The White House reversed its hold on arms to Egypt on Tuesday in an attempt to grease a Washington-Cairo relationship that had largely ground to a halt.
In a phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Barack Obama said he would release 12 F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and up to 125 M1A1 tanks for export to Egypt, lifting the hold that has been in place in 2013. The U.S. also will begin in fiscal 2018 to funnel U.S. security assistance to Egypt in four categories: counterterrorism, border security, Sinai security and maritime security, according to the White House. Beyond this support, Obama told al-Sisi he would continue to send to Congress his annual requests for $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt.
What Obama will not do is insist on political reforms in Cairo as a condition for now allowing the long-planned exports.
The administration enacted the arms freeze in October 2013, four long months after the Egyptian military deposed the country’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The move was a belated attempt to send a message: there is a price to be paid for a military coup (though the White House was careful not to use the term). The hold was met with frustration by the new Egyptian government under al-Sisi, a former general who served as Morsi’s defense minister. Cairo consistently argues that the United States should be supporting al-Sisi and Egypt in the fight against terrorism.
The hubbub over the hold has drowned out subsequent attempts to resume a productive partnership between the two countries, and ultimately, Obama has decided to sacrifice his position to restart the relationship, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“This is the epilogue to the sorry tale of how the U.S. responded to the coup,” she said. “Having swallowed this bitter pill, I hope they get something out of it.”
That “something” doesn’t mean Egypt’s ongoing contribution to the campaign by a coalition of Arab countries against Houthi rebels in Yemen, nor any particular help in any counterterrorism campaign conducted by the U.S., Wittes said. Rather, it would mean political reform in Egypt itself: increasing democratic representation, releasing political prisoners and allowing a polarized citizenry to come together, lest the country fall once again into chaos.
White House officials insisted Tuesday that democracy and human rights would remain part of the conversation.
“We will continue to engage with Egypt frankly and directly on its political trajectory and to raise human rights and political reform issues at the highest levels,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.