Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Is it about politics?

Ahmed Eleiba writes on the political dimension behind Washington’s F-16 deal with Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

The shipment of F-16s to Cairo from Washington during the next few weeks has stirred yet another hornet’s nest in Egypt’s fraught political atmosphere. In the opinion of many observers, the controversy over the deal is a thoroughly political one as the additional fighter planes will do little to alter strategic balances of power in the region. It is unlikely that similar arms deals under the Mubarak era have aroused such a degree of altercation. The new factor, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power which has led many political circles to worry in both capitals.
Various parties abroad and political adversaries of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), at home, are keen to loosen the strategic embrace between the two countries. Nevertheless, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, a US source stated that Washington will support the authority in Cairo as long as it remains committed to the demands of the current political process. To officials in Washington, it is the defence question that counts more than the political, even if the arms deal has sparked some political controversy here or there, the source said. At the same time, he stressed that the deal did not come attached with any security demands connected with the situation in Egypt, in the Sinai for example.
This is consistent with the outcome of the US-Egyptian joint defence committee meeting that was held in Cairo several weeks ago. The 28th of these regular sessions, it affirmed the US’s strategic vision that maintains that it is necessary to sustain the partnership and cooperation that has existed between the two countries over the past three decades. That Egypt is a cornerstone to this strategic vision was probably the factor that most assured that the F-16s deal would go through.
Ambassador Hussein Haridi, former assistant foreign minister, prefers to use the term “the rules of the game” when referring to the arms deal. He said, “it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood understands these rules very well.”
Some experts in military affairs are more inclined to see the issue purely in terms of the army, its morale, and its armament requirements and see no need to colour the issue with a political taint connected with either the current political leadership or the opposition. It is in such a framework that a military spokesman has spoken on numerous occasions on the close coordination between the US and Egypt.
But this is not how another military expert sees it. In his opinion, it is impossible to separate politics from the question of arms for Egypt. For example, he said, in the current contest between President Barack Obama and Congress, one cannot overlook the fact that there is a major agreement with regard to the management of Egyptian-US relations. It centres on military aid, which takes priority over economic aid to Egypt.
The F-16s that are destined to arrive soon are the block 50/52 versions. The F-16s that are currently in the Egyptian arsenal are the A, B and C models of blocks 30/32 and 40/42. These have been in operation in Egypt since the 1980s. Perhaps the importance of the new arrivals derives from the fact that they are from a more advanced line, even if other Arab countries possess subsequent models with more enhancements. The UAE, for example, possesses F-16s of block 60/62. As for Saudi Arabia, it boasts the most expensive arms pacts in the history of US weapons sales, estimated in the neighbourhood of $60 billion over 10 years. Riyadh and Washington are currently contemplating more deals that would amount to a similar sum.
Cairo already has some 200 F-16s but is looking forward to 20 new upgraded ones. Israel may have only 102 F-16s, but it will retain the qualitative edge when it obtains the F-35s. These fifth generation multi-role fighters under development to perform ground attacks, reconnaissance and air defence missions with stealth capability will not go into service for two years, but Israel will get first dibs when they are marketed internationally a couple of years from now. It has been suggested that they are unlikely to be deployed in the US air force until they have demonstrated their prowess in the skies of the Middle East first. With such advanced and sophisticated weaponry, Israel will retain its qualitative military superiority not just over Egypt but over all Arab countries combined. This only confirms that the current US-Egyptian arms deal offers no breakthrough with respect to strategic equations.
But, domestically it means quite a bit. Retired Brigadier General Safwat Al-Zayat told the Weekly in a telephone interview from Doha that in the game between the White House and Congress, the Zionist lobby may still try to obstruct the deal. “Even though they know that the aircraft mean little in terms of military balances, they feel they have to say something with a political twist that includes Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers in a useful sentence. But then, the White House is playing the same game.” At this point, the military expert paused significantly and then continued, “even if this bothers people in the military, it is obvious that the finalisation of the deal on 11 December, which happened to be at the height of the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square against Morsi, conveyed a political message. Between the lines, Washington was sending a message to three parties. The first was Morsi and it stated, ‘We support you. Move ahead.’ The second was to the army and it said, ‘We are encouraging this man,’ meaning Morsi. The third was to the opposition forces and it said the same thing. We need to bear in mind that Morsi had been put to the test during the last [Israeli] war against Gaza and passed with flying colours from the US perspective.”
If the abovementioned US source had no reservations with regard to Washington’s embrace of the Muslim Brothers, another source close to the same political circle complained that the Brotherhood are two-faced in their dealings with Washington, which is to say that what is happening on the ground in Egypt is different from what they try to market to opinion in the US. To this an MB source responds, “and how can we be sure that the US administration is playing with a single face with us?” The implication was that Washington is keeping its lines open with the opposition and with the army.
Ambassador Haridi agrees that the F-16 deal signals an unprecedented level of support for Morsi and the Muslim Brothers. He finds this regrettable because “it leads me to understand that the Muslim Brothers reached power with US approval and this means the provision of services.” Therefore, Congress will not intervene, unless there is some dramatic excess or unless the MB deviates from the framework of its understanding with Washington, because this would not only strangle Egypt militarily but also economically which would stir trouble in Egypt. In all events, [the Muslim Brothers] in Cairo understand the rules perfectly and have no intention of breaking them. It is sad that things have reached this point.”

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