Two warships built in France and initially promised to Russia will be sold to Egypt, French President François Hollande announced Wednesday.
After agreeing to the purchase of 24 French-made Rafale fighter jets back in February, Egypt is fast becoming one of the French defense industry's top clients. The contract with Egypt will also help soften the blow of the failed deal with Russia, which was called off earlier this year at the end of a long-running diplomatic saga.
"I agreed the price and conditions of this sale with [Egyptian] President [Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi," said Hollande. "France will ensure the delivery of these ships without losing anything and will make sure Egypt is protected."
The two Mistral warships are scheduled to be delivered to Egypt in March 2016. French and Egyptian officials have negotiated a 950 million euro ($1.06 billion) price tag — the amount France agreed to reimburse to Russia after it pulled the plug on the deal this year.
France's contract to equip Russia with amphibious warfare capabilities has been mired in political intrigue for the past two years as a result of the Ukraine crisis, straining ties between Moscow and Paris.
Known as "projection and command ships," the 200 meter long Mistral warships are versatile vessels capable of transporting helicopters and tanks.
"They are floating military bases," explained General Jean-Claude Allard, a research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and an advisor for the Ministry of Defense.
"It can house several hundred soldiers, can accommodate several helicopters taking off at the same time, several hangars to store tanks or trucks […] and a docking bay for smaller boats," Allard told VICE News. The warship also includes a hospital, complete with operating theater.
France already has three Mistral carriers in its arsenal.
The 1.2 billion euro ($1.3 billion) contract with Russia, which was negotiated in 2008 and signed in 2011, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, included the building and delivery of two amphibious Mistral assault ships, the training of Russian sailors, and a technology transfer program granting Russia access to French expertise.
But in November 2014, President Hollande froze the delivery of the second helicopter carrier in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
"The current situation in eastern Ukraine still does not allow for the delivery of the first [warship]," Hollande said at the time.
In February 2015, France suspended the delivery of both ships — named the Vladivostok and the Sebastopol — in order to make sure Russia adhered to the conditions outlined in the Minsk ceasefire deal. The deal was officially killed on August 5, and France agreed to reimburse Moscow its 950 million euro deposit.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Hollande said al-Sisi had confirmed his intention to purchase the warships during the unveiling of a major new expansion of the Suez Canal, which was attended by the French president and many other foreign dignitaries.
Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on the border with Israel, has been the scene of growing instability. In 2014, jihadist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis — a jihadist group operating in the peninsual — pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
"Egypt said that its objective was to position a warship in the Mediterranean and another in the Red Sea," Allard told VICE News. "But I fail to see why Egypt needs these vessels right this minute. They say they want to secure the Suez Canal, but they could get there just as easily by road [in case of an attack], or with lightweight boats that would get there sooner."
"From a strategic point of view, [the purchase] makes sense if the aim is to become a regional power in the Middle East — which Egypt already does with Saudi Arabia in Yemen," the general said. Egypt has been engaged since March 2015 alongside Saudi Arabia in the the fight to stall the progression of Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
"Al Sisi is a military man, who was a high-ranking officer in the army," said Allard. "Perhaps he's laying the foundations for a vision of Egypt that he's been planning for a long time."
In February, France clinched a deal to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets to Egypt, as part of a military weapons contract worth over $5.2 billion ($5.8 billion).
"The US is trying to distance itself from Egypt and Saudi Arabia," said Allard. "Those countries can sense that and are looking for new suppliers. Meanwhile, France, which is in poor economic health, is looking to place its products."
According to French maritime news site Mer et Marine, Egypt has signed weapons deals worth seven billion euros with France this year.
When asked whether Egypt was the ideal customer, Hollande replied that, "It is the buyer I had considered to be the favorite, because we have military cooperation with Egypt…, because Egypt plays an important role in the Middle-East, and because Egypt wants to move toward a transition into democracy and we should support those efforts."
In August 2015, Karin Lahidji, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, criticized the Franco-Egyptian military cooperation in the pages of French daily Libération, arguing that the so-called fight against terrorism could in fact have dramatic repercussions on Egypt's civilians.
Egypt is still currently embroiled in a diplomatic row with Mexico, after Egyptian security forces mistakenly killed 12 people, including several Mexican tourists, during an air strike on what they believed was a jihadist convoy.
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