Egypt risks sanctions if it goes ahead with the purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets, a US official said on Monday, highlighting the threat the potential deal posed to longstanding military ties between Washington and Cairo.
"This is something they [Egypt] already know: it puts them at risk of sanctions and it puts them at risk of loss of future acquisition," R Clarke Cooper, US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, said at the Dubai Air Show.
The US stance poses President Abdel Fattah El Sisi with a dilemma: buy the Russian aircraft and jeopardise close relations with Washington, or drop the deal and discredit his policy of diversifying weapons procurement for the armed forces.
Under Mr El Sisi, Egypt has purchased weapons worth billions of dollars from France, Germany and Russia, including attack helicopters, submarines, troop carriers, fighter jets and frigates. At the same time it has continued to benefit from Washington’s decades-old military aid programme, worth $1.3 billion annually, to buy American-made tanks, armoured vehicles, F-16 jets and Apache helicopter gunships – weapons it has used in its years-long battle against Islamist militants waging an insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
"To be fair to Cairo, there is opportunities that they're pursuing with the United States," Mr Cooper said. "We've had a strategic relationship with Egypt for years. Egypt has certainly been a provider and guarantor of regional security ... there are other neighbours of Egypt that are appreciative of what they've provided in counter-terrorism. We encourage Egypt to consider how they have been successful."
Mr El Sisi, a general-turned-president who has been in office since 2014, has also cultivated close political and economic relations with China, Russia, Western Europe and Sub-Saharan African nations as part of a more balanced foreign policy than was the case under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader of 29 years who was forced to step down in 2011 in the face of a popular uprising.
News of US opposition to the proposed Su-35 purchase emerged last week. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Egypt's defence minister that Cairo would face sanctions if it went ahead with a $2bn deal to buy more than 20 of the Russian jets.
"Major new arms deals with Russia would – at a minimum – complicate future US defence transactions with and security assistance to Egypt," Mr Pompeo wrote in a letter seen by the Journal. There has been no comment on the leaked letter from the Egyptian government or in local media.
The sanctions are stipulated under a law known by its acronym CAATSA, or the Countering of America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. A case study of how the law will be applied is the recent purchase by Turkey, a Nato member, of a Russian-made S-400 air defence system.
“It is not clear exactly what will happen,” Michael Hanna, senior research fellow at the Century Foundation, New York, said of the Turkey case. “But it could be a big problem for Egypt-US relations if the Egyptians go ahead with the Su-35 deal. There will most likely be sanctions.”
Mr Hanna said that although Russia offered Egypt a trouble-free alliance, it could not replace the United States as the country’s chief foreign backer. Egypt’s pursuit of the Su-35 is because of the US refusal to sell it the advanced F-35 stealth fighter, he said.
“There is an affinity on policies between Russia and Egypt that makes things work, like their rigid approach to Islamic militancy and their policies on Syria and Libya. But, unlike the case with the United States, Egypt must pay for what it gets from Russia.”
“Russia lacks the resources that Egypt needs, while Egypt lacks the cash to pay for what Russia has to offer,” Russia expert Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a paper published last month.
“Egypt’s dependence on the United States prevents it from offering Russia the strategic access and geopolitical influence it seeks. As a result, there is less to the Moscow-Cairo partnership than good-natured declarations could lead one to believe.”
Egypt was Moscow’s closest Arab ally in the 1950s and 1960s, effectively siding with the Soviet Union against the United States during the Cold War years. In a surprise move, the late president Anwar Sadat in 1972 expelled thousands of Soviet military advisers and their families, arguing that Moscow was not doing enough to help the Egyptians militarily. A year later, Egypt and Israel fought the last of their four wars and the road was paved for Washington to replace Moscow as the most dominant foreign power in the Middle East.
Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of US aid since signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. But relations soured in 2013 when the Obama administration publicly opposed the removal from power by the military, then led by Mr El Sisi, of the late Mohammed Morsi, an elected but divisive president who hailed from the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr El Sisi has since forged a close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin – they have met three times this year – and they have overseen a significant expansion in energy and trade ties.
Russia’s growing relations with Egypt are part of Moscow’s expanding foothold in the Middle East, whose defining feature was its military intervention in Syria’s civil war in late 2015 which helped the then embattled government of President Bashar Al Assad to drive opposition forces from most of the areas they once held.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Cairo last week for the sixth meeting of the two countries' joint commission on defence co-operation. An Egyptian readout of Mr Shoigu’s talks with Mr El Sisi spoke of the “strategic partnership” between the two nations, whose militaries have staged a series of joint naval, airborne and counterterrorism war games since 2015.
“We should not allow anyone to tell us where we buy our weapons from. It is dangerous to allow this to happen,” said Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
“When it comes to Russia, the process of decision-making is clear, unlike the case in America where policies are changeable or unclear. With Putin in power, you can be certain of consistent Russian policies.”