In the months between Egypt’s July 3 military coup and the Obama administration’s announcement on Wednesday that it would suspend some military assistance to Egypt, nearly 2,000 tons of critical U.S. military equipment continued to flow to Egyptian ports, according to shipping data obtained by “Fault Lines.”
The data, commissioned by Al Jazeera from TransArms, a Chicago-based research center that tracks arms shipments, show that, aside from a delay in one comparatively small delivery of four F-16 fighter jets, the shipping of crucial equipment to Egypt — including vehicles used for crowd control — never ceased.
From July 3 to Sept. 24, the last date for which data were available, eight ships left New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., bound for the Egyptian cities of Damietta and Alexandria, where they unloaded defense equipment covered by laws that require State Department approval. The cargo included combat vehicles, various missile systems, and spare parts and support equipment for F-16s, AH-64 Apache helicopters, C-130 transport planes, M109 howitzers, M1A1 Abrams tanks and other items.
Humvees and heavy earth-moving equipment made by Caterpillar also sailed during this time. Both these kinds of vehicles were among those used by Egyptian security forces when they violently dispersed supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi from Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda squares on Aug. 14. Hundreds were killed in what Human Rights Watch described as the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history.” Though the type of equipment is the same, it is difficult to confirm whether the vehicles used against protesters in August were shipped after the coup, because Egypt has been receiving such vehicles for years.
“The U.S. law says it in plain language. When there’s a military coup, aid should be suspended. Instead, what we have here is a signal to the Egyptian military that says, ‘Full speed ahead,’” said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Washington had appeared to be fumbling for the right response to Morsi’s removal and the subsequent violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters. The administration declined to call his ouster a military coup, saying such a determination would not be in the interests of the United States. Doing so would have triggered a law forbidding military assistance to governments installed by coups.
In July the administration announced that it would delay the delivery of four F-16s, which Jannuzi called a “minuscule slap on the wrist,” and a day after the Aug. 14 mass killings, President Barack Obama called off the biennial U.S.-Egyptian military exercise known as Bright Star.
On Wednesday the Obama administration announced it would hold back on delivering certain big-ticket items: M1A1 tanks, F-16s, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missile systems. Equipment used for counterterrorism and security in the Sinai would continue to flow to Egypt, as would spare parts and funds for military training. A majority of Americans support cutting off the aid on account of the violence, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
Joel Johnson, an aerospace industry analyst with the Teal Group and a defense trade expert, said he approved of the administration’s approach.
“I would do roughly what they are doing, a few gestures that can be reversed very easily,” he said. “They have not critically impeded Egypt’s military capability. They have not denied Egypt operational capabilities.”
Egypt has received over $70 billion in aid from the United States since 1948, of which the bulk has come since the 1980s in the form of an annual $1.3 billion appropriation for military assistance, an incentive tied to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. That assistance led Egypt to phase out its Soviet-made arsenal, replacing most of its military equipment with higher-end U.S. products.
But American influence over the Egyptian military does not lie principally in the high-value war machines, Johnson said. The Egyptian military already has more than 200 F-16s, the fourth-largest fleet in the world.
“The leverage isn’t the money,” he said. “It’s down the food chain, the stuff the Air Force or the Army is providing to keep the equipment going. Even in training, you train on equipment as if you are fighting a war, so stuff breaks. It wears out much faster than in the commercial world. So you need a constant supply of parts.”
To a certain extent, because the military aid to Egypt is mostly used by the generals in Cairo to buy weapons systems manufactured across the United States, the assistance program has strong support in Congress.
“This is really one sector where the U.S. still has a meaningful export market, so there’s a lot of pressure on Congress to maintain those production lines in their own districts,” said Shana Marshall, associate director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. “The defense industry executives understand that, so they try to spread out those production lines and plants across as many congressional districts as possible so that they have a base of support when it comes time to make U.S. military policy.”
Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, said in a statement that she was “very concerned” by the aid cutoff.
“Pulling away now may undermine the ability of the United States to work with a critical partner,” she said. “Egypt is going through a difficult transition, and while it does, the United States must preserve this partnership that has been so important to our national security, Israel’s security and the stability of the entire Middle East.”
Granger represents Fort Worth, home of Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the F-16. Lockheed Martin was the largest contributor to her re-election campaign in 2012. She declined interview requests from “Fault Lines.”
In September, shortly before the end of the 2013 fiscal year, the United States transferred $584 million in unallocated Egyptian military aid into one of its own accounts. After Wednesday’s announcement to delay the delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of large military systems, it’s unclear how that money will be spent. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told “Fault Lines” that “some of the money, if possible, will be repurposed for other programs in Egypt, and some of it may need to be used to cover costs of not delivering certain military systems.” She added that this was “by no means a withdrawal from our relationship or a severing of our commitment to Egypt.”
On Aug. 28, the European Union suspended export licenses to Egypt for equipment used for “internal repression,” and Amnesty International has called on the Obama administration and other governments to suspend licenses for the kinds of military hardware used by Egyptian security forces in Cairo this August, including American-made tear gas and Caterpillar bulldozers.
The last shipment of smoke-grenade cartridges from the United States was delivered to the Ministry of Interior under the Morsi presidency this spring. The shipment left Wilmington, N.C., on March 14 and arrived in Suez on April 9 on a special-purpose ship. TransArms director Sergio Finardi said the value of this shipment was more than $40 million.
Since January, more than 11,000 tons of military equipment and hardware have been shipped to Egypt. This likely includes military sales between the Defense Department and Egypt as well as a small amount of direct commercial sales between defense contractors and the Egyptian government. The amount of military hardware shipped to Egypt during the first nine months of 2013 was almost double the 6,500 tons delivered in all of 2012.
While the data from TransArms, which come from commercial bills of lading, provide an important window into U.S. arms sales to Egypt, the full picture remains incomplete. Specifics of the deliveries that travel on American military ships or planes or through diplomatic cargo are not made public and are much more difficult to track.
Since 2011, nearly 4,000 tons of diplomatic cargo has been shipped to Egypt through the Egyptian Procurement Office, an arm of the Defense Ministry, and the Despatch Agencies, an arm of the U.S. State Department that consolidates overseas shipments to embassies. Finardi said that he could only speculate on the content but that the large volumes were “suspicious.”
The ongoing shipments have been interpreted by some human rights observers as a signal of tacit U.S. support for acts of repression. The tension between preserving strategic American security interests in the region and defending human rights hasn’t been lost on the administration. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Obama said his approach to Egypt “reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations but who work with us on our core interests.”
Marshall of George Washington University said the United States would not have exported weapons for decades “if the concern about Egypt had always been human rights.” Throughout, abuses by the internal security forces were prevalent and unchecked.
Today, Friday, Oct. 11, at 9:30 p.m. EDT, our new "Fault Lines" episode “Egypt and the USA” airs on Al Jazeera America. The episode will repeat on Al Jazeera America on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. EDT. In this episode, "Fault Lines" investigates the U.S.-Egypt relationship after the military coup of July 3, 2013.