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US threatens Egypt with sanctions over purchase of Russian fighter jets

Official says Cairo has been made aware of the risks if it goes through with $2bn deal for more than 20 Su-35 planes
A Su-35 fighter jet is seen at Russia's Hmeimim base in Syria earlier this year (AFP)

Egypt's purchase of Russian fighter jets puts it at risk of US sanctions and endangers future acquisitions of United States-made equipment, a State Department official has said.

Cairo is aware of those risks, US Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R Clarke Cooper said at the Dubai Airshow on Monday. 

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the warning had come in a letter sent last week from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urging Egypt’s defence minister to cancel a deal to buy Russian Su-35 warplanes.

“Major new arms deals with Russia would - at a minimum - complicate future US defence transactions with and security assistance to Egypt,” the letter said.

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Washington has supplied Egypt with billions in military and economic aid in recent decades, including sales of F-16 jet fighters, attack helicopters and other armaments, while US President Donald Trump has lauded its leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Earlier this year, Egypt signed a $2bn agreement with Moscow to buy more than 20 Su-35 jet fighters.

The US threat echoes one made to Turkey earlier this year when it bought the Russian S-400 air defence system.

The US halted delivery of new F-35 jet fighters to Turkey following the purchase, saying it was concerned that the S-400’s radar capabilities could be used by Moscow to gather intelligence about the F-35s.

'My favourite dictator'

Egyptian officials have repeatedly asked the US to follow through on a commitment by Trump during a 2018 meeting with Sisi to sell Cairo 20 F-35 jet fighters, an administration official familiar with the requests told the WSJ.

The requests have arisen during bilateral meetings and discussions ever since, "despite constant refusal at every level" of the administration to agree to the sale, the administration official said. 

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Egypt has since moved ahead with its deal to buy the Russian planes.

There is a Pentagon ban on F-35 sales in the Middle East, except to Israel, which is expected to remain in place for several years despite Trump’s 2018 pledge to Egypt. 

The United Arab Emirates has also shown an interest in purchasing the planes but its requests have also not been granted.

Under Sisi's rule, Egypt has been accused of detaining tens of thousands of political opponents, torturing and killing prisoners and restricting political opposition, according to reports by the United Nations, the US State Department and non-governmental groups.

Trump has repeatedly called Sisi a “friend” and “a real leader”.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the US president referred to Sisi as “my favourite dictator,” according to several witnesses.