The announcement came Tuesday, Dec. 11, as Cairo and other Egyptian towns were set for massive rival demonstrations for and against President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to hold a referendum on a pro-Islamist constitution Saturday. It therefore came in for rising criticism in Washington of the wisdom of sending the jets to an unstable Egypt in the grip of a strong political confrontation.
A broad range of opposition groups – pro-democratic, liberal, secular, women and Christian – are demanding that President Morsi cancel the referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood is mobilizing its supporters to counter this protest. As the first anti-Morsi groups began gathering in Tahrir Square Tuesday, nine were hurt by masked gunmen.
The opposition has clipped President Morsi’s wings once by making him annul the near-dictatorial powers he gave himself. Forcing him to forego the referendum would further undermine his authority.
So the president fought back by authorizing the military to secure state buildings and arrest civilians in the incendiary days leading up to Saturday’s referendum. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that Monday, six Egyptian Air Force F-16 fighters flew symbolically over Cairo.
However, the 2nd and 9th Divisions stationed around Cairo stayed in their barracks and the only uniformed personnel visible on the street were the Republican Guard troops on permanent duty in the capital’s center.
By approving another 20 F-16 jets for Muslim-ruled Egypt on the day of the competing demonstrations, President Obama showed the Egyptian people that he stands foursquare behind President Morsi and that more US military aid is on the way.
The first four jets will arrive in Egypt the day after Barack Obama’s Jan. 21 swearing-in for a second term as US president at the Capitol – and not by chance. That date also coincides with Israel’s Jan. 22 general election.
Obama is therefore using those warplanes as a signpost for the Muslim-Arab Middle East – and the Israeli voter – to show them that he is sticking unswervingly to his policy of support for the region’s Muslim Brotherhood – and especially the Egyptian president - even if Morsi did slip up by a grab for sweeping powers that alienated most of the opposition.
The US promise of new fighter planes was also a recommendation to the Egyptian army to pick the right side and opt for President Morsi if they wanted US military assistance to keep coming. Washington was also ready to consider providing them with more high-tech items in addition to those already supplied.
At all events, President Obama has made his choice, opting for Egypt’s Islamists against the pro-democracy and liberal opposition – a choice that he might have found embarrassing when he campaigned for his second term.
Israel had a dark premonition of what was coming. Obama began laying the background for his strong alignment with Islamist Egypt last month with the dramatic announcement of a ceasefire in Cairo on Nov. 20, that was delivered jointly by Morsi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
By this announcement – and by maneuvering Israel into abstaining from a ground operation in the Gaza Strip to complete its air operation against Palestinian terrorist targets – Obama pulled the Egyptian president out of his hat as a fully-fledged international figure ready to jump to the top of his newly-minted Sunni Muslim Middle East coalition. In addition to Egypt, its chosen members were to be Turkey, Qatar and the Palestinian Hamas. Israel was to be a secret partner and contributor of high-grade intelligence.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was ready to fit into the role cast Israel by the US president. He therefore chose to hold back from a ground incursion in the Gaza Strip and then agreed to the radical Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visiting Gaza last week.
His reward came at the same time as Washington’s announcement of the 20 F-16 fighters for Egypt: The US has appropriated $650 million worth of ordnance to refill the Israeli arsenals depleted by the massive Pillar of Defense air offensive in Gaza.
Under this deal, the US will supply the Israeli Air Force with 6,900 satellite-guided “smart bombs;" 10,000 mixed bombs - including 3,450 one-tonners and 1,725 bombs weighing 250 kilograms - as well as two kinds of buster-bunkers - 1,725, GBU-39 bombs and 3,450 BLU-109s.