The Obama administration has turned down an urgent appeal from Egypt’s government for the delivery of U.S. Apache attack helicopters needed for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula.
U.S. officials and a Western diplomat said the 10 AH-64 attack helicopters had been blocked from delivery in October in response to the administration’s opposition to the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi last year.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo within the past several weeks relayed the Egyptian government’s appeal to send the new Apaches in a cable to the State Department.
According to U.S. officials, the Egyptians said the attack helicopters were urgently needed for Cairo’s fight in the Sinai against a new al Qaeda-linked terrorist group called Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem.
One official said the embassy cable reported that the Egyptians do not understand why the Obama administration, by blocking delivery of the Apaches, appears to be supporting the ousted Morsi regime.
The embassy stated that the Egyptians’ explained that their security needs should be met or the United States risks turning Cairo into an enemy, something the Egyptians do not favor.
"The Egyptians are fighting in the Sinai to protect their own interests, Jordanian interests, and Israeli interests," the official said. "They’re in a tough fight and the administration is refusing to provide the Apaches, which is tantamount to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood."
An Egyptian Embassy spokesman had no comment. However, a western diplomat familiar with the issue confirmed that the Apaches were requested recently and the response was that U.S. military aid remains on hold.
Asked about Egypt’s request for Apaches, a senior administration official told the Washington Free Beacon: "At this time we have no announcements to make regarding changes to our assistance to the government of Egypt."
The senior official said the administration recognizes "the significant terrorist threats that the government of Egypt continues to face in the Sinai and throughout Egypt."
"We continue to work constructively with the interim government and to provide assistance that advances our security objectives such as countering terrorism, countering proliferation, and ensuring security in the Sinai," the senior official said.
The administration blocked most of a $1.6 billion military aid package in October following the ouster of Morsi by Egyptian military forces.
The cutoff was a White House policy decision that is to remain in effect until Egypt shows progress toward democratic reform. The policy also stated that U.S. counterterrorism support would continue, a position that appears at odds with the decision to block the delivery of new Apaches.
In response to the U.S. pressure, the Egyptian government in January approved a new constitution that calls for both parliamentary and presidential elections.
Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is pushing the administration to send the Apaches. The successful referendum in January and the signing of a presidential election law earlier this month are signs of progress toward more democratic rule, he said.
"Egypt is a cornerstone for stability in a part of the world where terrorist activity is rapidly growing," Inhofe told the Free Beacon in a statement.
The senator said Egypt has shown both determination and willingness to assist U.S. efforts to defeat terrorists, and is continuing to play a crucial role in security and stability for North Africa and the Middle East.
"With Morsi gone, the Egyptian armed forces remain the most trusted institution in the country and they need the military equipment they've already purchased from the United States in order to continue to effectively combat and defeat terrorism in the region," Inhofe said.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that has carried out several terror attacks in the Sinai since last year.
The group claimed credit for the suicide bombing Feb. 16 of a tourist bus in the eastern Sinai border town of Tabah that killed three South Koreans and an Egyptian driver.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis also tried to bomb the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel and has conducted attacks against Egyptian military targets.
Other attacks by the group have included the failed assassination bombing attempt against a vehicle convoy carrying Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in Cairo Sept. 5, and a suicide truck bombing against a Sinai security building in Al-Tur, in southwest Sinai.
Egypt has been a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East since the 1980s until the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The revolution that followed brought elections that voted in the anti-democratic Muslim Brotherhood regime, headed by Morsi, that received Obama administration backing.
Then Morsi was ousted in July amid large-scale pro-democracy protests. He was recently put on trial.
Egypt controls the strategic Suez Canal at the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea that is a key transit point for U.S. warships headed for the strategic Persian Gulf.
The current military leader, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al Sisi, recently traveled to Moscow for talks with Russia on purchasing military equipment, raising the prospect that the United States will lose its influence in Egypt after decades of military and financial support.
David Schenker, director of Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said despite its current fleet of 35 Apaches, Egypt needs the new attack helicopters because of the harsh desert-operating environment. The Apaches require frequent maintenance, he said.
In addition to Apaches, the administration is also holding up deliveries of F-16 jets, M1A1 tank parts, and Harpoon missiles. But it is the Apaches that were the Egyptians’ most urgent military need.
Under the administration’s policy toward Egypt, counterterrorism efforts should not be lessened, a policy that should permit delivery of the Apaches, Schenker said.
"Egypt is in the midst of a burgeoning insurgency, not only in the Sinai but in the Nile Valley as well," Schenker said.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing March 6, Inhofe questioned Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central Command, on the need to send Apaches to Egypt.
Austin said the Egyptians were stepping up counterterrorism operations in the Sinai. "This fight is important not only for the country of Egypt but potentially for the region as a whole," he said.
"Would the resumption of the delivery of the Apache helicopters assist the Egyptians in their efforts to fight terrorism?" Inhofe asked.
"First sir, I'll say that I support the president's policy," said Austin who met al Sisi in December. "But from a military perspective, just looking at what the Egyptians have done in the Sinai and the equipment that they're using, the Apache has been very instrumental in their efforts there."
"Is that yes?" Inhofe asked.
"That’s a yes, sir," Austin replied.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) remains opposed to resuming arms deliveries.
"We're nowhere near where I want to be with stability, civilian control of Egypt, to go down that road," Graham told Congressional Quarterly earlier this month, adding that democratic reform and not Apaches will win the war against terrorism in Egypt.
A Graham spokesman declined to comment.
A Senate aide said $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt is contained in the 2014 omnibus spending bill and that the new aid is restricted by provisions requiring Secretary of State John Kerry to hold up aid until he certifies Egypt’s progress toward democracy.
The Egyptians "are in a big fight right now," said the aide who recently visited the Sinai.
"This is probably the biggest fight they’ve had in years and they are trying to take it to the terrorists in the Sinai," the aid said. "The Apache is a big piece of that."