For Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, more battle tanks and jet fighters are on their way from the United States.
Cairo’s military link to Washington has remained intact, meaning the U.S. will continue to modernize the biggest military in Africa — even as President Mohammed Morsi has decreed near-absolute power for himself and his supporters and opponents battle outside his palace.
Analysts say Egypt's military buildup presents risks for Washington — and Israel — with the growing influence of the Brotherhood, whose overriding goal is to establish Shariah, or Islamic, law worldwide.
A Pentagon statement to The Washington Times on Thursday said: “We are always reviewing our foreign assistance to make sure foreign assistance advances U.S. objectives and is being used for the right purposes.”
Also in the pipeline is a squadron of the Air Force F-16 Falcon, a multipurpose warplane able to dogfight and drop ordnance.
The government awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a contract in March 2010 for 20 F-16s, the last to be delivered next year. That would increase Egypt’s total fleet to 240, according to a company press release at the time.
The billions of dollars in U.S. military aid — in annual $1.3 billion stipends — have made the Egyptian air force the fourth-largest F-16 operator among 25 countries. Egypt’s 4,000 tanks, including the 1,000 or so M1A1s, make it the world’s seventh-largest tank army.
“This is a pretty substantial capacity that they have developed,” Mr. Springborg said.
‘A top regional priority’
In Cairo, the Egyptian army sealed off the president’s palace with M-60 tanks and barbed wire Thursday, a day after Morsi supporters and detractors clashed outside the residence. At least six people were killed Wednesday.
What’s more, another member of Mr. Morsi’s 17-member advisory board resigned to protest his handling of the growing crisis over his power grab and a controversial draft constitution approved by his Islamist allies. So far, seven people have resigned from his advisory panel.
A referendum on the constitution is scheduled for Dec. 15, and the Muslim Brotherhood is strongly advocating its ratification.
Meanwhile, Frank Gaffney, a senior defense policymaker in the Reagan administration, has been warning about the rise of the Brotherhood as it relates to the U.S.
“My principal concern with the Obama administration’s approach to Egypt is they seem oblivious to the fact it is now in the hands of a regime that is deeply hostile to the United States and certainly poses an immediate threat, I believe, to our friends in Israel,” said Mr. Gaffney, who runs the Center for Security Policy. “Under those circumstances, it is alarming that they are continuing to arm Egypt in a way that can only exacerbate the threat.”
“There are two things that are troubling,” Mr. Gaffney said. “One is the sheer quantity of the weapons that these enemies of the United States have inherited, let alone those they will be getting if we continue to make arms sales with them. The second is the quality of these weapons.”
“Egypt is a pivotal country in the Middle East and a longtime partner of the United States. Its well-being is important for the region as a whole. We have continued to rely on Egypt for more than 30 years to support and advance U.S. interests in the region, including peace with Israel, confronting Iranian ambitions, and supporting Iraq. Preserving peace in the Middle East is a top regional priority as we look to support Egypt through its transition.”
An assortment of weapons
The political landscape in Cairo was far different in 1979, when Washington began arming Egypt with some of its best weapons. Egypt signed the 1978 Camp David peace accords with Israel and moved squarely into the U.S. camp on major national security issues.
Though at peace, Egypt’s generals decided they wanted big-ticket items just in case the nation went to war again with Israel. In 1988, Washington and Cairo entered a deal to produce the Army’s most lethal armored vehicle, the Abrams tank.
The Congressional Research Service calls the M1A1 contract the “cornerstone” of U.S. assistance, which goes deeper than tanks and airplanes.
The Obama administration briefly held up security aid last spring as a signal of concern for the treatment of Americans in Cairo and other human rights violations.
The aid has since resumed, and there has been no sign of another stoppage as Mr. Morsi consolidates power. His military should receive more F-16s and tanks next year.
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said one rationale for continuing the aid was that the leader of the country’s military stood as a strong counterweight to the Brotherhood.
“But it’s no longer true,” he said, given Mr. Morsi’s purge in August of generals from the previous regime of Hosni Mubarak. “It remains to be seen whether Egypt's military is in the pocket of the Muslim Brotherhood or if it will be a political constraint on the Brotherhood’s effort to expand its power.”
Mr. Phillips said any move away from the Camp David Accords automatically would result in an end to aid, which has averaged about $2 billion in military and economic programs over the past 33 years.
Foreign Military Sales
Could U.S.-produced F-16s, manned by Egyptian pilots, one day attack Israel?
“I think that is a valid concern, given the ideological goals of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Phillips said. “In the long run, this military relationship is fraught with risks. It probably will be radically overhauled in the coming months” by the administration or Congress.
Mr. Springborg said the administration is sure to push Mr. Morsi to begin diversifying his procurements from heavy weapons toward tactical systems, such as helicopters and patrol boats, to guard his country’s borders.
“There are a whole host of security challenges that the military is not designed to meet, and we’ve been urging them to tie their procurement policy to the more diverse security threats they really face,” he said. “And they’ve rebuffed us for years. But the pressure is going to be much greater now to do that.”
On future sales, he added: “I think we need some demonstration of what their intent is going to be with regard to how they plan to run the country and its foreign affairs.”
Most of Egypt’s assistance is in the form of weapons, such as tanks and fighters, bought with U.S. tax dollars through a program called Foreign Military Sales.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Egypt has ordered $14 billion in equipment since 2003.