Can Egypt’s new French jets boost its Sinai fight?

French-made Rafale fighter jets (on R) fly near Cairo Tower in central Cairo, Egypt, July 21, 2015. (Reuters)

Egyptian pilots flew three Rafale fighter jets from France to Egypt this week - the first of 24 warplanes sold for a total of $5.4 billion - as the country’s military continues to battle a growing insurgency in the Sinai peninsula.

In recent weeks, security threats extended past the restive peninsula and into the capital Cairo, where a bomb killed the top public prosecutor Hesham Barakat. Another attack targeted the Italian consulate.

The latter attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to which militants in the Sinai province pledged allegiance to earlier this year.

“It is clear Egypt sees airpower as one way of constraining Islamists whether attacking armed militants within its borders, in Sinai, or along its borders in Libya,” said Max Reibman, an analyst at the Risk Advisory Group.

Yet the uncertainty that looms over the Egyptian economy raises questions on the necessity of spending $5.4 billion on an arms deal.

Instead, investing the money in one of many social issues in Egypt would “ultimately work in favor of the Egyptian government” as “that will demonstrate that it’s expanding the social safety net, cares about the welfare of its citizens, and as a disincentive for Egyptians to turn to radical groups,” said Reibman.

However, Reibman said “there is a real sense of urgency the Sisi government sees and if it takes several billion dollars to lock in the most advanced and sophisticated airpower to confront insurgents in Sinai then they’re going to do that,” he added.

Why French jets?

For a long period, France was the only country to buy the jets from French aircraft manufacturer Dassault. Its forces have ordered 180 warplanes and 137 have been delivered.

Attempts to sell the jet to countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Morocco, Switzerland and Brazil have seen the Rafale lose out to its foreign competitors.

Today, Egypt is the first country to acquire these jets, AFP reported.

The purchase of the jets is evidence that “there is a very clear geo-strategic framework at play,” he added.

Additionally, Egypt is in talks with France to buy two additional naval corvettes, a French diplomat said Saturday, as Paris’ Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Cairo in an African tour.

The talks also touched on Libya, where Egypt had conducted air strikes on Islamist militants and pushed for intervention amid a slide into chaos in the neighboring country.

Separately, choosing Daussault could be an attempt by the Egyptian government “to diversify their suppliers as they see that U.S. policy towards Egypt within the past year or so has become politicized,” Reibman said.

“Liberal critics in Washington are skeptical of the Sisi regime’s current crackdown on dissent and I think they see this clearly as a point of leverage,” he added.

France has emerged as one of Egypt’s most vocal supporters in Europe following criticism of Sisi over a massive crackdown on Islamists after the former army chief ousted Islamist President Mohammad Mursi in 2013.

And the key European nation is currently dealing with its own security issues, which began in January this year, when Islamist militants attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based satirical magazine. Since then, France has seen several successive attacks on its soil.

French President Francois Hollande is expected in Egypt for the Aug. 6 inauguration of an extension to the Suez Canal.

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