An attack by Egyptian security forces that killed a dozen people including eight Mexican tourists last week has prompted calls for renewed scrutiny on a recent increase in US and European arms sales to Egypt.
Human rights groups said the killing on 13 September in Egypt’s Western Desert was an illustration of a deeper problem of how Egypt’s military and police use lethal force.
In Egypt’s north Sinai region, where the government is battling Isis militants, residents say the military has displayed a pattern of indiscriminate killing which the government denies. The airstrike on the picnicking Mexican visitors reportedly involved a US-made Apache helicopter gunship. Survivors said that they were bombed about five times during the three-hour attack.
The killing in the Western Desert came after the US, Britain and other western governments reinforced arms sales to the regime in Cairo, two years after Egypt’s military overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and the security forces carried out a series of mass killings that left more than 1,000 people dead.
“[The attack] gives a message that the Egyptian security forces are not really well trained. They use the weapons that they receive from western states. So we renew our call on western states that give weapons to Egypt to review their arms sales,” said Mohamed Elmessiry, a researcher on Egypt at Amnesty International.
The US froze military aid to Egypt in the aftermath of the 2013 military takeover, but President Barack Obama reversed the ban in March.
That decision resulted in the transfer of the eight F-16 fighter jets, built in Texas and flown to Cairo directly from the US, with four more jets expected in the fall. The US also delivered five M1A1 Abrams tank turrets. The US embassy in Cairo celebrated the delivery of the jets with a tweet tagged in Arabic with the phrase “Tahya Masr” – long live Egypt.
On 31 July, the F-16s flew in tight formation over Cairo, leaving streaks of smoke in red, white and black, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
The UK also moved quietly this year to restore arms licenses that were suspended in 2013, approving the sale of $76.3m worth of parts for military vehicles in the first three months of 2015, according to a report by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The UK, however, refused licenses for gun parts, weapons sights and jet engine components, on the grounds that they could be used for internal repression.
The Egyptian government denies that the security forces operate under loose rules of engagement. In an open letterto the people of Mexico published after the deadly attack last week, the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, wrote: “I assure you that Egypt’s law enforcement agents operate under a strict moral, ethical and legal code that seeks to avoid civilian casualties. This is a hallmark of our humanity and compassion. We have nothing to gain from the tragic incident of 13 September, and everything to lose.”
The US and Britain join France, Russia, and other states in arming the Egyptian military. In Washington and London, concerns about the military’s removal of an elected leader and evidence of ongoing rights violations have been overshadowed by the exigencies of the US-led fight against extremist groups across the Middle East.Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, a spokesman for the Egyptian military, declined to comment specifically on human rights groups’ claims of abuses by the military in Sinai. Asked about the attack on the Mexican tour group, he said, “President Sisi will answer all the questions after they finish the investigations.” A spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry referred questions about arms sales to Egypt’s military.
Experts say the key reason underpinning Obama’s reversal of the arms freeze was the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the launch of the US-led campaign against the group. Egypt’s military is fighting an Isis-aligned insurgent group based in the Sinai peninsula whose attacks have claimed the lives of hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police. In February, Egyptian warplanes also struck what the government said were Isis positions in Libya in reaction to the execution of 21 Coptic Christian hostages.
“Since we have declared Isis our number one enemy, it is then pretty hard for the Obama administration to elevate human rights, democratization over security concerns,” said Robert Springborg, a retired professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
In addition, the Obama administration may have also decided that the arms freeze had failed to convince Egyptian leaders to reign in human rights abuses. In the political crackdown that followed the fall of Morsi, more than 40,000 people have been arrested, according to a count by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social rights.
Britain’s arms sales come in a similar context. Daniel Levy, director of theMiddle East and North AfricaProgramme at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said UK prime minister David Cameron’s has sought “his own anti-extremism narrative”.“At a certain point, the judgment was made that it was costing more than it was gaining,” said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “The key factor was that it antagonizes the Egyptian government without having any impact on the human rights situation. So it was better to cut losses.”
“They’re going to own the idea that you make common cause with these regimes against extremism, and that’s fine, because we’re allies against extremism, and that’s the important value that we share, more important than anything else,” said Levy.
While Washington suspended weapons sales to Egypt for a period after the military takeover, France continued to do business with Cairo, capitalizing in part on the gap in the arms market left by the US.
In February, France made a €5.2bn ($5.8bn) arms sale to Cairo including 24 French Rafale fighter jets, a frigate and missiles. The sale of the jets carried important symbolic meaning in France. For decades, the Rafale frustrated French arms manufacturers by proving impossible to sell abroad despite massive political effort. Egypt’s purchase marked the first ever sale of the planes to a foreign state, and has since been followed by Qatar.
Socialist president François Hollande has been criticised by French rights groups and opposition leftwing parties for selling Sisi arms. But Hollande has made the fight against terrorism and jihadist groups a centerpiece of his foreign policy engaging on several fronts, including Mali and the Sahel.
Bruno Tertrais, senior research fellow at Paris’s Foundation for Strategic Research said of the Egypt arms sale marked a “convergence of interests” and that the Rafale jets were intended for operations in Libya. He said: “Diplomats here consider these are two different things: while we have common strategic interests, human rights can be pushed to the background.”
Additional reporting by Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Julian Borger in London