CAIRO — When it comes to gestures of commitment, it’s hard to beat a shipment of helicopter gunships.
“Washington flirts with Cairo with 10 Apaches,” boasted the front page of Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt's most popular privately owned daily newspaper, on Thursday.
The headline was a reference to the intensive discussions between the two capitals in recent weeks and, amid an apparent thawing of relations, the news that Washington has lifted an embargo on some military aid to Egypt, including 10 Apache attack helicopters.
One reason for that decision could be that when it comes to multibillion-dollar arms deals, the US has had competition for Egypt’s affections lately — from Russia.
US officials claimed this week that the principal purpose of the new military aid is to combat terrorism, particularly Islamist militancy in the Sinai peninsula.
Military aid to Egypt was partially halted in the wake of the military-led coup in July last year, and since then relations between the two countries — whose friendship is crucial to diplomacy in the Middle East — have been tense. A full resumption of military aid would require Secretary of State John Kerry to certify that the country was taking steps to support a democratic transition, which he is not yet prepared to do.
More from GlobalPost: US military aid freeze to Egypt is a symbol, not a blow
But, Kerry says, two less stringent conditions have been satisfied.
"One of those is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States. The other is upholding its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty," explained State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. Under the terms of the embargo, meeting these two conditions allows the US to provide military aid for specific objectives including "counterterrorism, border security, and [weapons] nonproliferation."
In other words, Egypt's support for democracy might be questionable, but at least it's keeping tight with the US and Israel — and that's enough for 10 Apache attack helicopters, already paid for, and $650 million in military aid (half the regular annual total) to be heading Cairo's way.
Washington has been criticized in the wake of the announcement for neglecting democracy development in Egypt in favor of short-term action on counterterrorism. It has also been criticized for decades for basing its arms export policy to Egypt partly around the interests of the US manufacturers who are Egypt's primary suppliers.
US arms transfers to Egypt were worth $11.8 billion between 2004 and 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
"The US-Egyptian defense relationship has been built on modernization for Egyptian forces and procurement of US systems, a boon to US industry, since the early 1980s," said Zack Gold, a Washington-based analyst on security cooperation and Sinai.
According to media reports citing unnamed official sources, Egypt and Russia are close to closing a $3-billion deal for MiG-35 fighter jets, Mi-35 helicopters and other hardware.
"Russia certainly would like to compete with the US as Egypt's military supplier, and Egypt knows this, which is why Sisi is playing the Russians off the Americans, and why, in spite of a slightly reduced US military subsidy (as punishment for the crackdown), we're still sending helicopters to Egypt," Michael Weiss, editor of the New York-based, Russia-focused Interpreter Magazine, wrote in an email.
Increasing the pressure on Washington, any US-Russia deal would be greeted by the Obama administration’s critics as confirmation that the American president had “lost Egypt,” once an asset in American Middle East policy.
However, according to Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Moscow-based defense industry and arms trade think tank, there is no confirmation that such a deal will go ahead. Indeed, he believes a deal is very unlikely.
Firstly, Pukhov told GlobalPost, he is not convinced that the Egyptian economy can support such an expensive undertaking, and secondly, he believes that the US-Egyptian relationship is still too strong to allow Russia to move in on US turf.
Gold, the Washington-based analyst, agrees. "Such displays have been used by Egyptian leaders to show independence and by Russia to poke the United States in the eye, but it is not clear that anything will come from rumored deals," he said.
Russia’s interest, however, is real. Pukhov said that according to CAST's estimates, between 2001 and 2010 the value of Russia's armaments sales to Egypt increased from less than $100 million to just under $1 billion. Russia delivered 14 Mi-17V-5 helicopters to Egypt in 2013, according to SIPRI.
"Putin doesn't need to completely supplant America's influence in Egypt," Weiss argues. "It's enough for him to complicate or reduce it and elevate Russia's. This then becomes another bargaining chip in other realms of US-Russian relations."
Attention so far has focused on the Apache helicopters which form part of the US’s new package. Apaches have been used by Egypt's military in raids on alleged Islamist militants in the north of the restive Sinai peninsula over the past nine months.
Complicating the narrative of this deal, figures collected by David Barnett, research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, show that reported attacks by militants in the Sinai have dropped steadily in recent months, while attacks in urban areas of mainland Egypt, where the use of attack helicopters would not be appropriate, have increased. Two Sinai-based activists who asked to remain anonymous told GlobalPost that in the past month the use of Apaches has declined, though Gold said the Sinai continues to be a zone of fierce contention.
The activists said that they had seen Apaches firing rockets in the distance on several occasions in recent months, but that the army presence around the villages targeted in raids made it hard to visit the attack sites to determine whether those killed were militants or civilians.
"There is an atmosphere of secrecy around the buildings targeted by the military's missiles," one said.