Realism Versus Liberalism: U.S. Foreign Military Sales to Egypt in the Post-Morsi Era

Photo by Essam Sharaf/Wikimedia Commons

By Jamie Geller |

For nearly three decades, U.S. defense relations with Egypt – largely defined by the framework of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty – helped stabilize the Middle East. Under the treaty, the United States encouraged Egypt to become the first Arab state to maintain peace with Israel, incentivizing the deal through arm sales that enabled Egypt to modernize its security force. In exchange for U.S. arms, Egypt agreed to limit military forces deployed to the Sinai Peninsula, a triangular swath of land bordering Israel’s South. Over the years, however, oppressive regimes used the same military equipment sold under this agreement to consolidate Egypt’s domestic power and security. The United States overlooked these and other injustices in an effort to maintain regional stability, a higher priority than establishing a democracy in a country with little history of it.

Tectonic shifts like the Egyptian Revolutions and broader Arab Awakening challenged these shortsighted U.S. views. Because weapons were being used to crush the very democratic foundations that the United States championed, some policymakers began questioning U.S. foreign military sales (FMS). Because of the Egyptian military’s violent repression since the 2011 revolutions and continued domestic instability, the Obama administration, after several months of deliberation, issued a temporary freeze on several heavy conventional arms involved in FMS, while maintaining counterterrorism programs. The U.S. Congress, however, recently reversed this decision by inserting a section in the federal spending bill that allows $975 million of FMS to Egypt, along with additional sales should Egypt hold 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections.[1]  Delivered in the form of payments to U.S. arms manufacturers for deliveries to Egyptian military forces, this military aid includes heavy conventional arms like the F-16 fighter jet and M1A1 Abrams tank parts. After the interim military-backed Egyptian government issued a constitutional referendum, top U.S. lawmakers and administration officials were hopeful that such actions signaled Egypt’s progress toward democracy in the post-revolution era – something the United States should certainly commend. Others, however, continue to underscore the strategic necessity of ensuring that Egypt remains committed to regional stability via the 1979 framework and believe that future FMS should be more closely tied with democratic elections.

The 2011 Egyptian revolution forced former authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak to resign from his presidential post. Though the United States and Egypt maintained friendly relations after Mubarak, his overthrow rattled U.S confidence in Egypt’s commitment to the 1979 treaty, causing pessimistic lawmakers and policymakers to question the overall defense relationship. Egypt’s first democratic election after the revolutions brought Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, to power. Under Morsi’s rule, Egypt experienced widespread economic stagnation and political polarization. Morsi institutionally ostracized political rivals, particularly Egypt’s Coptic Christians, fostering widespread grievances and renewed protests.[2] As a result, the Egyptian military, led by Defense Minister General Abdul Fatah al Sisi, staged a coup d’etat in July 2013 and appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court Judge Adli Mansour as the interim leader. Mansour currently maintains domestic power through severe repression of political dissent, rather than fostering support through political inclusion and renewed economic growth.[3] His interim government issued a constitutional referendum in January 2014, but has not yet set a date for elections. Signaling greater political instability, interim Prime Minister Hasan El-Beblawi’s recently resigned, causing Mansour to order former Housing Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to form a government as the new Prime Minister.[4]

Some U.S policymakers remain reluctant to authorize continued FMS to Egypt as political instability and military repression continue. Egypt could still sidestep elections altogether or empower leaders opposed to U.S. interests, creating a risk that U.S. arms would be misused. The United States cannot afford to have its credibility in democracy promotion further tarnished in the Middle East, much less be cast as an arms dealer only concerned with protecting its strategic interests. Moreover, Egypt’s domestic instability has contributed to the militarization of the Sinai Peninsula. A small-scale insurgency since the fall of Mubarak has created a rampant maelstrom of the Egyptian military, jihadists, and arms in the Sinai Peninsula that jeopardizes an uneasy peace with Israel and broader regional stability.[5] Some U.S. policymakers worry that sending additional arms would add fuel to the fire.

After the 2013 military coup in Egypt, the U.S. Congress, in accordance with 22 U.S Code § 8422, froze military aid to Egypt.[6] But in January 2014, Congress authorized President Obama to send $975 million in military aid after Secretary of State John Kerry certifies that Egypt is transitioning to democracy, plus an additional $576 million once presidential and parliamentary elections are held and Egypt is governing democratically.[7] While members of the Obama administration argue that the legislation shows appropriate support for Egypt’s interim steps toward institutionalizing democracy, more pessimistic legislators and policymakers believe that any further aid should be conditioned on Egypt actually holding elections.

