Egyptian security forces on Oct. 7 inspect the site of a car bomb explosion that killed three policemen at the police headquarters in al-Tur, in the southern part of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. (Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Egyptian military operations against militant Islamist groups in the Sinai Peninsula have not been affected by the Obama administration’s decision to withhold shipments of attack helicopters, tanks and missiles to the Cairo government, administration officials told Congress on Tuesday.
In an occasionally volatile hearing on Capitol Hill, representatives from both parties slammed the White House’s response to the June 30 military overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi.
Hundreds of Egyptians were killed during protests after the military takeover, prompting the Obama administration to put a lock on further shipments of military equipment in early October.
Some of the harshest criticism during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing came from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who pressed Beth Jones, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, on the Obama administration’s support for the Egyptian generals and their usurpation of power.
Jones said the US government maintains that “because of the millions of Egyptians in the street [protesting the Morsi regime], we assessed that as discomfort” with the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, and therefore, the generals were simply following the public will.
Connolly shot back that since the military overthrow, “millions of people have protested this government and hundreds have lost their lives” in the streets during bloody government crackdowns, but the United States still backs the generals in charge in Cairo.
“In my view, it is not OK for the United States to say it’s OK to overthrow a democratically elected government,” just because the American people don’t like it, he said.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, took the opposite tack, maintaining that “if I were given the choice between the military and the Brotherhood, I’ll take the military every time.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also slammed the temporary stop that the White House put on future shipments of F-16 fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, M1A1 Abrams tanks and Harpoon missiles, claiming that “we’re hanging [Egyptian military commander in chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] out to dry” by not delivering the equipment.
Holding back the hardware denies the Egyptian government “the ability to defend themselves” against radical Islamists, he said. He compared it to the US stopping military aid to South Vietnam’s government in 1975.
But nothing of the sort is happening, Derek Chollett, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, assured the panel.
While shipments of new platforms have stopped for the moment, the US is still providing all of the sustainment and training the Egyptians have asked for, “totaling hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. That includes repairs of equipment being used in the Sinai operations, he added.
Egypt has about 1,000 Abrams tanks, 20 Apache helicopters, hundreds of ground vehicles and more than 200 F-16s in its arsenal.
Some members of the House panel were also concerned that the Egyptian offensive against militants in the Sinai will be affected by the hold on gear.
Over the past several months, the Egyptian military has launched a series of strikes against Islamists who have been using the Sinai Peninsula as a staging ground for strikes in Egypt, strikes which have made the Israeli government stand up and take notice.
But Chollett said the US — which has 600 military observers in Sinai to ensure the terms of the Camp David accord are observed by both sides — has been in constant contact with both Jerusalem and Cairo about the strikes, since treaty restrictions limit the kind of capabilities that Egypt can deploy there.
He also assured the panel that “the assistance that we are holding, the M1A1 tank kits, the F-16s, the Harpoon missiles, even the Apaches, is not affecting their operational effectiveness in the Sinai at all. Those operations have been ongoing for several months, and they have sufficient capability to take care of that problem.”