The U.S. Obama administration sent a double message last month when it resumed military aid to Egypt.
The most populous Arab nation will now receive F-16 jets, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Abrams tank upgrade kits withheld following the military ouster of its elected president in July 2013. Starting in 2018, however, its army will no longer be allowed to buy weapons on credit, a privilege enjoyed since the 1979 peace accord with Israel.
“It is back to business, but not back to business as usual,” Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.
The move reflects the decision to support Egypt against Islamists militants while recognizing that the country is not as central to U.S. interests as it was when President Jimmy Carter brokered an accord to end a 30-year conflict with Israel, analysts say. The U.S. is also trying to steer Egypt’s military away from conventional weapons toward equipment useful in counter-terrorism.
“Previously it was thought that Egypt could lead the region to peace,” Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said. “No one has this illusion any more. The concern today is: we want to support Egypt because we don’t want it to fail.”
Egypt received $42 billion in U.S. military aid through 2013, according to a Congressional Research Service report. In addition to honoring its treaty with Israel, Egypt has granted the U.S. use of its airspace, expedited transit in the Suez Canal and served as a reliable ally.
After President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, ties with the U.S. frayed. Washington began to build relations with the Muslim Brotherhood government. It took a dim view of the 2013 army-led ouster of Mohamed Mursi, the country’s first freely-elected president and a Brotherhood leader, while stopping short of calling his removal from power a coup.
U.S. President Barack Obama later ordered a halt and review of the military aid. Last month, that review concluded with the resumption of aid minus the right to buy military equipment on credit, a privilege that only Israel will enjoy.
To be sure, the move can be reversed when a new American administration takes over after the 2016 election. The U.S. is also maintaining businesses ties with Egypt, sending its biggest-ever trade delegation to the Arab country in November with executives from companies such as Apache Corp and Coca-Cola Co.
For military aid, the White House said the goal was to “modernize” the relationship. As White House officials put it, it would now have “more flexibility” to tailor its assistance. Egypt said at the time that the resumption of aid helps “achieve the common interests of the two countries, especially those related to fighting extremism and terrorism.”
The U.S. listed the areas it planned to focus on as counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security. The last is a reference to the peninsula that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry referred questions on military ties with the U.S. to the Defense Ministry. A spokesman for Egypt’s armed forces did not answer requests for comment. Hossam Sweilam, a retired general and a Cairo-based military analyst, said strings attached to U.S. aid amount to “an unwelcome interference in Egyptian internal affairs.” “We should set our priorities ourselves,” he said by phone.
The shift in ties is occurring at a time when Egypt is struggling to reclaim its position as a leading Arab power, a role now occupied by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Its economy has been battered since the ouster of Mubarak as investors and tourists stayed away, leaving the government reliant on aid from its oil-rich Arab allies.
The readiness of the U.S. to maintain relations under a Muslim Brotherhood administration elected in 2012 was seen by many as a sign of support for Islamists, triggering a wave of anti-American conspiracy theories.
In August 2013, for example, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper ran a front page story on an alleged U.S. plot to bring 300 fighters from Gaza to spread chaos in Egypt. The paper said the scheme was a joint effort by the former U.S. ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt “has been very frustrated with the Obama administration since 2011,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Starting with the seeming U.S. acceptance and backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the freezing of the aid.”
In a sign of that frustration, in late 2011, the Egyptian authorities raided offices of U.S. pro-democracy groups, including the International Republican Institute, and put at least 16 U.S. workers on trial.
Less than a year later, Obama said he did not consider Egypt either an “ally” or an “enemy.”
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who led Mursi’s ouster as defense minister before winning the country’s presidential election last year, made appeals to Washington. In interviews with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, he talked about Egypt’s “dire” need for military equipment.
“We are keen on a strategic relationship with the U.S. above everything else,” he told the Wall Street Journal last month. “And we will never turn our backs on you — even if you turn your backs on us.”
The planned change in U.S. assistance criteria means that the Egyptian army will not be able to use U.S. aid to boost its traditional military machine. Instead, the U.S. wants the armed forces “to start buying equipment that will help fight militancy in Sinai and protect the Libya border,” said Michael Horowitz, senior analyst at the geopolitical risk consultancy Max Security Solution.
“There was a lot of unhappiness in the U.S. administration with the way the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship was operating for years,” Dunne said. “There was frustration with how the Egyptian government was choosing to spend the funds.”
Egypt has been fighting a decade-long Islamist insurgency in North Sinai that has surged since 2013. While the army has said it killed hundreds of militants, deadly attacks on security checkpoints have continued on a near weekly basis.
For their part, U.S. officials said last month that they would continue to engage with Egypt on human rights and political reforms.
Not everyone is persuaded that this is serious.
“It will be understood in Egypt that we can go on doing whatever we like with human rights issues and with democracy issues,” Tadros said. “Because at the end of the day no one is going to destroy the relationship with Egypt over these issues.”