Q&A with military expert Robert Springborg on US aid to Egypt
New aid deal from Obama serves the interests of both Sisi and the United States
In a Tuesday phone call, US President Obama informed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the American government will release military equipment that has been held up since October 2013. The delivery, which includes twelve F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 tank kits, had been blocked due to American regulations prohibiting military aid being sent to an unelected government. However, a provision in the 2014 budget law allows this “democracy certification” to be waived for Egypt if doing so is deemed to be in the interests of US national security.
Obama also informed his Egyptian counterpart he will continue to request an annual US$1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt. However, the United States plans to make changes to its assistance program to Egypt beginning in the 2018 fiscal year. It will no longer offer Egypt cash-flow financing, which functions like a line of credit that allows Egypt to pay for arms deals over multiple years (implicitly based on the promise of future military aid), rather than pay upfront. In 2018, the United States will also start to channel funding towards equipment in four categories: counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security.
According to Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and former professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, this announcement represents an “artful compromise” between powerful interests in both the United States and Egypt. The deal, he says, aligns with the interests of Congress, Obama, Sisi and the Egyptian military, while offering a sop to human rights advocates in the form of a statement from Obama expressing concern over mass trials and the imprisonment of activists and encouraging respect for civil liberties.
The only real losers, Springborg says, are Egyptian civil society and freedom and democracy in Egypt.
Below is an edited transcription of Mada Masr’s interview with Springborg.
Mada Masr: How much of a change for the Egyptian military is the re-channeling of aid announced in Obama’s phone call?
Robert Springborg: It’s a major change. The United States has for years wanted to have the Egyptian military reconfigure from a force essentially designed, constructed and deployed to fight a major land battle with Israel into one that was more effective for what the United States sees as the major security risks facing Egypt. So, border patrol, counterterrorism, marine surveillance, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance—all of those activities which it needs to perform more effectively and which it refused to do under Mubarak.
As soon as Sisi became the Minister of Defense, negotiations began on this reconfiguration. So it’s not as if this was any surprise to Sisi. He was personally involved and gave his approval for the beginning of that reconfiguration.
The Egyptian leadership knew all of this, they participated in the discussions, and presumably endorsed them, especially in light of the increase in terrorist activities and Egypt’s desire to project its capacities, whether in Libya or Yemen or possibly elsewhere.
MM: If this realignment in aid does fit in with the current Egyptian government’s strategic interests, what overall message would you expect Sisi’s government to take away from this call with Obama?
RS: I’m not inside the Egyptian military, or General Sisi’s office, but I would have thought he would be very pleased by this.
The approach to Russia for MiG-29s, and to the French in the purchase of Rafales and a patrol boat, were political gestures and symbols with no real military consequence. Egypt is now confronting a variety of asymmetric challenges that its existing military and the weaponry of France do not adequately serve to confront.
The reconfiguration of the Egyptian military to make it a lighter more mobile force more capable of dealing with asymmetric threats can only be done with the United States.
That’s what ’s being signaled here. There is now going to be a major effort to reconfigure that force.
Although nothing has been said, the force is too large in equipment and in personnel. It’s just sort of a behemoth that doesn’t perform well and cannot perform well given its size and its present configuration. This may be the beginning of a very significant reconfiguration of the Egyptian military which was supposed to take place back in the wake of the 1979 treaty with Israel, when it was going to be slimmed down, made more responsive to the actual security threats.
Egypt is becoming under General Sisi more assertive. It needs a military that can perform the tasks he wants it to. The military as presently constituted is not able to do it, so Sisi has every reason in the world to work with the United States in the ways indicated by Obama’s recent declaration. From a strictly military perspective, I think they’re very much on the same page, and i think this shows a renewed strength of the military to military relationship.
Are some elements of the Egyptian military likely to resist this kind of change?
The old military was presided over by long-serving Minister of Defense Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, of whom of course the favorite protégé was none other than Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
So Sisi was part of the inner group of the military brass, and that group presided over a policy of a bloated military that was not really capable of doing much of anything.
But Sisi was a younger man, and Sisi was a guy who we can see had political ambitions, but also ambitions to reconfigure that military, and was involved in discussions with the United States to that end going back to the fall of 2013.
My guess is that Sisi doesn’t want older officers around, and is going to build up an officer corps that’s younger and more focused on the immediate tasks at hand in the military arena rather than that older force that really pretty much engaged in running the economy.
I think what we will see is sort of a bifurcation of the Egyptian military into, on one hand, a younger, more mobile, smaller strike force led by younger officers working in close cooperation with the United states. And then on the other hand you’ll have the older increasingly retired off officers who are running the military economy.
So we’re not talking about a conflict, but more of a gradual evolution as the old guard gets pensioned off?
It seems as if Sisi can have his cake and eat it too. He can appeal to younger, more professional officers who can have a more important role in Egypt’s actual military, while the older officers can sit around in the officers’ clubs, work primarily in the military economy and talk about the good old times.
I think it will serve not only Sisi’s personal political interests in maintaining control of the military, but it will also then be seen as serving Egypt’s national interests of having a more effective military force and leave the older military responsible for running the military economy.
You might not agree that the military economy is the right way to go—i think it has tremendous downsides for the economy as a whole—but looked at strictly in military terms this is a good step forward. I’m sure the American military is very much in support of it.
On Capitol Hill, there will be opponents who represent districts in which the big-ticket military items are produced, but the broader support there will overcome that sort of opposition.
I think it was a very well crafted political measure by Obama. The great loser of course, is democracy, freedom and human rights in Egypt. That definitely is not being served by his policy. but it has been clear now for many years that the Obama administration has little interest in democracy and human rights in the Arab world.
So you are predicting that this realignment will help Sisi consolidate his power within the military?
Yes. I don’t think Sisi would have accepted if he saw it as a major threat to himself. He would have signaled that this was not acceptable. The American administration does not want a confrontation with Sisi.
Will the end of cash-flow financing, which allowed Egypt to make large purchases, have an impact?
There will be no more big deals. There are no more big ticket items that we’re talking about here. This is a force that needs lighter equipment, more mobile equipment, and more diverse equipment. It needs more training. It needs reconfiguration. It doesn’t need big ticket items that are designed for fighting land battles of a World War II type.
What about the political importance? Part of the significance of this financing was that it maintained parity with Israel, the only other country to have such a deal.
I think this was all done in an amicable sort of way, and I suspect the financing is not the symbolic issue it would’ve been under Mubarak or even under Morsi.The new agenda is “counterterrorism” in the whole region and, necessarily, the linkage to peace with Israel is downgraded.
Why do you think the changes were announced now? U.S. officials told the New York Times that the deal is not connected to the current situation in Yemen. Do you think this is accurate? And what else might be behind the timing?
We know Secretary of State John Kerry has said several times that the decision was coming soon, and that’s before the Houthis were really taking over Yemen and the Saudi’s began their attack. Was he waiting for some dramatic event? I don’t think so. This took some time to negotiate.
The exact timing could’ve been influence by the desire of the United States to demonstrate its support for the Sunni Arab world, at the time it’s apparently going to sign an agreement with Iran. The United States is trying to carefully balance its opening to Iran with its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the so-called Sunni block. This plays into that.
By: Isabel Esterman