The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egypt-US: Just like the old days


Barack Obama's Cairo speech -- whatever you might say of his fine rhetoric on Islam and Palestine -- was also, and over time might also be chiefly, a reassertion of the traditional relationship between Egypt and the United States, dropping most pretense of being interested in democracy promotion. Instead, in the democracy segment of his speech, he mostly focused on those things that are popular with Americans, such as religious (rather than civic and political) freedoms, and appeared to warn against Islamist parties being elected when he warned that democracy is not just about elections (a fine claim if he had added that it's also about civic rights, rather than mentioning it in the context of Islamism - "there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others").

But I wouldn't take all this rhetoric too seriously: just as Obama was contemplating making the speech, he was giving the go-ahead on the resumption of the usual military ties between the two countries. After 2005, when the US-Egypt relationship was damaged and Congress (mostly driven by the Gaza tunnels issue but given political cover by Egypt's poor human rights record) wanted to reduce aid. At the same time, the Bush administration was withholding certain weapons deals - a tactic that has been used in the past as a form of pressure (or negotiating tactics), with some results. Obama has now dropped these claims by approving multiple deals, including 24 new F-16 fighter jets :

Egypt's hosting of President Barack Obama's "mutual respect" speech to the Muslim world came at the same time the Obama administration quietly was agreeing to Egypt's longstanding request to purchase some 24 F-16 fighters, according to a report in Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin.

According to informed sources, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates relayed the commitment in his May 5 meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Another source adds:

The Egyptian request for the F-16 fighter jets and other military equipment had been denied repeatedly by the former Bush administration over Egypt's record on human rights and democracy.

The other equipment included the Longbow Apache helicopter, mobile air defense systems and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) which is a guidance kit that converts existing unguided or "dumb" bombs into "smart" munitions.

Lockheed Martin chief executive officer Robert Stevens confirmed that the company had been notified of the Egyptian request.

The 24 F-16s would replace some of the other 220 F-16s of varying capability that Egypt has acquired on five separate occasions beginning in 1980 under direct U.S. Foreign Military Sales and through the Netherlands and Turkey.

Egypt has been flying the F-16 since 1982, and acquired a total of 220 of those jets since 2002 (42 Block 15 F-16A/B, 40 Block 32 F-16C/D and 138 Block 40 F-16C/D).

Now it may be that the deals went ahead as part of wider negotiations we are unaware of, or as a reward for Egypt's role in the Middle East Peace Process post-Gaza War. But it could also just be that the Obama administration is rejecting all previous Bush policies in the region, even the ones that had some good rationale. Egypt is headed into an uncertain presidential succession, with possible regime divisions on who will succeed the ill, 81-year-old Hosni Mubarak and a disgruntled, strained population. Perhaps it wants to secure the continued pro-US leaning of the officer corps. Perhaps it just wants to give US arms companies money and help keeps jobs in the US in a recession.

But one thing it's not is a principled foreign policy, and one thing Barack Obama is not is a holier-than-thou president. So let's stop treating him as the second coming.

Over the next few days I'll take a look at some of the other outcomes of the speech and some recent changes in the Egypt-US relationship.