NY Times, by Peter Baker (David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo.)
WASHINGTON — Seeking to repair relations with a longtime ally at a time of spreading war in the Middle East, President Obama on Tuesday lifted an arms freeze against Egypt that he first imposed after the military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government nearly two years ago.
Mr. Obama cleared the way for the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles and M1A1 Abrams tanks, weapons prized by Egyptian leaders, who have smoldered at the suspension. In a telephone call, Mr. Obama assured President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt that he would support the full $1.3 billion in annual military assistance the Cairo government traditionally receives, even as others seek to cut it, the White House said.
The decision signaled a trade-off for a president who has spoken in support of democracy and human rights, and yet finds himself in need of friends at a volatile time in a bloody part of the world. The White House made no effort to assert that Egypt had made the “credible progress” toward democracy that Mr. Obama initially demanded when he halted the arms deliveries in October 2013. Instead, the decision was justified as being “in the interest of U.S. national security,” as the White House put it in a statement.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the timing of the move was not directly related to the swirling crosscurrents now roiling the Middle East, including the widening conflict in Yemen, the rise of extremism in Libya, the battle with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or the possible nuclear deal with Iran.
But they said the broader perils of the region, particularly militant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, played an indirect role. “Given that higher level of threat, we felt it particularly important to make sure Egypt had all of the equipment it could possibly need to defend itself from these threats,” said one of the officials.
Beyond Sinai, Egypt finds itself facing multiple security issues. In February, Egypt conducted an airstrike against Islamic militants in Libya in retaliation for the beheadings of a group of Egyptian Christians. Egypt has also said it would send ground troops into Yemen if necessary to support the Saudi-led operation against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. And Egyptian leaders agreed in concept to create a combined military force with other Arab states.
Mr. Obama’s move will release 12 F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks that Egypt had previously paid for but have been held up since 2013. The F-16s are especially important to Egyptian leaders, who have bitterly raised the issue with American counterparts at nearly every opportunity.
Intended or not, experts said Mr. Obama’s decision would be interpreted as an effort by Washington to bolster a fragile position in the region. “The U.S. is facing quite a few challenges and it needs to shore up relations with allies,” said Steven Simon, a former Middle East adviser to Mr. Obama. “The assistance to Egypt was always predicated on its foreign policy, not its domestic policy. That was certainly the Egyptian understanding of it."
Other experts and human rights advocates, however, said Mr. Obama had effectively capitulated to Mr. Sisi, a former general who helped lead the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and then won the presidency in an election tainted by wide-scale arrests of opposition figures. They compared Mr. Obama’s decision to lift the arms freeze to past instances when he did not live up to his own words, citing the “red line” he drew against Syrian use of chemical weapons in its civil war.
“Unsurprisingly, in this case you see that national security priorities, broadly defined, trump virtually everything else,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “And that’s a very myopic, short-term approach to fighting terrorism. Human rights abuses are actually a very bad counterterrorism strategy.”
According to Human Rights Watch and an Egyptian group called the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, the Egyptian authorities arrested more than 40,000 people after Mr. Sisi’s removal of Mr. Morsi and have never provided a full accounting of the detentions.
Mr. Sisi’s government has cracked down on nongovernmental organizations that take foreign money and authorized military courts to hold mass trials in terrorism cases that the rights groups call a way of suppressing protesters.
Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the decision would be seen as a victory by Egyptians who wore down American resistance.
“This isn’t their intention, but it will be read by Sisi as acceptance of his legitimacy and a desire to satisfy his demands in their relationship,” she said. “I’m still trying to understand how do our concerns factor in.
Mr. Obama’s decision does include elements that may irritate Mr. Sisi, however. Until now, Egypt and Israel were the only countries permitted to buy American arms by drawing credit from future foreign aid. Mr. Obama said he would halt that for Egypt, barring it from drawing in advance money expected in the 2018 fiscal year and beyond. He will also channel future military aid to four categories — counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security — rather than give Egypt broad latitude to decide how to use it.
The change in policy is intended to wean Egypt away from large, expensive weapons systems that signal national prestige but are not suited to fighting the sort of insurgent and terrorist threats it now confronts, American officials said.
Without its aid already spoken for years in advance, Egypt will have more flexibility to make arms purchases to deal with immediate challenges. The United States will also have more flexibility to cut it off if future actions warrant, officials said.
Indeed, some scholars said the end of cash-flow financing, as it is called, was the most significant element of Mr. Obama’s announcement because the resumption of aid was expected eventually.
“Now the military aid could be much more easily discontinued in the future,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation in New York. “This is a very far-reaching step.”
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the release of the weapons did not mean that the United States would stop pressing Egypt to ease its domestic repression of dissent.
“We will continue to engage with Egypt frankly and directly on its political trajectory and to raise human rights and political reform issues at the highest levels,” she said.