government.


But in April, the US decided to release twelve F-16 aircrafts, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 tank kits that had been delayed since October 2013. Legally, the US was able to do this because of a clause in the 2014 budget that allowed the law to be waived if in the interest of American national security. 



At the same time, especially in the aftermath of the military’s killing of 12 tourists in the Western desert in mid September, some members of the American political establishment queried US military aid to Egypt.


Forbes reported that the Egyptian military most likely used US military equipment to kill the tourists, specifically US-supplied Apache helicopters. The article also stated, “there seems to be a real question whether such weapons are used in an indiscriminate way that kills innocent civilians and not just insurgents.”


PBS newshour also released an interview with Michele Dunne, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, following the killing, in which she criticized the Egyptian military and its operations against militants in Sinai.


“Frankly the Egyptian military’s operations just aren’t working. They don’t have a holistic strategy against the insurgency, they just seem to have ad hoc operations. There are reports of very large human rights violations, collective punishment and so forth going on. At the same time, the Egyptian military is fighting the insurgency in a way that is also … channeling more and more people towards these militant groups,” she asserted.


Dunne also explained that the US is attempting to exert more control over how its aid is used than it did in the past, but that the Egyptian military is reluctant to take US advice or training.


The issue of US military aid to Egypt being used to perpetrate human rights abuses in Sinai has largely been taken up in the US government by Senator Patrick Leahy, a democrat on the foreign aid subcommittee. Leahy in 2014 led a group of senators to demand that the Secretary of State push for access to Sinai for NGOs, journalists and officials in order to determine whether Egypt was committing human rights abuses using US weapons.  


The New York Times reported that in July 2015, Leahy sent a letter to Kerry asking whether America was violating US law by providing aid to countries that have committed human rights abuses with impunity.


The times quoted from Leahy’s letter which read, “According to information I have received, the number of militants has steadily increased, due, at least in part, to ineffective and indiscriminate operations by the Egyptian military and the lack of licit economic opportunities for inhabitants of the Sinai.”

Internal pressure from the US is unlikely to lead to the suspension of military aid, but the US is no longer going to provide the type of blank check to the military that it did in the past.

When Barack Obama called to inform Sisi that the US was restoring military aid to Egypt, he also told him that starting in 2018, aid to Egypt would have more strings attached. In 2018, the US plans to channel US military to Egypt towards equipment in four categories: counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security.

Amrani thinks that US interference in internal politics explains why Egypt is seeking alternative sources of arms and strengthening its political ties with other countries, particularly Russia.


“There’s definitely a malaise in the US-Egypt relationship. There is a sense among the senior ranks of the Egyptian military that the US, post-2011, showed by its readiness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government, by its progressive push towards democracy promotion, human rights promotion and so on, that it was too keen on intervening in Egypt’s internal affairs,” Amrani says.


Russia on the other hand, he explains, respects the sovereignty of states to the extent that it will not comment on the human rights or domestic situation, a sentiment that is appealing to the military establishment.


Amrani cites the recent statement by the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Syria as an example of this attitude. Sameh Shoukry strongly expressed Egypt’s support for Russia’s operations in Syria on Saturday, saying, “Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” reported Al-Arabeya.


Ultimately though, Amrani does not think Egypt’s attempts at varying its weapons sources will change its reliance on US military aid. “Egypt is diversifying its sources of weapons systems and military purchases. That’s not the same thing as military aid,” he said, adding, “No one is replacing US aid in terms of size when it comes to military procurement. The US basically underwrites US$1 billion of purchases of the American weapons industry annually. The Russians are not doing that, the French are not doing that.”


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