There are several options for correcting existing U.S. policy toward Egypt. First, the United States could choose to prioritize its defense relationship with Egypt and stability with Israel and continue the process of authorizing $975 million in FMS, while conditioning an additional $576 million on elections being held. However, this potent mix of continued military support and a conditional future highlights avenues that extremists could exploit. This policy lacks a guarantee of how and toward what end U.S. weapons will be used should the interim regime fail to hold elections promptly. Specifically, M1A1 Abrams tanks included in this recent deal provide tactical advantages for seizing territory with short-range, direct-fire capabilities. Egypt could use these tanks to further consolidate power within its own borders, or even provocatively threaten the border region with Israel. Heavy conventional arms on the border could incite feelings of insecurity in Israel and potentially accelerate an existing regional conventional arms race – a charge the U.S. simply cannot own responsibility for. Additionally, even if elections are held promptly, Egypt may select a leader who opposes U.S. interests in the region – namely, stability with Israel. In this instance, the United States would be reluctant to provide additional military aid, exposing it to charges of imperialism and colonialism.

Second, the United States could freeze all FMS to Egypt, citing continued political instability and military repression. This policy would prevent any additional American military supplies from being used to commit human rights violations, but two downsides are more important. First, this policy could further open the market for suppliers such as Russia that tend to ignore human rights violations.[8] Recently, Russia and Egypt reached initial agreements on a ‘no-strings attached’ arms deal, signaling what could be a change in Egypt’s supply routes and foreign alliances.[9] Second, this policy could also incentivize Egypt to develop its own capabilities for manufacturing arms, particularly the M1A1 Abrams tank. In 1988, the United States and Egypt established a coproduction assistance program in which Egyptian facilities would manufacture some M1A1 tank components, while the United States would manufacture and ship the remaining parts to Egypt.[10] By freezing all FMS, the United States could incentivize Egypt to build upon an existing infrastructure to increase its own tank production capabilities, decreasing U.S. influence over Egypt’s overall military capabilities.[11]

Third, the United States could freeze all FMS to Egypt until at least six months after elections are held. Within current law, the U.S. State Department could, for example, decide that  Egypt cannot sufficiently prove that they are taking steps toward a democratic transition, and hence be eligible for additional military aid, until after a new government is elected and begins governing. While such a policy would increase tension in U.S.-Egypt relations, it would encourage the interim government to promptly hold democratic elections based on political inclusion and uphold its commitment to regional stability. The six-month buffer would ensure that future U.S. weapons are not used to quell any unrest immediately following elections. More pessimistically, if the newly elected leader clashes with the United States, this buffer zone would enable U.S. officials to further reexamine its defense relationship with Egypt. Though this policy will likely result in charges of U.S. colonialism, it provides the surest guarantee of how and toward what purpose U.S. weapons will be used in Egypt in the months following elections.

Thus, although no option is sure to succeed, conditioning FMS to Egypt on a more developed democratic process and renewed domestic stability enables the United States to best ensure its security interests while promoting democracy and associated ideals.

Jamie Geller is an M.A. candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the GSSR Associate Editor for the Middle East.

[1] AFP, “US set to unfreeze aid to Egypt,” Ahram Online,  January 15, 2014. Available at:

[2] Jeremy M.. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700 RL33003, January 10 2014. Available at:

[3] Jeremy M.. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700 RL33003, January 10 2014. Available at:

[4] AFP, “Outgoing Minister Mahlab says named new Egyptian PM: media,” The Daily Star, February 25, 2014. Available at:

[5] Jeremy M.. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700 RL33003, January 10 2014. Available at:

[6] 22 U.S. Code § 8422 – Authorization of assistance, Available at: ”; see also “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, Rules Committee Print 113-32 House Amendment to  the Senate Amendment to the Text of H.R. 3547,” January 14, 2013. Available at:,0,792.

[7] AFP, “US says no decision yet on unblocking Egypt aid,” January 16 2014. Available at:

[8] Henry Meyer and Mariam Fam, “Russia Seeks Biggest Egypt Arms Sale Since 1970s After U.S. Halt,” Bloomberg, November 12, 2013. Available at:

[9] Oren Dorrell “Russia offers Egypt no-strings-attached arms deal,” USA Today, February 13 2014. Available at:  arms-deal/5459563/.

[10] Jeremy M.. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700 RL33003, January 10 2014. Available at:; see also “Egypt – Co-production of M1A1 Abrams Tank,” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, July 5 2011. Available at:

[11] Jeremy M.. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700 RL33003, January 10 2014. Available at:; see also “Egypt – Co-production of M1A1 Abrams Tank,” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, July 5 2011. Available at:

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