While everyone in Washington was concentrating on the debt crisis this week, the Obama administration attempted to slip through a questionable arms deal that requires serious scrutiny. Though it got little attention, the Defense Department officially notified Congress on Friday that it was authorizing the sale of 125 M1A1 tanks to Egypt as well as other weapons, equipment, parts, training and logistical support. While most of the military sales to Egypt have sailed through without objection in the more than 30 years since it signed a peace deal with Israel, this is the first such sale since the fall of the Mubarak regime earlier this year. Which is exactly why the sale ought to be held up until the unsettled situation in the most populous country in the Arab world is better understood.
Congress has 30 days to register its formal objections to the proposed sale. That it should do so is imperative. The reasons for a delay are not complicated.
In the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power, the Egyptian military seems to have retained a firm grip on power. But the army seems intent on sharing power with a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood movement that threatens the foundation of the relationship between the United States and Egypt. Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the Egyptian military has gotten all the high-tech and expensive equipment it wanted so long as it was clear their new toys would not be used to threaten or attack Israel. But as Egypt lurches toward the election of a new government that will probably be made up of Islamist elements, that peace is in jeopardy.
This means this is not the moment to be strengthening the offensive capabilities of an Egypt that has opened its border with Hamas-run Gaza and is distancing itself from an already cold peace with the Jewish state. Egypt may not yet be ready to repudiate the peace treaty or engage in military adventures, but it must be reminded there is a price for the open-ended U.S. support it has received for decades. While the despotic Mubarak could be trusted to keep the peace in exchange for $2 billion a year in American baksheesh, there is no way of knowing whether the new masters of Cairo will be so reliable.
The United States should be encouraging the new Egyptian government to build democracy and invest in its economy so as to help its impoverished people and create a society based on the rule of law. But handing over advanced tanks to the Egyptian military is not the path to either democracy or prosperity for that country. Congress must act to halt this sale immediately.