When embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reluctantly called it quits after more than two weeks of mass demonstrations against his 30-year-old authoritarian regime, he temporarily turned over the country to an institution trained, armed and nurtured by the United States: the 350,000-strong military.
"Mubarak was essentially a military man sustained by the military," says an Arab diplomat, "So it’s not surprising he expects the armed forces to take a commanding role."
Egypt’s formidable ground forces also include an additional 300,000-strong security force, including the National Guard, Frontier Corps, Coast Guard and the paramilitary units of the Ministry of Interior, plus an estimated 320,000 in army reserves.
The hefty 35 billion dollars in gratis military aid to Egypt over the last 32 years — under the U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs — was lavishly bestowed on the armed forces which sustained and protected the Mubarak regime since October 1981.
The State Department describes FMF, currently at 1.3 billion dollars annually, as "the backbone" of Egypt’s military procurement budget.
According to the latest 2011 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations released by the State Department, U.S. aid to Egypt includes funding for international narcotics control and law enforcement; non-proliferation, anti-terrorism and de-mining; combating weapons of mass destruction; counter-terrorism and security sector reforms.
Over the past decade, about 85 percent of the arms in Egypt’s military arsenal originated in the United States, says Dan Darling, Europe and Middle East Military Markets Analyst at Forecast International, a U.S. based defense market research firm.
The U.S. assistance, however, came with a condition attached to it, ensuring that virtually all of those funds be ploughed back into the U.S. economy, according to the State Department.
The funds could be utilized only to purchase U.S. equipment, thereby indirectly subsidizing the U.S. defense industry, one of the most powerful political lobbies in the United States.
The U.S. aid agreement, both with Egypt and Israel, was an integral part of the historic 1979 peace treaty following the 1978 U.S.-brokered Camp David peace accords.
While the Egyptians were hamstrung, the Israelis were not.
After strong lobbying by the Israeli government, the United States granted an exception to the Jewish state: it could use a sizeable part of the U.S. funds to buy equipment made in Israel.
For Egypt it was a "one-way street," Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher in the Arms Transfers Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS.
But for Israel, it was a "two-way street," he noted.
Currently, Israel receives between 2.5 billion and 3.0 billion dollars in non-repayable U.S. military aid annually — more than twice the allocation earmarked for Egypt.
Darling pointed out that under the current arrangement, Israel is allowed to spend up to about 25 percent of U.S. military aid on Israeli manufactured arms and support equipment, which would come out to 750,000 dollars annually.
"Israel is, I believe, the only country granted this exception regarding U.S. Foreign Military Financing," Darling told IPS.
This is granted by Washington in recognition of the amount of arms Israel buys from the U.S. and the small Israeli domestic market for weaponry.
Because of its small home market, Israeli defense industrials must look abroad to the export market for revenue, he said.
Thus Washington’s exemption of a quarter of its FMF to Israel is an acknowledgement of Israeli concerns towards the need to grow and sustain their own indigenous defense industry, Darling pointed out.
The administration of President Barack Obama, which has welcomed Mubarak’s decision to step down, has to cautiously navigate the role the military will play in the future of a democratic Egypt.
When Mubarak remained adamant, refusing to quit last week, there were demands that Washington should cut off aid to Egypt. But that’s unlikely to happen then — and even in the future, particularly if the military decides to hijack the democratic process.
"If the U.S. cuts off military aid to Egypt," says one defense analyst, "it will be like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face."
According to arms sales notifications compiled by the U.S. Defense Security Assistance Agency, and cited by William Hartung, director of Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, the U.S. Defense Department has brokered over 11.0 billion dollars in arms sales to Egypt over the last decade.
The U.S. suppliers include Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, Raytheon, United Defense and General Electric — most of them described as powerful constituents of U.S. senators and congressmen.
If the United States reconsiders aid to Egypt at any given time, "it is possible this gravy train for contractors could come to an end," says Hartung.
But judging by multi-million dollars arms deals between Egypt and U.S. defense contractors, it is very unlikely there will be a cutoff.
According to reports out of Washington, the pro-Israel lobby is also opposed to any cuts in U.S. military aid to Egypt — which has been liaising closely with the Israelis since the 1989 peace treaty.
SIPRI’s Wezeman told IPS: "Yes, Israel has a very special relationship with the United States, which is also reflected in the U.S. military aid to Israel."
"Not only can Israel spend part of the Foreign Military Funds (FMF) on Israeli produced equipment, but as far as I know, although I do not know the details, it can also get offsets for arms it buys in the United States with FMF funds," he noted.
Under this arrangement, Israel can ask U.S. companies to procure items or set up production lines, for the manufacture of components, in Israel for a certain percentage of the price Israel pays for weapons bought from these companies.
Furthermore, he said, Israeli companies have managed to sell their products in the U.S. market. And for several Israeli companies, the U.S. military is one of their largest clients.
Arms supplies to Egypt are a one-way street, which is standard practice for FMF.
"I do not think Egypt has managed to sell much to the United States," said Wezeman.
(Inter Press Service)