Egypt Is Buying Loads of Fancy French Fighters
Cairo wants to diversify its arms-suppliers
It’s a deal both sides desperately need. Egypt has signed an agreement with France to buy $5.9 billion worth of high-tech military gear from French companies.
Cairo hopes the arms-purchase will boost its security just a year and a half after the country’s latest coup—and also help free Egypt from its historic dependence on American weaponry.
The deal, which includes 24 Rafale fighter jets and a FREMM multi-role frigate, is the biggest weapons transaction between the two countries in 20 years. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi signed the deal in Cairo on Feb. 16.
“Egypt’s stability is an important element in the stability of the countries overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, especially your country that has witnessed recent terrorist events,” Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi said to his counterpart during the signing ceremony.
Egypt hopes to receive the fighters and the frigate before August. This is a tight deadline but not impossible for France to meet—as the deal involves hardware the French military already uses.
At the same time, the sale is a risky one for Egypt. Paris has tried selling the Rafale fighter before, only for the deals to collapse.
Still, Sisi’s embattled Egyptian government has pushed hard for the acquisition. The president led a 2013 military coup against an elected government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ever since, an Islamist insurgency has rocked the Sinai Peninsula, killing hundreds of Egyptian soldiers. The country also faces frequent protests by Brotherhood supporters.
And after a militant group with allegiances to the Islamic State released a video showing the mass execution of 21 Egyptian nationals in Libya, Cairo’s air force launched retaliatory strikes in the country.
Sisi is also looking to bolster his armed forces before the August opening of a extension of the Suez Canal, a vital shipping route for world trade and one of Egypt’s top revenue earners.
Egypt has Africa’s strongest military, with roughly 440,000 men under arms, in addition to another 400,000 paramilitary forces. Egypt has received an astounding $70 billion in U.S. military aid since 1948.
American-made F-16 fighter jets, AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and M-1 Abrams battle tanks form the backbone of its force.
But there’s several reasons why Egypt is buying these new weapons from France—instead of its regular U.S. suppliers. For one, France is desperate to score some meaningful export contracts, and therefore willing to accommodate the expedited delivery schedule requested by Egypt.
Relations between Egypt and the U.S. have worsened somewhat since Sisi and the military used brute force to topple the Brotherhood government and depose former Pres. Mohammed Morsi. During the coup and its aftermath, the Egyptian army carried out the bloodiest mass killing in the country’s modern history.
While military aid continues to flow, the Obama administration has held back export permits on several occasions.
If Paris and Cairo follow through with the deal, Egypt will become the Rafale’s first foreign buyer. The fighter entered service with the French military in 2001. But the Rafale has flopped on the international arms market.
Deals with Libya, Brazil, Switzerland and Morocco fell through, while negotiations to sell 126 of the expensive, multi-role jets to India have stalled for years. When France and India signed a deal for 126 Rafale fighters, costs ballooned from $12 billion to $20 billion—and provoked New Delhi to delay the purchase.
This has resulted in a fighter jet that’s much more expensive than Paris originally planned—as Dassault couldn’t make up part of the production costs with overseas sales.
France and Egypt share deep discomfort about developments in Libya, and both governments have on several occasions demanded increased international intervention to limit the influence of Islamist groups in the country’s civil war.
At the same time, the French Ministry of Defense is looking at a $2.5 billion budget shortfall for 2015. Instead of buying more Rafales and FREMM frigates themselves, the French are rerouting this hardware to Egypt. At the same time, Paris is trying to bolster its export industry and preserve its government finances.
French defense minister Le Drian made the case for Egypt’s role against Islamist influence in the region during the signing ceremony, but he neglected to mention there’s been a European Union arms embargo since 2013 against deals with the North African country.
The embargo asked E.U. member states “to suspend licenses for export to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression” and “to reassess export licenses for military equipment and review their security assistance to Egypt.”
It’s debatable if the current deal falls under the limits of the embargo. The Rafales are arguably for defense against external threats. But the French government hasn’t elaborated why its assessment of the Egyptian rulers changed so dramatically.
If anything, human rights arguments against arming the Egyptian military are now stronger than in 2013. Sisi’s regime has allegedly incarcerated more than 47,000 political opponents, and an Egyptian court acquitted ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak for the deaths of hundreds of protestors during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
And while Cairo justified the 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government because of the organization’s religious agenda, the Sisi regime is no friend of liberal values, either.
It’s questionable if Sisi’s push for new military hardware will help him to get his country under control, anyway. Egypt has steadily escalated repression, of both the violent and non-violent kind, since the military takeover in 2013.
So far, this has failed to bring the situation under control, and contributed to a further radicalization of Egypt’s youth and an alliance between some Egyptian Islamists and Islamic State.
It’s also unlikely more military hardware will do anything to resolve Egypt’s internal armed conflicts, or the war in Libya. In a best-case scenario, it could help to suppress these wars for a limited amount of time.
In that light, Western governments would do well to remember when the Egyptian junta attacked thousands of pro-democracy protesters in 2011—with Western-supplied military gear.
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