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Uncertain Fate for Egypt's US-Supplied Weapons Systems

by Thalif Deen

Besieged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former air force officer whose 30-year old authoritarian regime is under attack, presides over a country described as one of the major military powers in the region, ranking next to Israel and Turkey.

Since it signed the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Treaty with Israel back in September 1978, Egypt has been the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military equipment, including state-of-the art fighter planes, warships, missiles, battle tanks and electronic equipment.

If the Mubarak regime collapses, will all this U.S. equipment fall into the "wrong hands"?

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS the pro-democracy protests are primarily led by young people who are not only alienated from the ruling regime, but also from the traditional Islamist opposition and the aging Muslim Brotherhood leadership as well.

As a result, he said, the United States probably shouldn't worry about a radical Islamist regime coming to power.

"It should also be noted, however, that a truly democratic government in Egypt would not likely be as willing as Mubarak to do the bidding of Washington or the International Monetary Fund (IMF)," said Zunes, who has written extensively on Middle Eastern politics.

The weapons in the Egyptian military arsenal include F-16 fighter planes, attack helicopters, frigates, advanced Sidewinder and Hellfire missiles and Abrams battle tanks - purchased mostly with U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF).

The billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Egypt via FMF has remained gratis, says Dan Darling, Europe & Middle East Military Markets Analyst at Forecast International Inc., a U.S.-based defence market research firm.

Egypt was designated a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally by the United States in 1989 under the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Among other things, Darling told IPS, this status allows Cairo access to more sophisticated U.S. weaponry and opens the door for entry into cooperative research and development projects alongside the United States.

Since then, there have been attempts by the U.S. Congress to curtail levels of military aid to Egypt for reasons of emphasizing democratic reforms or stifling the flow of weapons-smuggling by Hamas via tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, he pointed out.

"These attempts have largely come to nothing," said Darling. Instead, the tap has been maintained as Egypt has stuck to the parameters of the Camp David Accords.

From 2004 through 2010, the level of annual FMF has remained consistent at 1.3 billion dollars or just slightly below, and the Pentagon request for 2011 maintains this level.

This figure is likely to remain intact through the medium- term future - barring extreme political shocks, such as a Muslim Brotherhood/Islamist takeover in Cairo or an abrogation of the Camp David Accords by Egypt, he added.

Zunes told IPS there has never been a legitimate defence rationale for U.S. military aid to Egypt.

"This security assistance is largely designed for internal repression to prevent democratic change and to keep the Mubarak dictatorship in power," he declared.

Prior to the Camp David peace treaty, Egypt was a longtime recipient of Soviet weaponry under a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow. The Aswan Dam, a major economic showpiece, was built with financial assistance from the then Soviet Union.

But with the Camp David accord, Egypt switched its political and military loyalties from the Soviet Union to the United States.

Still, Egypt remains in the process of steadily weaning itself off former Soviet legacy hardware; prior to 1978 the Egyptian Army was largely equipped with Soviet weaponry.

Darling said the Egyptian military still has healthy amounts of Soviet-/Russian-designed hardware, but its last orders came during the 2001-05 period when it agreed to purchase 400 million dollars in Russian arms.

Currently, the United States is the overwhelming arms supplier to Egypt, providing it with 85 percent of its weaponry between 2001 and 2008, and 86 percent from 2002 to 2009, he added.

In terms of conventional size and capabilities, said Darling, Egypt has one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East, behind Israel and Turkey and ahead of Iran in terms of advanced firepower - air and sea power, armored/mechanized capabilities.

However, it remains a relatively static heavy military force focused on defence of the Sinai and matching the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), rather reforming itself into the type of flexible, quick reaction forces being emphasized by NATO militaries - the type which can undertake multiple tasks and combat multiple threats, be they non-state actors (Hamas), sub-state actors (Hezbollah), transnational terrorist groups, crisis relief efforts, or combating piracy on the high seas or littoral areas, declared Darling.

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