Speaking at a political conference Sunday in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi unveiled a $1.31 billion budget for counterterrorism efforts in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, an area that has repeatedly been hit by militant attacks. Addressing politicians in the Egyptian capital, Sisi announced he is looking to France to supply Egypt with much-needed modern military equipment.
The US halted the delivery of 20 F-16 fighter jets, 125 M1-A1 battle tank kits, and 20 Harpoon cruise missiles to Egypt following the 2013 coup that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, but 10 Apache helicopters included in the original deal were reportedly delivered last month. The US also suspended a portion of the $1.3 billion worth economic and military aid delivered annually to Egypt, though the withheld funds were released last June after Congress passed a law that requires the Egyptian government to take steps to improve human rights conditions in order to receive the aid.
Egypt has urged Western nations to provide military support to fight terrorism following the recent attacks in France. Sisi has already met French President François Hollande twice over the past few months to discuss Egypt's weapons needs. The two presidents first discussed a possible weapons contract when they were in New York last year for the UN General Assembly. The second meeting took place last week in Saudi Arabia, where heads of state gathered last week to pay their respects to late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Egyptian army officials reportedly traveled to Paris in January to finalize the deal.
In his address Sunday, Sisi said he was negotiating the "swift" delivery of "inexpensive" military equipment.
An Egyptian military source confirmed Monday that France had been working closely with Egypt to provide the country with weapons "within an acceptable delay." The source, who requested anonymity to discuss the negotiations, told VICE News that Egypt desperately needs to "strengthen its military" in order to contain the terrorist threats.
France and Egypt have not released any details about the type of weapons involved in the proposed deal. It is also unclear whether or not both parties have actually signed an agreement. The French government did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
A French diplomatic source told VICE News that French-Egyptian military cooperation around the sale of weapons is "not a new phenomenon." The source also explained that all weapons deals entered in by France are regulated by the common European position on the sale of weapons — meaning it can't sell weapons if it has reason to believe the arms will be used for repression.
Sophie Pommier, director of Meroe Consulting, a firm that specializes on issues in the Arab nations, told VICE News that Sisi's recent announcement "follows several months of negotiations" between the two countries.
French daily La Tribune reported in July 2014 that the Egyptian navy purchased four small corvette-type warships from France. In December, the same newspaper revealed that a 15-person military delegation traveled from Egypt to Paris to negotiate the purchase of 23 to 26 Rafale-type aircraft, as well as two frigates, including one with anti-submarine warfare capability.
Jean-Claude Allard, a research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), said France is unlikely to supply Egypt with "heavy weaponry," such as warplanes and warships. "Egypt needs the technology to increase its intelligence capacity," Allard said, "and to ensure the long-term fight [against the jihadists] — a challenge for any traditional army."
Pommier agreed with Allard, adding that the Rafale fighter aircraft are "a bit out of Egypt's reach," from a financial standpoint. She speculated that Sisi will try to negotiate by playing up the risk of terror attacks, essentially telling the world that, "If Egypt fails to contain the jihadist threat in Sinai, it'll be for lack of resources."
In November 2014, the jihadist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a mostly Sinai-based militant group that emerged after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, announced on Twitter it had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). Stéphane Lacroix, a professor at Sciences Po, a political science institute in Paris, told VICE News that this new branch of IS, which calls itself Sinai Province, counts "hundreds of militants [who are] stationed in Sinai, where Egyptian authorities have lost control of large swathes of the region."
Last Thursday, the group claimed responsibility for a string of bombings that left 45 dead, including soldiers and civilians, in Arish, the capital of North Sinai.
While Egypt publicly focuses its attention on the rising terrorist threat in Sinai, Pommier drew attention to "the nationwide upsurge in small, improvised attacks against military outposts, public buildings and transport."
Lacroix also identified a second rising jihadist force in the country, known as the Soldiers of Egypt. According to Lacroix, the group is made up of a few dozen militants, and is mostly active around Cairo. Lacroix said the homegrown insurgent group has no clear leader and "does not come from the international jihadist movement, but claims instead to be born out of the Egyptian revolution." Designated a terrorist group by the US State Department in December 2014, the Soldiers of Egypt targets the army and the police and claims to warn civilians of any impending attacks.
Lacroix believes members of the Muslim Brotherhood may have joined the organization's ranks after Morsi was removed from power and accused of "Islamizing" Egyptian society. Sisi's government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December 2013.
"The hierarchy of the Brotherhood has been destroyed," Lacroix said, "and its leadership, which is trying to advocate for peace, is completely divorced from its supporter base, some of which has a tendency toward radicalization."
Lacroix said heworried that the Egyptian government is trying to widen its definition of terrorism in order to justify the use of excessive force against civilians. At least 15 people were killed during clashes between police and protesters on January 25, the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled former ruler Hosni Mubarak.
"The State is exploiting the concept of terrorism in order to criminalize the opposition," Lacroix said, adding that the government "is benefiting from the confusion between [them] and the real jihadist groups."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
Photo via Ministère de la Défense/R. Connan/DICoD