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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Send Arms to Egypt

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is planning to provide Egypt with highly accurate surface-to-surface missiles -- and four patrol boats from which to fire them -- in a $400 million arms deal. The proposal has alarmed some of Israel's supporters on Capitol Hill, and several are trying to block it.

In a classified memorandum sent to the U.S. Congress on Nov. 2, the administration notified lawmakers of its intent to provide Egypt with 53 Harpoon Block II missiles, a satellite-guided weapon described by manufacturer Boeing Co. as "the world's most successful anti-ship missile."

The missiles reportedly are accurate to within 10 meters and can be used against shore-based targets. They would be mounted on four "fast-missile patrol craft" built by Halter Marine Inc. of Gulfport, Mississippi.

The United States gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid annually -- a legacy of the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel -- so in that respect the proposed arms transfer is nothing out of the ordinary.

But the Harpoon deal is proving more troublesome than most. With Arab-Israeli relations under severe strain and American Jewish groups, in particular, accusing Egypt of insufficiently supporting the war on terrorism, some key lawmakers are reluctant to provide the country with sophisticated new technology they say could blunt Israel's "qualitative" military edge over its neighbors.

Earlier this month, Joseph Biden Jr., a Democrat from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell to ask him "to provide a rationale for making the sale at this time," stated Biden's spokesman, Norm Kurz.

Jesse Helms, a senator from North Carolina and the ranking Republican on the committee, also expressed concern about the proposed transfer, congressional aides said, as has Representative Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

"A stable and prosperous Egypt is in our interest, while an arms race between Israel and Egypt is not in our interest," Lantos said. "The State Department is sort of following a pattern of escalating the level of arms sales to Egypt, which in turn will mean escalating the number of arms sales and the sophistication to Israel."

Spokesmen for the State Department, White House and Pentagon declined to comment on the administration's proposal, citing its classified nature. But a U.S. government official familiar with its details defended the plan, saying the Harpoon missiles would enhance Egypt's ability to protect the Suez Canal, an important transit point for American commercial and military ships.

One point in Egypt's favor is that the 70-meter, diesel-powered Ambassador-class patrol craft that would serve as a platform for the missiles are built in Mississippi, the home state of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican. Lott is a staunch defender of shipping interests there.

A source familiar with the proposed transfer said Lott has already "started to weigh in" in favor of the deal. Lott's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, declined to comment.

Congress has long accepted the massive U.S. military and economic aid program to Egypt as the price of stability in the Middle East. The program runs at about $2 billion a year and includes about $700 million in economic assistance.

The aid is intended to reward Egypt not only for being the first Arab state to make peace with Israel but also for supporting U.S. efforts to broker a broader Middle East settlement.

The aid has transformed the Egyptian military, which has junked much of its outmoded Soviet equipment in favor of F-16 fighter aircraft, M1A1 Abrams tanks, Patriot anti-missile systems and other state-of-the-art American weaponry. Israel has long accepted the arrangement with little public complaint, perhaps because it receives even more U.S. aid.

A U.S. government official defended Egypt's record as an ally, describing its cooperation with anti-terrorism efforts as "excellent.'' Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the official said, Egypt has shared intelligence, quickly granted permission for U.S. military overflights en route to Central Asia and responded promptly to U.S. President George W. Bush's plea for action against terrorist financial networks.

Egypt's perceived ambivalence about the Afghanistan campaign, the official said, is a function of Egypt's domestic politics. "They've got a tough problem," he said. "They are much more cooperative with us than their public wants them to be.