Egypt this month announced an agreement with France to purchase 30 French-made F3-R Rafale fighter jets in a $ 5 billion deal. The deal is part of a larger trend in which Egypt buys fewer weapons from the United States and more from Russia and France.
Of course, from the American point of view, Russia is an adversary while France is a NATO ally (and an economic competitor). However, if these two countries continue to displace the United States in the Egyptian arms market, Washington’s influence in Cairo could wane. It would undermine the fundamental national security interests of the United States. At the center of this challenge are Washington’s long-standing efforts to balance security interests with human rights concerns over the sale of arms.
The sale, announced on May 4, brings Egypt’s total Rafale fleet to 54 aircraft, building on a 2015 sale in which Egypt became the Rafale’s first foreign customer. The Rafale is a fourth generation multirole fighter manufactured by Dassault Aviation, and has been ordered by the French, Egyptian, Qatari, Indian and Greek armies. In addition to advanced sensors, targeting systems and weapons, the F3-R model gives Egypt access to capabilities the United States has refused to sell to Cairo in the past, such as air missiles. – long range air.
Egypt’s purchase of French-made fighters alone is not necessarily a major development or concern, but the importance of the deal increases when understood as part of the broader Cairo change of the American weapons. In fact, the last major US aircraft sale to Egypt was in 2010 with the transfer of 20 F-16Cs.
The following year, the protests of the Arab Spring led to the election of President Mohammed Morsi. In 2013, then defense minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi deposed Morsi and took over the presidency for himself. In response, the Obama administration froze a significant amount of sales of planes, tanks and missiles to Egypt for two years until relations improved.
After this freeze, Cairo intensified its efforts to diversify its arms suppliers. From 2009 until Sisi came to power in 2014, U.S. sales accounted for 47% of Egypt’s arms imports, but fell to just 14% during the 2015-2020 period, data shows. of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The main beneficiaries were Russia and France.
In 2015, for example, Egypt purchased around 50 MiG-29Ms from Russia in addition to the 24 Rafale from France. Then, in 2018, Egypt began acquiring between 24 and 31 first-rate Su-35 air superiority fighters from Russia, a deal that could trigger US sanctions. Egypt is reportedly looking to expand its Rafale fleet even further to between 72 and 100 units, including the upcoming F4 variant. Egypt may soon have as many operational fighters from non-US countries as it does from the United States. This deprives Washington of a variety of advantages in terms of diplomacy, security and defense innovation, which instead go to other countries, including adversaries.
In addition, Cairo’s abandonment of American military equipment goes beyond mere combatants.
Egypt acquired two assault helicopters from France and equipped them with 46 Ka-52 attack helicopters from Russia. Egypt has also ordered the S-300VM, one of Russia’s most formidable air defense systems, a potential concern in the context of Israel’s qualitative military advantage.
These abandonments of US arms are notable given that Washington provides Egypt with up to $ 1.3 billion in annual foreign military funding, intended to fund Egypt’s purchases of US-sourced military equipment.
In a changing arms market in the Middle East, these details of Egypt’s arms purchases highlight a perennial dilemma for the United States in balancing national security interests and military concerns. of human rights.
Egypt is a strategically located regional power that exercises significant diplomatic, security, economic and cultural influence in the Middle East. The most populous country in the Arabic-speaking world, Egypt shares borders with Israel, Libya, Sudan and the Gaza Strip. And the peace deal brokered by the United States in 1979 between Egypt and Israel remains one of the main sources of stability in the troubled region.
Challenges remain between Egypt and Israel, especially in interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, the two governments have maintained for the most part quietly constructive relations, encouraged by their respective relations with Washington.
Egypt also controls the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important maritime choke points and trade routes, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and beyond. The channel carries over 10 percent of world trade. Cairo also provides expedited access for US Navy ships through the Suez Canal, a privilege that proved invaluable as the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group rushed to the Arabian Sea in May. 2019 during a period of heightened tensions with Iran.
For these and other reasons, maintaining a close security partnership with Egypt supports US national security interests. Any further weakening of US-Egyptian relations would be a serious concern for Americans and Israelis – as well as a potential boon for Russia and China.
At the same time, Egypt’s uneven human rights record has created tensions with Congress and successive US administrations on both sides. A State Department report released last year detailed a series of lingering human rights problems in Egypt. Clearly, reducing or threatening to reduce US arms sales has not prompted Cairo to significantly improve its human rights record.
However, the reduction in arms sales to the United States appeared to motivate Egypt to increase its arms purchases from other countries that would not make demands that Cairo deems boring.
In Paris and Moscow, Cairo has found partners who have not suffered such inhibitions regarding Cairo’s human rights record – a point that French President Emmanuel Macron made clear in a meeting in December. with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Moreover, neither France nor Russia shares American concerns about Israel’s qualitative military advantage.
Washington will continue to promote its interests and principles in arms sales in the Middle East. Recent history, however, suggests that such efforts will only become more difficult in the future.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Defense Foundation for Democracies Center on Military and Political Power, where U.S. Air Force Maj. Jared Thompson is a visiting military analyst and Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Department of Defense or the Air Force.