Home inContext Obama Ends Freeze on Arms Sales to Egypt

Obama Ends Freeze on Arms Sales to Egypt

Michael Johnson

The White House announced Tuesday that it is lifting a year-and-a-half long moratorium on U.S. arms sales to Egypt, citing the need to fight violent extremism in the region. The Obama administration’s move signals a willingness to prioritize stability and security over human rights concerns in the region.

Approximately $1.3 billion in annual U.S. foreign defense assistance will be restored to Egypt, reestablishing Cairo’s position as the second largest recipient of military aid after Israel. Washington will now release 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 General Dynamics M1A1 Abrams tanks that have long been requested by the Egyptian military. Ten highly sought-after Apache ground attack helicopters were also delivered from the U.S. in late 2014 to Egypt’s armed forces.

A U.S.-made F-16 fighter flown by the Egyptian air force during a 2007 mission. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

However, the Obama administration also announced new restrictions that will limit how aid to the Arab country is spent. Future assistance must be approved for use in four specific areas: counter-terrorism, border security, maritime security, and security in Sinai, rather than a  general need. Second, Egypt will no longer be able to use cash-flow financing past 2018, a practice where Cairo would borrow against future projections of U.S. aid when purchasing military equipment. Analysts say the latter limitation could make it easier to cut off aid in the future.

Originally, military assistance was suspended in October 2013 following a brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrators protesting the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. Many in Washington were upset when the government, seen as unelected and unaccountable, killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the streets.

Obama’s decision will undoubtedly strengthen a long-time U.S. ally that has faced a growing threat from jihadist militants externally and internally. Cairo continues to pursue military operations important to U.S. interests in the region: the Egyptian military battles Islamic insurgents in Sinai, destroys tunnels that supply weapons to Hamas terrorists in Gaza, attacks Islamic militants in Libya, and supports operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Ultimately it remains unclear if Tuesday’s announcement will restore trust between Washington and Cairo. Over the past few months, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has looked elsewhere for arms purchases. He has strengthened his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, purchasing $3.5 billion worth of military equipment from Moscow, including MiG-29 fighters and attack helicopters. While Putin and al-Sisi might see the Middle East in different ways, Putin seems less likely to criticize his Egyptian counterpart over crushing violent terrorists.