The future of Egypt-US military relations

Hicham Mourad , Wednesday 1 May 2013

Military cooperation is the backbone of Egypt-US relations. And due to mutual interests, it is likely to continue – despite Egypt's new Islamist leadership

The first visit to Cairo on 24 April by newly-appointed US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had a clear objective: to reaffirm the continuity of US military aid to Egypt and ensure deepening cooperation between the military institutions of the two countries. The goal seems to have been achieved: Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stressed on the occasion that Egypt, too, planned to expand and strengthen its military cooperation with the United States.

Hagel was also clear about what the United States expected from their Egyptian partner: to respect the peace treaty with Israel, maintain security at the border with Israel, fight against jihadists in Sinai (which borders Israel) and against Islamist terrorism.

Military cooperation and defence relations are the backbone of the alliance formed between Egypt and the US since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the consequent conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979. Since then, Egypt has received military and economic assistance that had made it the second biggest recipient, after Israel, of US foreign aid. Egypt, however, is now in the fifth place, preceded by Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The Egyptian military has received $1.3 billion in annual US assistance since 1987. While economic aid began to decline in 1999 from an average of $815 million in 1988 to $250 million in 2012, military assistance has remained unchanged. This shows the interest of the US in continuing its strategic partnership with the Egyptian army.

In mid-2012, US Congress also froze $450 million in economic aid to protest the policies of Egypt's new political regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, without touching the military assistance. Instead, the Pentagon has respected the delivery date of the first batch of 20 F-16 fighter jets, ordered in 2009. Thus, the first four aircraft were delivered to the Egyptian Air Force as planned in late January 2013, pending receipt of the remaining 16 by the end of the year.

Military aid finances purchases of arms by the Egyptian army from US companies. It provides additional military equipment from US army surplus, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The aid covers about 80 percent of Egypt's weapons needs and provides training for the Egyptian military in American equipment.

Another component of the military relationship is the holding of joint exercises, dubbed 'Bright Star,' which began in 1994, and is attended by regional countries and members of the Atlantic Alliance. Thus, Americans call Egypt a "major non-member ally of NATO." These military exercises allow the US Army to train in the desert conditions of the Middle East – useful in case of a military intervention.

In return for its military support, the US benefits from valuable over-flight facilities on Egyptian territory and, especially, rapid passage of warships through Egypt's Suez Canal. An average of a dozen US military vessels traverses the canal every month, which saves precious time in case of needed intervention in the Gulf region or Afghanistan.

Military aid provides the US with a major strategic and political influence in Egypt. The main interest of Washington in this regard is to maintain peace between the largest Arab country and Israel. For the US, it would be impossible for Egypt to turns its 'American' weapons against Israel. The use of these weapons, notably the more sophisticated F-16 fighter, is largely dependent on maintenance and spare parts supplied by US firms.

Israel's security also depends on maintaining the truce with Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip; the fight against the Salafist-jihadist groups that have swarmed in the Sinai since the 25 January uprising; and control of the common border with Israel. In this regard, the US and Israel appear to be satisfied, according to statements by military officials.

Chief-of-staff of the Israeli army, Benny Gantz, stressed on 17 April that security cooperation had improved with Egypt since the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, despite the more hostile rhetoric against Israel by the new Egyptian government. Cairo had warned Tel Aviv ahead of the rocket attack that hit Israel's southern resort city of Eilat on the same day, without causing casualties.

We find the same thing among American officials. They note that Egyptian security cooperation – with both Washington and Tel-Aviv – continues smoothly after the change of regime in Egypt, in spite of frozen political relations with Israel. The US praised Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last November for his mediation between Hamas and Israel, which resulted in the signing of a truce guaranteed by Egypt.

This convergence of interests between Cairo and Washington does not preclude the existence of disagreements. Documents from the US State Department, revealed by WikiLeaks, showed the refusal of the Egyptian army under former defence minister Mohamed Tantawi to comply with US requests to put more emphasis on new threats such as the fight against terrorism, piracy and border security. Washington complained that the Egyptian army still trains and arms in the traditional way, as if the enemy is still Israel.

The Obama administration has concluded that Egypt is too important to drop, despite the uncertainties arising from the accession to power of an Islamist regime and a turbulent transition period. Today, the US cannot afford – after having invested a lot for many years in the construction of a useful alliance with Cairo – the loss of its Egyptian ally.

The same goes for the majority of US congressmen, despite dissenting voices advocating the imposition of conditions on aid to Egypt. One of the leading figures of the Republican opposition in congress, the influential senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, back in Washington after a visit to Cairo in January, called for the disbursement without delay of US aid to Egypt. "The Israelis are in favour of the continuation of aid to Egypt," he added.

Egyptian-US military cooperation has good days ahead because each party needs the other: Egypt needs the advanced weapons and military training, while the US needs Israel's security and the strategic position in the Middle East that its longstanding military alliance with the most populous Arab country brings.

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