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U.S. Ends Freeze On Military Aid To Egypt


We turn next to Egypt and news this week that the U.S. has resumed selling heavy arms to that country. Certain types of training and military equipment never stopped flowing. But in 2013, the flow of weapons deliveries was halted after Egypt's military takeover. One person who would understand the Obama administration's latest move is Tamara Cofman Wittes. She coordinated U.S. policy on democracy in the Middle East during the height of the Arab Spring.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: The weapons that have been withheld include some F-16 aircraft, some M1A1 Abrams tank kits and some harpoon missiles. And these items are the sort of prestige items, the ones that show how committed and special this military relationship is that the U.S. allows Egypt to purchase these high-grade, sophisticated, big ticket items.

MONTAGNE: And Egypt, of course, would welcome this because Egypt was not happy when these prestige items were kept from it. So I'm wondering, we know the entire region from Egypt's neighbor, Libya, to Yemen, is heated up. Is that why the White House is making what seems like something of a statement now?

WITTES: What the White House has done this week is climbed down from the policy it announced in October 2013, when it said it was going to hold these systems back. It said it wouldn't deliver the systems until the Egyptian government made credible progress toward democracy. And I think we've seen, in the 18 months since then, that if anything, the Egyptian government has slid backwards. There are about 20,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, and parliamentary elections have been delayed while President Sisi rules by decree. But the White House went ahead and released the weapons anyway, I think for two reasons. One is that the U.S. has turned back to a level of military engagement in the region to fight ISIS that it didn't anticipate. And secondly is that the decision to hold back the weapons became an incredible irritant in the bilateral relationship, much more than the specifics of the case would suggest. And that's because the military aid from Washington to Cairo has for 30 years been the major symbol of the U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relationship.

MONTAGNE: Separate, then, from this deal, could you put in perspective for us Egypt's new, seemingly more muscular approach to getting involved in regional fights, as in confronting ISIS? Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has proposed a military coalition made up exclusively of Arab nations. What does this all mean?

WITTES: You know, Egypt has been for quite a long time the most capable, diplomatic political and security actor in the Arab world. But for the last four years, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's been on the back foot. It's been consumed with internal political chaos, growing terrorist and insurgent threat from the Sinai, weapons smuggling across its territory. And it really hasn't been able to play that regional role. Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power, and particularly since he was able to attract billions of dollars in emergency government aid from his Gulf allies, he's been able to, at least temporarily, calm the turmoil inside Egypt and turned his attention to trying to help his Gulf allies manage some of the regional chaos. So this is the reassertion of Egypt on the regional stage. And for the United States, seeing Egypt capable of playing this role is important. But it matters very much how Egypt plays that regional role, whether it's acting as a force for stability or whether it is pursuing one side of some of these very fierce, regional arguments that have played out in proxy conflicts from Libya to Syria and now to Yemen and that may, in fact, have the effect of destabilizing the region further.

MONTAGNE: Tamara Cofman Wittes is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

WITTES: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.