The United States will resume suspended military aid to Egypt, the White House said Tuesday, signaling the Obama administration’s eagerness to help a key Middle Eastern ally confront militant threats despite concerns about its repressive stance on human rights.
Following a lengthy internal review, the Obama administration said it would continue to request the annual $1.3 billion in military financing that the United States has provided in the past to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. military support after Israel.
But in a sign that Washington seeks to exercise tighter strings over aid for a government it had condemned for harsh treatment of dissidents, the United States will no longer allow Egypt to purchase military equipment on credit and will earmark future aid for specific activities related to U.S. counterterrorism goals.
Obama, speaking by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, said the steps would refine the country’s military relationship “so that it is better positioned to address the shared challenges to U.S. and Egyptian interests in an unstable region,” the White House said in a statement.
The announcement reverses a decision announced in October 2013, several months after a military coup that deposed elected leader Mohamed Morsi, to put a large amount of military aid on hold until Egypt made “credible progress” toward democratic reforms.
Since Sissi took power, American officials have been dismayed by his government’s crackdown on supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents.
U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned the widespread arrests of political opponents, the moves to hem in Egypt’s press, and the mass death sentences handed down by Egyptian courts.
“Nothing has happened in Egypt that I can see that has led to this,” said Amy Hawthorne, an Egypt scholar at the Atlantic Council. “They’re giving Sissi something he really wants, which is these weapons and partial restoration of [foreign military aid] relations, with the Egyptians doing nothing in return.”
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the decision on the record, acknowledged that U.S. efforts to incentivize reforms by withholding aid had not succeeded as officials had hoped.
“We are not walking away from the promotion of human rights and political reform in Egypt,” the official said. “We’re just trying to make sure Egypt is well equipped to deal with genuine threats to its security, and ours.”
As they look at Egypt, a key partner in a volatile Middle East, U.S. officials feel a sense of urgency to ensure it is not overrun by the same extremist violence consuming much of the region.
Egyptian forces are grappling with mounting insurgent violence in the country’s Sinai Peninsula and with a threat in neighboring Libya, where militants linked to the Islamic State executed 21 Egyptian Christians in February. Egypt has also dispatched warships to Yemen as part of a larger Arab assault on Iranian-backed rebels there.
The White House decision will also enable Egypt to obtain valuable military equipment that had been put on hold in 2013, including a dozen F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 U.S. Abrams M1A1 tank kits.
Egyptian officials have in particular clamored for access to the fighter jets. Earlier this year, Egyptian warplanes conducted strikes in Libya in response to the attack on its citizens there.
In April 2014, the White House partially resumed aid to Egypt when it announced the planned delivery of Apache helicopters.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the United States should push for reforms but prioritize protection of the long-standing U.S. alliance with Egypt.
“Providing them with the means to protect Egyptians and Americans from the threat of terrorism is the right thing to do,” he said in a statement.
The administration did not take an additional step that would have signaled more broad backing for Sissi.
Rather than waiting until Egypt had taken certain steps that would trigger a “democracy certification” — including holding parliamentary elections, ensuring due process and protecting political and women’s rights – Secretary of State John F. Kerry instead invoked a legal waiver that allowed him to provide the assistance if it was in the interest of U.S. national security.
Egypt had been expected to hold legislative elections this month, but they were delayed indefinitely after a court declared that part of the country’s electoral law was unconstitutional.
The U.S. official said the move to end the credit financing would put the United States in a “much stronger position” to adjust aid to Egypt in the future.
Hawthorne, of the Atlantic Council, said the White House’s attempt to bolster security while promoting reform may not succeed. “Like so many things with this administration, it’s a split message, and it’s very confusing,” she said.
U.S. officials said the decision was not linked to the timing of international talks over Iran’s nuclear program, which have reached a critical juncture in Switzerland. The prospect of improved ties between Washington and Shiite power Tehran has created deep anxiety among Washington’s traditional Sunni Arab allies.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.