The US said it is withholding shipments of military equipment and cash aid to the Egyptian government. Pictured: Supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi run for cover from tear gas during clashes with riot police in Cairo on Oct. 6. (Ahmed Gamel / AFP via Getty Images)
State Department and Pentagon officials said today that the United States would withhold shipments of tanks, fighter jets and attack helicopters to the Egyptian government valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as $260 million in cash aid to the military.
The move ends several months of internal deliberation as to how the Obama administration would handle aid to the Egyptian regime following its overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in July. Sources said the decision was largely reached weeks ago, but other events — such as the crisis in Syria — had delayed action. The move to announce the policy shift came after some details leaked Tuesday night.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Egyptian commanding general and de facto ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sissi this afternoon, in a conversation a senior administration official described as “cordial” and “friendly” to inform the general of the decision. Specifically administration officials named the F-16s, Apache helicopters, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits as being on hold.
“This is not meant to be permanent, this is meant to be the opposite,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters. “It’s meant to be continually reviewed, it is already the result of a deliberate review over the course of the summer. You’ll notice that it’s not being presented or announced in terms of definitive end to any specific programs. Certain things are being held until we see progress on certain things we’ve talked about.”
In August, the Obama administration said that it was placing a temporary hold on shipments of four new F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, while contracts for 10 Apache attack helicopters and 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks were also put “under review” by the US government.
The F-16’s were part of a 2010 contract for 20 aircraft that was signed by former ruler Hosni Mubarak’s administration. Roughly a dozen of the aircraft tied to the contract had already been delivered.
In the meantime, the Defense Department will continue to pay contractors to build the items originally bound for Egypt. In the case of the F-16s, that means leaving the aircraft at Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, until a decision is reached.
Not all aid is being cut as funds to combat terrorism and to provide parts for existing Egyptian equipment will continue, as well as humanitarian aid, officials said.
The aid debate began after the military overthrew Morsi, potentially triggering US legal obligations to stop aid to governments that commit coups against democratically elected governments. The State Department avoided that issue by declaring that it wouldn’t categorize the regime change at all, allowing it to continue providing aid. But as casualties have mounted as the Egyptian military has cracked down on Morsi supporters, pressure has increased on the Obama administration to make cuts beyond the withholding of some equipment in August.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an Appropriations Committee member, responded to the announcement by harshly criticizing the Egyptian military.
The blunt veteran senator called the Egyptian military’s move into power a “coup,” referencing the legal question surrounding aid.
“Our law is clear. When there is a military coup, US aid to the government is cut off,” Leahy said in a Wednesday evening statement. “Rather than encourage reconciliation and restore democracy as it promised, the Egyptian military has re-instituted martial law and cracked down on the Islamic opposition, which has also used violence.”
Leahy also criticized the White House for opting against cutting off all aid to Cairo.
“The [Obama] administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid,” he said. “By doing that, the message is muddled. If they want to continue aid to the Egyptian government they should ask Congress for a waiver.”
Earlier today it was announced that Morsi will stand trial for murder Nov. 4, accused of responsibility for the deaths of protestors in front of the Egyptian presidential palace shortly before he was removed from power. That trial will likely only complicate matters.
Back in August, a US Army spokesperson confirmed to Defense News that the Abrams maker General Dynamics had already started delivery the first Abrams “tank kit” in July to a military-run factory in Cairo, where final assembly would take place. That shipment marked the first part of a $395 million deal signed in 2011 between the US Army and General Dynamics to supply tanks to the Egyptian Army, which would bring their Abrams fleet up to 1,130 by 2016.
Egypt is hardly lacking in American-made military assets, however. Over the last two decades the US defense industry has sold tens of billions of dollars worth of equipment to the Cairo government. In the past decade alone the US government has announced potential deals worth $11.4 billion, and the Egyptian military currently boasts over 1,000 Abrams tanks, 224 F-16 fighter jets, and 10 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, as well as thousands of American-made Humvees, M113 infantry carriers, rockets, missiles, and radio and communications equipment.
Significantly, US officials said this afternoon that Washington would continue to provide parts for US military equipment as well as military training and education.
The Egyptian military has a poorly structured logistics and maintenance capability, so much of the tens of millions of dollars in reset and repair work is carried out by American defense contractors. In 2012 for example, General Dynamics received contracts for almost $50 million for technical support at the Egyptian Abrams tank plant.
“We weren’t going to do anything that would put at risk our own security, or Egypt’s security, or some of our common interests,” the senior official said.
But the senior official said that the US was sending a message, and that the Egyptian military was listening.
“They are in many ways saying the right things, they have put forward a political roadmap that charts a course towards a new constitution, and elections, and democracy and participation,” the official said. “But it’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”