President Obama on Wednesday suspended delivery of four fighter jets to Egypt this week, the administration’s most visible response to the turmoil that followed a military coup early this month.
The hold on four F-16s manufactured by Lockheed Martin marks the first interruption in Washington’s robust defense-aid pipeline to Egypt, which has turned the Arab world’s most populous country into a regional military powerhouse.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the United States values its relationship with the Egyptian military and characterized the delay of the F-16s as a cautionary measure.
“We do not believe it would be in the best interest of the United States to immediately change all of our assistance to Egypt,” Little told reporters Wednesday. But “given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward at this time with the delivery of F-16s.”
The decision was announced shortly after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held an hour-long conversation with Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the Egyptian military chief, who this month deposed the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, with the backing of a large segment of Egyptian society. A U.S. senior defense official said the move was not intended to be construed as punitive.
“This is not a way of punishing them,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain policy deliberations. “It gives us more time to consult with Congress, walk them through our strategy and explain our views to them.”
The F-16 contract, worth about $3.2 billion, was drawn up in 2009. Along with an order for dozens of M1A1 tanks, it is one of the two largest purchases of U.S. military hardware that Egypt is making using its U.S. assistance fund. The fund, which is kept in an interest-bearing account in New York, allows Egypt to place orders for items that in some cases are delivered over several years.
Some U.S. lawmakers have argued that the United States should halt military aid to Egypt entirely in the wake of Morsi’s ouster. The Obama administration has declined to call the dismissal a coup, in large part because formally labeling it as such would mandate a halt of U.S. aid under federal law.
Because Morsi was ousted and detained, his Islamist supporters have clashed with pro-military Egyptians in a standoff that has the potential to plunge the country into protracted political violence. In one such incident, Egyptian soldiers opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators, killing more than 50.
Some lawmakers who have spoken critically of U.S. aid to Egypt applauded the F-16 announcement Wednesday.
“The Obama administration made the right decision,” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “Arming a military that just this month massacred 50 of its own people would have been a grave mistake.”