Egypt’s decision to buy 24 Rafale jet fighters from France underscores its determination to diversify its sources of weapons and reduce its dependence on the United States, experts said.
The 5.2-billion-euro ($5.9 billion) deal is a historic first foreign sale of the Rafale for France, which is set to sign the contract in the Egyptian capital on Monday.
Rights group Amnesty International has criticized the sale of the jets and a frigate to a nation that it has accused of “alarming” human rights abuses.
The United States — a long-time strategic partner of Egypt, to which it gives about $1.5 billion in aid each year including roughly $1.3 billion in military assistance — has played down the impact of the sale.
“Egypt is a sovereign country,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Friday. “We have our own security relationship, so I wouldn’t say there’s a concern from this end.”
US-Egyptian relations have been strained since the military deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and launched a brutal crackdown on his supporters.
Morsi, the country’s first freely elected head of state, was toppled by then army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following massive protests against his controversial one-year rule.
Sisi was elected president in May 2014 with 96.91 percent of the vote.
More than 1,400 people have died in the crackdown on Morsi supporters.
Thousands have been imprisoned and hundreds sentenced to death, while Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has been branded a “terrorist” organization and banned.
The brutal repression of Morsi supporters prompted Washington to freeze part of its aid to Cairo in October 2013 and demand that Egypt implement democratic reforms.
“The contract (with France) is an implicit message to the United States signifying that Egypt will no longer count exclusively on US weapon supplies,” said retired Egyptian army general Mohammed Mujahid al-Zayyat.
Egypt no longer wants to be “blackmailed” in its relations with the United States, said Zayyat, an expert with the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle East Studies.
US officials “have their own views as to how the Egyptian army should be rebuilt and reject the army’s belief that Israel is its key enemy,” he added.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 but relations between the two neighbors have never been fully developed and remain frosty over Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
The Russian connection
Washington has tried to balance its defence relationship with criticism of alleged human rights violations by the Egyptian government.
It recently delivered to Cairo a shipment of Apache helicopter gunships, supposedly for use in counterterrorism operations, while also denouncing mass convictions of Sisi’s opponents.
Military expert and retired army officer Ahmed Abdel Halim said Egypt was being held “hostage” by Washington because of its human rights record, and needed to diversify its sources of weaponry.
“The diversification of the supply of weapons and technology is aimed at dissuading any country from exercising a monopoly over Egypt or of trying to blackmail it,” he said.
Abdel Halim, a former president of the national security commission at the Egyptian senate, said Egypt would continue to import weapons from the United States, as well as France and “maybe even China”.
Russia, he said, could be another key supplier.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key non-Arab backer of Sisi, paid a landmark visit to Cairo this week.
The two leaders agreed a deal for Moscow to build Egypt’s first ever nuclear power plant to produce electricity.
They also agreed on “further military cooperation between our two countries given the current circumstances” in Egypt, said Sisi, who visited Russia twice last year to discuss Russian weapon supplies.
Egypt is fighting an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and also fears that the chaos in neighboring Libya, where powerful militias are battling for territory, could spread across the border.
“Egypt will continue to buy weapons from the Americans but it will also buy them from Russia, and this was clear during Putin’s visit to Cairo,” said Arab affairs expert Mathieu Guidere.
That “will put Egypt in a better position vis-a-vis the Americans,” he said.