CAIRO — The release of U.S. military aid to Egypt withheld following the army's overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013 has boosted the legitimacy of the former military chief now running the country, nearly a year into his four-year term.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on Wednesday welcomed the move, another victory in his quest to eliminate some of the last international penalties on his government after companies gave it a strong vote of confidence at a March economic summit that generated tens of billions of dollars in investment.
In a statement, el-Sissi's office said he had told U.S. President Barack Obama by telephone that the decision supports the strategic objectives of both countries in combating terrorism and extremism and maintaining security, particularly in Egypt's restive Sinai Peninsula.
The $1.3 billion in annual arms funding was suspended 21 months ago when el-Sissi, then military chief, overthrew President Mohammed Morsi amid massive protests against his yearlong rule. Until now, Washington had withheld much of the package because it could not certify that el-Sissi's government had made advances on democracy, human rights and rule of law, as Obama had earlier required.
El-Sissi was elected president last May, while plans to hold parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed.
In the end, however, the Obama administration decided that it would release the aid on other grounds, saying it was in the interests of U.S. national security. The move underlines how Egypt's emerging role in a campaign against regional extremists like the Islamic State group outweighs concerns over documented domestic human rights abuses.
The decision releases orders for 12 F-16 fighter jets, 20 missiles and up to 125 tank kits, with the White House saying it will continue to request the yearly package, restoring Egypt as the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing after Israel. Despite the suspension of military aid, the U.S. had been providing hundreds of millions of dollars in arguably more important counterterrorism assistance to its ally.
The decision did however contain one catch: new rules kicking in from 2018 will limit a cushy financing deal Egypt had previously maintained that allowed it to pre-order military equipment years in advance on the promise that Congress would fund the request in subsequent fiscal years.
The U.S. will also focus the aid more on specific areas that fit its strategic goals in the region — counterterrorism, border security, maritime security, and Sinai security, as well as sustaining weapons systems already in Egypt's arsenal — not necessarily massive Abrams tanks designed for land wars and which Egypt already has in number.
"In this way, we will ensure that U.S. funding is being used to promote shared objectives in the region, including a secure and stable Egypt and the defeat of terrorist organizations," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement Tuesday.
Egypt had been arguing it needs the tanks, fighter jets and missiles to face growing threats from extremists creeping over the border from lawless Libya or operating in the northern Sinai.
Statements from both leaders addressed human rights, with Obama's office saying it remains concerned "about Egypt's continued imprisonment of non-violent activists and mass trials," adding that he "encouraged increased respect for freedom of speech and assembly and emphasized that these issues remain a focus for the United States."
El-Sissi's office said that he "asserted that Egypt will spare no effort to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms."
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