France's defence minister was to sign an agreement with Egypt Monday for the first foreign sale of the Rafale fighter jet, in a deal that will boost Cairo's military as it tackles jihadists.
Paris hopes the 5.2 billion euro ($5.9 billion) deal for 24 Rafale fighters to be delivered later this year — which comes as Cairo launched air strikes against jihadists in Libya — will prompt others to snap up its premier combat jet.
For Egypt, the agreement is a show of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013 and wants to break a US monopoly over Egypt’s arms supplies.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had arrived in Cairo, an AFP correspondent said, and was to hold talks with Sisi before signing the deal.
The beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, which prompted the air strikes earlier Monday, was an “additional reason for security” for Cairo, Le Drian said before arriving.
Sisi “has a strategic need to ensure the security of the Suez canal, through which a large part of global trade passes,” he said.
“That is the main reason for the urgency to have both naval and aerial capabilities to ensure this security,” he added.
The sale comes as welcome news to cash-strapped France, which is even diverting three jets away from its own airforce for the delivery.
French President Francois Hollande said the agreement — clinched in only three months of negotiations — provided Cairo with “a quality aircraft” and was important for Egypt “taking into account the threats existing around the country”.
With Libya wracked by instability to the west and the threat from militants linked to the Islamic State group to the east, Egypt plays a key role in providing stability in a troubled region, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.
– Catalyst for Rafale sales –
In a joint statement released Monday, Hollande and Sisi called for a UN Security Council meeting on the threat from Libya and urged the international community to take “new measures,” without specifying what they might be.
France is hoping the deal will act as a catalyst to unblock hoped-for sales to other countries.
Eric Trappier, chief executive of Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the jet, has said he was “very confident” that three years of exclusive talks with India on the sale of 126 Rafale jets worth 12 billion euros would soon result in a deal.
He said talks were slow as Delhi wanted some of the jets manufactured at home in a bid to boost manufacturing.
Paris is also eyeing possible deals with Qatar and Malaysia.
“There is a psychological barrier that has been broken down,” Trappier said in an interview with French business daily Les Echos.
“In terms of our image, it will help us get over the line in other countries,” he said.
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.
Despite the cheering in Paris, the agreed sale has sparked fury from some groups over perceived human rights abuses in Egypt.
– ‘Alarming’ rights abuses –
Amnesty International attacked the decision to sell the 24 jets and a frigate to a nation it accused of “alarming” abuses.
Others have accused Paris of double standards for freezing its delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Russia over the Ukraine crisis but going ahead with the Egypt deal.
Sisi was elected in May 2014 with 96.91 percent of the vote a year after toppling the country’s first freely elected leader, Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
A subsequent crackdown on Morsi’s supporters left at least 1,400 dead and thousands more in jail.
“Just because we are selling these Rafales to Egypt doesn’t mean we agree with every point in their domestic policy,” Fabius said in a radio interview on Sunday.
“When there are excesses that are committed, we tell the Egyptian authorities — from our point of view — and we are hoping to move step by step towards more democracy.”
“But the stability of Egypt is a very important point.”