The Nature of American-Egyptian Military Relations

By Ali Younes

It should come as no surprise that the ruling Egyptian Supreme Military Council announced its intent to honor all of Egypt’s regional and international treaties after it took over the reins of power from president Hosni Mubarak last week. This announcement was made to primarily assure the United States and Israel that the new post Mubarak political order in Cairo will remain formally committed to its peace treaty with Israel.

More than any other government branch; the Egyptian military owes its modern weapons, training, logistics, and equipment to U.S, military aid which came as a direct dividend of  the peace treaty it signed with Israel in 1979.

In other words, the U.S is paying both Israel and Egypt for peace it sponsored between the two countries in 1979. The U.S payment to Egypt comes in the form of $ 1.3 billion military aid package and only about $250 billion in economic aid.

The Israeli Payment is worth over $3 billion dollar.

A state department cable in 2009 leaked by Wikileaks last year about the U.S-Egyptian relationship documented a meeting between a U.S. general and Egyptian military leaders. The cable sumarized relationship: "President [Hosni] Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the $1.3 billion in annual Foreign Military Financing as ‘untouchable compensation’ for making and maintaining peace with Israel."

In another state department memo labeled “secret” the Egyptian military viewed the "The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear," it says: "Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace."

The U.S. mil-mil relations with Egypt are not just about paying for new military weapons for the Egyptian army. The U.S military aid to Egypt, moreover, pays mostly for upgrades of existing weapons, training Egyptian military and regular maintenance and spare parts.

This military relationship, in exchange, gives the U.S. government leverage over Egypt that the new Egyptian leaders realize as an indispensible fact of life. Without the American military aid the Egyptian military, given the size of American-made weapons it has, will degrade and fall behind its potential enemies in the region.

During the last days of the Mubarak regime, some U.S congressional leaders spoke about cutting U.S. military aid to Egypt if its new leaders moved away from the U.S. national interests. This was the first and clear initial warning that the U.S. might trim its logistical or training support to the Egyptian military which will, in that case, degrade the Egyptian military in the long run and thus weaken Egypt’s strategic value in the region.

U.S. strategic planners calculate that the Egyptian military is unlikely to move away from its alliance with the U.S. due to its total dependence on the U.S. funding to maintain and sustain its American-made weapons. The reasoning behind this thinking is the situation both Iran and the U.S. found themselves in after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. 

The Shah of Iran had acquired huge quantities of advanced U.S. weapons that were maintained by U.S .made spare parts and training programs. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, U.S advanced weapons were in position of an enemy state, but the U.S. ended its military aid programs to Iran, a decision that ultimately caused the U.S. weapons there to rust out of service.

A clear example of that is the U.S. made F-14 Tomcat fighter jets that were in service in Iran before the 1979 revolution. To this day, the Iranian air force has yet to recover from the impact of its dependence on U.S. contracts to service and maintain weapons purchased during the Shah era.

A similar situation could occur for the American-made Egyptian F-16s or its Navy frigates or tanks and armor vehicles. If the future leaders of Egypt decided to end their strategic alliance with the U.S, or end their treaty with Israel, the U.S then, can retaliate by ending its military assistance programs and deprive Egypt’s military crucial upgrades and service contracts.

A situation like that will severely damage the front line of the Egyptian air force, the F-16s, which without U.S spare parts and regular maintenance, will end up crumbling and become obsolete and will meet the same fate as the Iranian F14. In this unlikely scenario, Egypt will fall further behind Israel in its military capabilities; even if it compensated its losses with less advanced Russian and Chinese weapons systems.

For the future leaders of Egypt, the U.S. military aid to Egypt is a double-edged sword. On one hand the modern Egyptian military is almost a U.S. creation in terms of training, weapons, equipment and maintenance, and needs the U.S. support to maintain those advanced weapons systems especially that Soviet era weapons systems are on the way out. On the other hand, American military aid package will keep Egypt an American dependency and within the U.S. sphere of influence to advance the U.S. strategic interests in the region. Egypt in this case cannot chart an independent course in the Arab world much less lead it, nor can it match the much stronger Israeli army.

– Ali Younes is a writer and Middle East analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at ali.younes@charter.net.

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