Of the more arresting images beamed around the world from the streets surrounding Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square was footage of protesters facing stationed tanks. The M1A1 Abrams are the same tanks developed for the US Army and Marine Corps. But they were built in downtown Cairo, the only facility in the world outside the US trusted to build Abrams tanks under licence. It’s a striking symbol of the defence ties between Egypt and the US.
Those tanks are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Over the last few years, Egypt has spent staggering sums on US equipment, including orders for 20 F-16 fighters in March 2010 (taking the total fleet to 244 aircraft), costing upwards of $3bn (€1.5bn). A further $1.7bn was spent on Chinook helicopters and another couple of billion supporting the navy’s frigates and buying new fast attack craft, complete with cutting-edge missiles.
The US has also been pumping military aid worth an average $2bn a year into Egypt to keep – a move to keep the country sweet after President Anwar Sadat signed up to a peace accord with Israel in 1979.
As a direct result of this support, Egypt now boasts one of the largest navies on the continent and the most capable air force in North Africa, rivalled by neighbour Israel in the region. Its land forces, spear-headed by those locally built tanks, are also unequalled in most of Africa.
On the flip side, an average of 12 US Navy vessels pass through the Suez Canal each month (benefiting from “expedited” authorisation according to the US Congressional Research Service – a process that can take other navies weeks to secure). US military and paramilitary aircraft are also routinely granted airspace rights.
Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the US-based Center for a New American Security think-tank said that military aid has “gotten us a lot over the years”. He added: “We have a good military and counter-terrorism relationship – and a series of relationships with influential people in the Egyptian military.”
However, the US has been embarrassed over the last few weeks by journalists picking up tear gas grenades and shotgun cartridges proudly stamped with “Made in the USA”. Imagine how much worse that would be if Abrams tanks were also used against the protestors? Fontaine admits that this would be “catastrophic”.
With that in mind, the US is currently urgently reviewing its aid package and arms supplies to Egypt. “We are watching very closely the actions of the government, of the police, of all the security forces and all of those in the military,” a White House spokesman said earlier this month. “That their actions may affect our assistance would be the subject of that review.”
From Egypt’s point-of-view, it needs to be careful to maintain good relations in order to keep its shiny American toys serviceable. The case of Iran provides a prime example – Tehran’s huge inventory of US-supplied equipment was instantly orphaned when the Shah was overthrown in 1979 and has been a nightmare to keep serviceable ever since.