The Senate passed the amendment to the draft law in response to a murder case in Cairo. The body of a 28-year-old PhD student, Giulio Regeni, was found in a ditch in Cairo after undertaking work about Egypt’s labour unions for a communist newspaper. There were reportedly torture marks on his body. Rome says Cairo is not doing enough to properly investigate the murder and is consequently very frustrated.
Retired Egyptian Army General Abdel Rafe Darwish told Russia’s Sputnik News that this move could be “a very dangerous decision for Egypt, which has a direct impact on the military might of the military aviation as spare parts have a certain lifespan, after which they cannot be used. Hence they must be continuously supplied to ensure the normal functioning of F-16 fighters.” To avoid this he believes the Egyptian military must diversify the sources from which it acquires its weapon systems. “If we received weapons from different countries, we would not have to depend on a single party in matters of arms and spare parts,” he reasoned.
Since seizing complete power in the July 2013 coup the regime in Cairo has arrested and killed thousands of political prisoners, both Islamist and secular alike in a brutal sweeping crackdown. In August 2013 violent clashes in Rabaa Square in the Egyptian capital between security forces and protesters left at least 817 people, mostly civilians, dead. Cairo has consequently been condemned by human rights organizations for its subversion of democracy and the brutal nature of its crackdown.
The Egyptian military fields vast quantities of advanced hardware, from M1 Abrams tanks to over 220 F-16’s. These conspicuously American-made weapons however cannot be acquired, nor easily maintained, without cordial relations with Washington – which provides Cairo with $1.3 billion in military aid each year, in other words $6.5 billion between 2011 and 2015.
However there are legal restrictions in the US for providing Egypt with such aid and equipment. Namely if Cairo does not make tangible process towards reforming and implementing fundamental human rights then Congress can block any administration from sending military aid. Aid was approved but not sent from October 2013 until March 2015 due to the coup and the ensuing crackdown. Nevertheless Congress remained in unison with the administration and the aid continued to flow, likely given the fact the Egyptian military remains engaged in a war against the Islamic States‘ (IS) Sinai-based militants (previously a militant group called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis) and Congress does not want to hinder its ability to fight that group.
That could change and Cairo knows it. It knows it needs to be ready for the day when it can no longer pose as a mere bulwark against IS by using its real war against terrorism as a cover for its much more broader and violent crackdown and political dissent.Today with a military made-up of primarily American made military hardware, US sanctions or an arms embargo could have a crippling affect. Lack of spare parts could ground much of the Egyptian Air Force, of which the F-16 is the workhorse jet fighter. Consequently buying non-American weapons would lessen the affect of a potential American embargo.
When the US-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 the US imposed an arms embargo on the new regime throughout its existence. In that case in spite of being unable to buy spare parts for its American-made air force the Iranians were able to keep many of their aircrafts flying by cannibalizing some of their aircraft for spare parts to keep others airworthy.
However today the Iranian Air Force is a shell of its former self and in spite of the lifting of sanctions against Tehran, as part of the nuclear deal reached last year, it is unlikely to modernize its decaying air force anytime soon for political reasons.
Egypt appears to have taken clear steps in the diversification direction. It has spent billions ordering at least 24 French-made Dassault Rafale jet fighters (as part of a $5.9 billion package deal which includes two French Mistral helicopter carriers) and has even contemplated buying a fleet of Russian-made MiG-29’s — rumour has it they are already being delivered.
Moscow and Cairo have been on good terms since the actual regime came to power and have even held their first ever joint-naval exercises in the Mediterranean. While Cairo may not be ready to “pivot” towards Moscow friendly relations with that power are definitely significant if the Americans start pressuring them to amend their policies in return for continued military aid and permission to buy American hardware.
Regeni’s death and the consequent diplomatic dispute which may lead to sanctions against the Egyptian military (Italy may call on other western powers to follow suit) could, however, push Cairo to more rapidly diversify its military in anticipation of more western powers seeking to sanction the Cairo regime for its human rights abuses.
“Egypt: Hundreds disappeared and tortured amid wave of brutal repression“, Amnesty International, 13.07.2016.