The U.S. sends Egypt far more military aid than it needs

August 15, 2013

The United States gives Egypt about $1.3 billion in military aid each year. And, so far this year, the Obama administration has been unwilling to cut off those funds — even in the midst of a violent military crackdown that has left more than 525 dead.


Egyptian Army soldiers in Cairo. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

So here's one question worth exploring: Just how important is all that aid to Egypt, anyway? NPR's Julia Simon recently did some reporting on that exact question. It seems that in many cases, Egypt receives far more weaponry than it could possibly use:

The U.S. started sending M1A1 Abrams tanks to Egypt in the late '80s. In all, the U.S. sent more than 1,000 tanks to Egypt since then — valued at some $3.9 billion — which Egypt maintains along with several thousand Soviet-era tanks.

"There's no conceivable scenario in which they'd need all those tanks short of an alien invasion," Shana Marshall of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, told me. ...

The story with F-16 fighter jets is similar. Since 1980, we've sent Egypt 221 fighter jets, valued at $8 billion. "Our American military advisers in Cairo have for many years been advising against further acquisitions of F-16s," Springborg said. Egypt already has more F-16s than it needs, he said.

But then why do we keep sending all these tanks and jets? One possible answer is that it helps create jobs here in the United States:

The U.S. wants Egypt to have them in part because of people like Bruce Baron, president of Baron Industries, a small business in Oxford, Mich. "The aid that we give to Egypt is coming back to the U.S. and keeping 30 of my people working," Baron told me. Specifically, he said, 30 of his 57 employees are working on parts for the M1A1 Abrams tanks that we give to Egypt.

Now, that's not the only consideration here. For one, even if Egypt is getting more tanks than it needs, that doesn't mean altering the policy is simple. Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that cutting off aid could send Egypt's already-struggling economy into a tailspin. “A hold up of aid might contribute to the chaos that may ensue because of their collapsing economy," he said.

If it seems odd that military aid has become so crucial to Egypt’s economy, consider this: The Egyptian military is utterly gigantic, one of the largest in the world, “controlling between 10 and 30 percent of the economy and employing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.”

Further reading: 

--The U.S. gives Egypt $1.5 billion a year in aid. Here’s what it does. Note that the United States has been giving Egypt aid since the 1970s for a whole host of regions, though it's supposed to be cut off in the event of a "coup."

--Note, by the way, that U.S. assistance to Egypt has been dwarfed by the $12 billion in aid that wealthy Gulf Arab nations recently pledged.

--My colleague Max Fisher has an excellent explainer on what's going on in Egypt right now.

--The economic roots of Egypt's crisis.

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Ezra Klein · August 15, 2013