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20 Jul, 2013 12:33

Gun shy? Britain blocks military hardware exports to Egypt

Gun shy? Britain blocks military hardware exports to Egypt

The British government has revoked five Egypt-bound export licenses out of fears that the equipment could be used against protesters. Violent clashes in Egypt following the army's ouster of the country's Islamist president have left dozens dead.

The licenses include armored vehicles, like personnel carriers and fighting infantry vehicles, machine guns, tank communication equipment as well as vehicle-mounted radio stations and accompanying antennas.

“We are deeply concerned about the situation in Egypt and the events which have led to the deaths of protesters,” Vince Cable, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced in a statement. “The longstanding UK position is clear: We will not grant export licenses where we judge there is a clear risk the goods might be used for internal repression.”

Vince Cable also insisted that there has been no evidence that British equipment has been used by Egyptian authorities to crack down on protesters. Still, British diplomats have strongly recommended the government to revoke the licenses in light of the general trajectory of violent escalation in Egypt.

Last Wednesday, only two days ahead the decision to stop supplies to Egypt, British lawmakers urged the government to pay closer attention to export contracts to prevent the procurement of arms by authoritarian regimes. A report by Britain’s Commons Committee on Arms Exports Controls has put a spotlight on some 134 export licenses worth $90 million approved to Egypt, of which five have been revoked.

The report mentions that the remaining 129 export licenses for Egypt include deals on body armor and military helmets, assault and sniper rifles, combat shotguns, pistols, weapon sights and acoustic riot control devices. So far their delivery to Egypt has not been questioned. 

Egyptian security forces (AFP Photo)

Committee’s chairman John Stanley told the BBC, “We were very surprised both by the number - over 3,000 - of extant arms export licenses going to countries which the British government has designated as countries of serious human rights concerns," he said. "We were also surprised by the value of those licenses, over 12 billion pounds ($18 billion).”

According to the report the tree biggest buyers of British arms are China, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

While London is revising its military supplies to Cairo, Washington has not missed a beat in fulfilling previous contracts, even though they were signed with Egypt's previous rulers.

Senior American officials have confirmed they aren’t putting on hold the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, in line with the framework of an earlier agreement to send 20 such aircrafts to the populous Arab country. Cairo already received eight of them in January. Four more are to be supplied within the next several weeks, and the rest are to be delivered by the end of the year.

Currently, US aid to Egypt is estimated at $1.5 billion annually, with the bulk of the package – $1.3 billion - going to the armed forces.

Egyptian police hard line against protesters

The human rights situation in Egypt has steadily deteriorated since the army ousted the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, dividing Egyptian society between supporters and opponents supporters of the former president. Many supporters include members of the Muslim Brotherhood,  who have demanded Morsi’s return to power. The former president's opponents, however, want the country to remain secular.

Egyptian police have a notorious record of using deadly force against protesters. Their action in large part sparked the revolution in Egypt in 2011, which saw the toppling of former ruler Hosni Mubarak.

Riot police in Cairo (Reuters / Amr Dalsh)

During a transition period in 2011, Egyptian police never hesitated to deploy violent tactics against civilian protesters. In one instance while dispersing a rally outside a state TV building where the protesters consisted mostly of Coptic Christians, the ensuing police assault left 27 protesters dead, as armored vehicles plowed through the crowds.

During the short rule of President Morsi, police excesses were not reigned in. In one episode in the city of Port Said, police dispersed a large rally protesting against a court ruling, with 40 locals being killed in the process. Instead of launching an investigation into police actions, the former president called those protesting against the authorities ‘thugs’, praised the police and declared a state of emergency in the country.

After President Morsi was overthrown, the revolutionary scenario repeated itself, with thousands filling the streets to protest the toppling of the democratically elected leader. Islamists loyal to the former president and proponents of a secular state supporting the country’s military rulers clashed on the streets as police stood idly by. However, when Morsi’s supporters gathered outside Cairo's Republic Guard Club on July 8, where it is believed their deposed leader is being held, the ensuing police crackdown left 51 protesters dead along with three security force members.

No reports of disciplinary action being taken against the police or an investigation into the deadly incident have been forthcoming.