U.S. to partially resume military aid to Egypt

The United States has decided to resume delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday, backtracking on a decision officials made last summer following the country’s military coup and its violent aftermath.

The Obama administration opted to go ahead with the delivery of 10 aircraft to help Egypt combat cells of extremists in the Sinai, even though Washington is unable to meet congressional criteria for the full resumption of aid.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Sedki Sobhy, in a phone call Tuesday that the United States is “not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” Rear. Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement released at 10 p.m. Hagel urged his counterpart to “demonstrate progress on a more inclusive transition that respects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Egyptians,” the statement said.

Since the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi last year, Egypt’s military-backed government has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on the Morsi-allied Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing. Egypt also has imprisoned hundreds of secular activists. And it has detained journalists from Al Jazeera on charges that the television network and press-
freedom activists call unfounded.

Under Washington’s complicated military aid relationship with Cairo, Egypt has been allowed to place orders for military hardware that takes several years to produce and deliver, under the assumption that Congress will continue to authorize $1.3 billion in military aid each year. The administration suspended the delivery of the Apaches and some tanks as a rebuke over the coup and the heavy-handed tactics of Egypt’s generals in the weeks that followed.

Amy Hawthorne, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council who worked on Egypt policy at the State Department, said the partial resumption of aid was significant and somewhat troubling.

“Resuming the delivery of some of these weapons without noting the original reasons or any progress on human rights cheapens [President] Obama’s words and weakens U.S. credibility,” she said.

Under an appropriations bill Congress passed in January, the Secretary of State must certify that Egypt is adhering to the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and doing its part to maintain a strategic relationship with the United States.

Additionally, the administration must certify that Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically before it can provide aid that could total up to $1.5 billion.

Congress gave the administration flexibility to provide military items needed to for counterterrorism efforts, including the ongoing quest to restore security in the Sinai Peninsula, where cells of Islamic extremists have battled security forces and launched attacks against Israel. Kirby said the helicopters would be used for “counterterrorism operations in the Sinai.”

The Apaches are not covered by the recent appropriations law. But if the administration is unable to certify that Egypt has made progress on democracy, as key appropriators in Congress have demanded, the administration’s long-term ability to provide new military items to Egypt will be in jeopardy.

Congress gave the administration flexibility for military items needed to restore security in the Sinai Peninsula, where cells of Islamic extremists have battled security forces and launched attacks against Israel. Kirby said the helicopters would be used for “counterterrorism operations in the Sinai.”

“The secretary noted that we believe that these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten U.S., Egyptian and Israeli security,” Kirby said in the statement. “This is one element of the president’s broader efforts to work with partners across the region to build their capacity to counter extremist threats, and is [in] the United States’ national security interest.”

Since last year’s coup, Egypt’s generals have paid little heed to Washington’s calls that they govern in an inclusive and democratic manner. Morsi remains on trial on various charges, including inciting violence.

Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the general who played a key role in the effort to oust Morsi last year, has declared that he will run for president and is widely presumed to be a shoo-in.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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