A U.S. senator is blocking the delivery of 10 U.S. Apache attack helicopters urgently sought by the Egyptian government since last spring to battle al Qaeda terrorists in the Sinai peninsula.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) has prevented all U.S. military assistance to the Egyptians, asserting the Egyptian government had violated human rights in ousting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Leahy imposed the hold on the aircraft five days after the Pentagon announced the helicopters were urgently needed to fight terrorism and would be delivered.
White House and State Department officials said this week they are working with Congress to follow through with the transfer of the helicopters, purchased under U.S. military assistance to Cairo.
"We can confirm that the aircraft are in storage at Fort Hood, Texas," a State Department official said. "We are making decisions with respect to our assistance to Egypt in consultation with Congress, and are working to determine when the Apaches would be shipped."
Leahy spokesman David Carle said the delay is separate from a certification process for Egyptian aid contained in State Department authorization legislation.
"There’s a longstanding practice by which the chairs and ranking members of the appropriations and authorizing subcommittees of jurisdiction can withhold obligation of funds that are required to be notified to Congress," Carle said in an email. "The House has a record of holding up far more than the Senate. In this case these funds are a matter of continuing discussion with the administration."
Egypt recently held presidential elections. Former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected and sworn in Sunday. Cairo also has taken other steps to normalize the country following the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi.
Egypt has since declared the Muslim Brotherhood—an anti-democratic jihadist organization—illegal, as have several other states in the region including Saudi Arabia.
The current hold by Leahy was imposed after an April 25 request by the Obama administration to approve $650 million in military aid.
"Events in Egypt continue to concern people of goodwill, in this country and across the globe, who have shared the Egyptian people’s yearning for greater freedom under the rule of law," Leahy said, adding that he has watched the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime by the Egyptian military "with growing dismay."
"I am not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used, and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law," Leahy said in a floor statement.
Defense officials have said there are growing concerns that the U.S. aid restrictions are driving Egypt, one of the key U.S. allies in the region, toward closer ties with Russia, including the possibility that Cairo will begin buying Russian arms instead of American systems.
An Egyptian official said the government appreciates that most of U.S. military aid, except the Apaches, has been lifted.
"On the Apaches, I believe the secretary of state, secretary of defense and head of [U.S. Central Command] have expressed strong support for the Apaches to go to Egypt for operations in the Sinai," the official said. "The three of them have made it clear that the U.S. shares the strategic interest in combatting terrorism in the Sinai."
The official added that it is up to the administration to press Congress to send the aircraft based on their importance for Egyp and combating terrorism in the Sinai.
The high-profile U.S. announcement that the helicopters would be sent followed by the congressional block has raised questions among the Egyptian government about the administration’s sincerity in working to have the Apaches delivered.
The officials said there is an urgent need for the helicopters because of the growing terrorism threat in the Sinai.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported March 12 that the administration turned down a request from the Cairo government to release the 10 Apaches, despite the growing al Qaeda threat in the Sinai.
The administration then reversed its decision and announced April 24 that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had informed Egyptian Defense Minister Col. Gen. Sedki Sobhi on April 22 that President Obama approved lifting the ban on the attack helicopters, while keeping a larger arms embargo in place. The embargo was imposed last year after the Egyptian military ousted Morsi.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman said in April that Hagel told the Egyptian defense minister, "We believe these new helicopters will help the Egyptian government counter extremists who threaten U.S., Egyptian, and Israeli security."
Approval of the helicopters was separate from the overall certification to Congress that Egypt was making progress toward democratic reform, a condition imposed in October that limits the United States $1.6 billion in military aid to Egypt.
The request for the helicopters was made by the U.S. Embassy in March noting that the aircraft were needed against the growing threat posed by the new al Qaeda-linked terrorist group in the Sinai called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem.