The White House, which halted weapons transfers to Egypt in mid-2013 to protest a military takeover and harsh political crackdown there, reversed course Tuesday and announced a quick infusion of military aid to help Cairo respond to the mounting turmoil in the Middle East.
With Cairo increasingly involved in the region’s growing conflicts, President Obama approved the release of a dozen F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits that were held from delivery after the Egyptian military overthrew the elected government.
In a phone conversation with President Abdel Fattah Sisi, Obama also said he would seek to restore $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance for Egypt, second only to that for Israel, according to Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Meehan said in a statement that the White House is not certifying that Egypt has made progress toward democracy. But, she said, release of the weapons is in U.S. national security interest because of the growing threat from Islamic extremists.
“These measures put our assistance programs more in line with current core U.S. priorities,” Meehan said.
The weapons transfers, as well as other moves to bolster U.S. support for Cairo, are aimed at easing strained relations with a longtime regional ally and the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Egypt has sent warships and other support to back Saudi Arabia's airstrikes on Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have overrun much of Yemen, and has said it may send ground troops if necessary.
Cairo also is weighing intervention in neighboring Libya, where Islamic State militants recently beheaded 21 Egyptian laborers. Most were Coptic Christians.
The White House said future security aid to Egypt would be channeled into four categories: counter-terrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security, plus support for weapons systems it already has.
But starting in fiscal year 2018, after Obama leaves office, the U.S. will stop Egypt’s use of “cash flow financing,” a financial mechanism that enables Cairo to purchase military hardware on credit. Israel is the only other nation given that credit.
U.S. relations with Cairo went into a tailspin after the Egyptian military, then led by Sisi, overthrew the elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in a coup that left more than 1,000 people dead.
Since then, Sisi’s security forces have conducted a harsh political crackdown, jailing thousands of opponents.
The U.S. aid freeze failed to affect the behavior of the military-backed government, said Eric Trager, a Middle East analyst at the nonpartisan Washington Institute.
“It was an unproductive period for Washington,” he said. “It did not promote greater democracy and only hurt its relationship with Cairo, creating distrust.”
With the region embroiled in multiple conflicts, the White House has decided it should reengage with Sisi’s government. The move drew quick support from a key Republican in Congress.
“We encourage the government of Egypt to continue its democratic process, but Egypt is also a strong regional ally,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Providing them with the means to protect Egyptians and Americans from the threat of terrorism is the right thing to do.”
Egypt has little industry and must import its tanks, jets and radar systems.
“From a strategic perspective, military aid is a necessity for Egypt,” said Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington. “But the government is repressive. It’s been that way for 40 years.”
In his phone conversation with Sisi, Obama cited U.S. concerns about the “continued imprisonment of nonviolent activists and mass trials. He encouraged increased respect for freedom of speech and assembly and emphasized that these issues remain a focus for the United States.”
Human rights groups and some Western governments have accused Sisi of human rights violations on a scale surpassing those of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in an 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising.
Under Sisi’s rule, the judiciary has engaged in mass sentencings, sometimes involving the death penalty, which have drawn international denunciations. Jailhouse torture has been extensively documented, and police continue to use deadly force against those engaging in peaceful dissent.
Among those slain was poet and activist Shaimaa Sabbagh, who was shot early this year as she and others were on their way to lay flowers in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 uprising.
Hennigan reported from Washington and King from Cairo.