Egypt felt betrayed in 2013 when the US decided to freeze the supply of its Apache helicopters to Cairo amid its fight against terrorism, says an Egyptian expert. Since then, the nation has learned from its past mistakes and decided to diversify its sources of military equipment reaching out to countries like Russia, despite US objections.
Russia has reportedly started manufacturing 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets for the Egyptian Air Force, in accordance with a $2 billion deal inked between the two countries in 2018.
The delivery of the first batch was scheduled for earlier this year but the process has been delayed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus which led to the shutting down of several defence production plants in Russia.
Now that the country is gradually opening up, reports suggest that production has been resumed, with Moscow expected to send the first jets as early as the third or fourth quarter of 2020.
Washington Eyeing the Deal With Concern
While Egypt awaits delivery, Washington is eyeing the deal with concern. Less expensive, capable of carrying more missiles, and flying farther than some of America’s fighter jets, the Su-35 is set to challenge America’s superiority in the sky.
Earlier, it was reported that the US administration had threatened Cairo with sanctions if the latter dared to move ahead with the purchase of Russia’s 4++ generation supersonic multirole fighter jets but Maged Botros, professor of political science and the chairman of Egypt’s Helwan University, says the Egyptian Republic has nothing to worry about.
“The US is bluffing. They have been threatening other countries too, including Turkey who was warned not to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile systems but nothing has happened. Egypt is a sovereign state and nobody, including Washington, can dictate to us about what to do”.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In 1972, shortly after he came to power in Egypt, President Anwar al-Sadat decided to change his predecessor’s policy and tilted towards the West, sending home Soviet troops that had been positioned in Egypt for decades.
Since then, US interference in Egypt has only grown as has the assistance Washington has been providing. In 1975, it amounted to more than $370 million, a stark increase from 1962, when US aid was at its peak pouring some $200 million into the Egyptian economy.
Over the years that assistance has continued to grow, especially after Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, with Washington beginning to send Egypt military assistance. According to estimates, from 1978 to the present, the US has poured more than $50 billion into the Egyptian military, causing a dependency on its generous monetary donations.
Breaking Away From Dependency on Washington
Then came a turning point. After the masses supported by the Egyptian Army ousted then President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt fell into mayhem used by terrorists to launch attacks on the country’s civilians and security personnel.
In a bid to tackle that challenge, the Egyptian military turned to the US, asking to provide it with Apache helicopters used to track and eliminate terrorists in remote and hard to reach areas of the Sinai, a response that fell on deaf ears.
“It was then that Cairo understood the true meaning of the proverb: a friend in need is a friend indeed, and when [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi came to power [in 2014] he made sure to let the Americans know that from now on, Egypt’s dependency on Washington was over”, said Botros.
Since 2014, President al-Sisi has been working hard on diversifying the sources of the nation’s military equipment to avoid the dependency that has tied the country’s hands in the past. In 2014, Cairo ordered two submarines from Germany and a year later it purchased Rafale fighter jets from France. Multi-billion dollar deals have also been signed with other providers, including China and Russia.
For Botros that policy made perfect sense. “Never in a million years will be willing to put all our eggs in one basket, the way it was before 2014. Egypt has learned a lesson and we will not repeat past mistakes”, explained the expert.
Money as a Means of Leverage
This, however, might be a difficult task to achieve considering that “much of Egypt’s equipment is still of American origin” and given that the country is the largest recipient of US aid after Israel.
In the past, it was thought that Washington would not hesitate to cancel all or some of its aid to force Egypt drop the idea of purchasing Russian arms. It has also been reported that the US might also choose to suspend its joint military drills with the Egyptians making them reconsider their policy.
Yet, Botros believes these and other challenges are incapable of breaking Egypt’s spirit. Nor will they be able to alter Cairo’s decision to stick to its policy of diversification.
“The US [military] assistance constitutes a small percentage of our military’s total budget”, he said referring to the $11 billion that Cairo injected into its military in 2019. “Plus, Egypt has a number of sources of income so we will still be able to pull through even if the worse comes to worst”.
In addition to the Suez Canal that enriches Egypt’s economy with an average of $5 billion annually, Cairo has also been investing in its gas hoping to turn the country into an energy hub from which gas can reach destinations in Europe and Asia, thereby injecting billions of dollars into the country’s budget.
That’s why, said Botros, the US should not try their luck with Egypt, because if they do, Cairo will be forced to pull some strings too.
“In addition to the Suez Canal, Cairo has leverage over the Gulf States, one of America’s main markets. Egypt’s diplomatic efforts in stabilising the region have also been acknowledged, whereas the country’s conduct in curbing the spread of terrorism and illegal immigration has been noteworthy. So I suggest that the US should not put pressure on us”.