October 27, 2014

Messrs Obama, Kerry, Hagel - send the Apaches to Egypt already!

It was supposed to be part of the solution, part of the reconciliation effort between the governments of Egypt and the United States. Relations between the two countries - once close allies - had been strained since the 2013 ouster of the elected President of Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi.

On July 3, 2013, following a series of massive protests - at one point comprising almost 30 percent of the Egyptian population - Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi removed President Mursi from power, appointed an interim government, suspended the constitution, and called for new presidential and parliamentary elections.

The author with then-Minister of Defense General 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi (September 2013)

For all practical purposes, and in the U.S. government's view, this was a military coup d'etat. The new Egyptian leadership disagreed - I had this conversation with General al-Sisi in Cairo soon after he had removed Mursi. He explained that he was merely "executing the will of the Egyptian people."

I asked if he had mobilized units of the Egyptian Army and deployed them at key positions around Cairo and other major cities around the country. He allowed that he had, but claimed that it was not a coup as he did not assume power, but instead had asked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to act as the interim authority pending new elections.

I knew where he was going with this line of explanation. American law is very specific in how we react as a nation to military takeovers. I said that I understood his concern that the United States government would label this a coup and be forced to react. His fears were well placed.

The United States, citing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, immediately cut off all aid to Egypt, including the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance. Although President Barack Obama had the authority to waive the requirements of the law, he chose not to do so and applied sanctions on the interim Egyptian government.

The results were immediate. The Egyptian armed forces, charged with keeping the peace in the face of the expected Muslim Brotherhood violence - aimed mainly at the mostly defenseless Coptic Christians - found themselves without access to needed military hardware and spare parts.

The United States still maintains those sanctions on Egypt. The Egyptian military has had to ground many of its Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter-bombers when they are sorely needed to fight a growing Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

By April 2014, it was obvious to the United States that the Egyptians needed the additional 10 Apache helicopters that were on order, as well as the spare parts and maintenance assistance to address the Sinai situation. Egypt had ordered the 10 helicopters in 2010 to augment the 35 aircraft which have been in the Egyptian Air Force inventory since 2003.

On April 22, 2014 the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. government has vacated it suspension of the delivery of helicopters. The mood in Cairo was one of relief, that the helicopters would soon be on their way and the relationship between the two militaries was on the mend. When asked about the delivery, Secretary of State John Kerry said the deliveries would "take place without further delay."

However, the helicopters have yet to be delivered. This despite the assurances by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just last month that the deliveries were forthcoming. The decision to release the helicopters does not affect the ban on other weapons systems on order - F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 main battle tank kits for local production, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The AH-64 Apache bases - Abu Hamad and Wadi al-Jandali

Egypt's Apaches are flown by the Air Force's 550th Air Brigade (the "Dragons"), with the 51st Squadron "Vipers" operating out of Wadi al-Jandali air base (east of Cairo) and the 52nd Squadron "Eagles" based at Abu Hamad air base (north of Cairo). It is a short flight to the Sinai.

The continuing violence in the Sinai was underscored last Friday (October 24) by a coordinated attack on an Army checkpoint on which 31 soldiers were killed - it was the Army's largest one-day loss of military life in decades. Egyptian authorities believe the attacks were inspired and carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood in retaliation for the coup that removed President Mursi from power in 2013.

President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel - live up to your word. Give the Egyptians the tools they need to fight the Muslim Brotherhood - deliver the helicopters already.