The United States recently announced plans to scale back aid to Egypt’s military government three months after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. Last week, the State Department said the United States will withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance until "credible progress" is made toward "an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government." But a new investigation from Al Jazeera’s "Fault Lines" program shows that the recent aid cuts might be more symbolic than anything else. Al Jazeera recently revealed that from July 3 to September 24, eight ships left New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia, bound for the Egyptian cities of Damietta and Alexandria, where they unloaded defense equipment covered by laws that require State Department approval. We speak to Anjali Kamat, correspondent and producer for Al Jazeera’s "Fault Lines."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now we want to turn to the—human rights groups are criticizing the Obama administration for lifting rules to make it easier for U.S. arms manufacturers to export weapons and related technology with little oversight. Until this week, military firms had to register with the State Department and obtain a license for each export deal. That allowed U.S. officials to screen for issues including possible human rights violations. But now tens of thousands of items are shifting to the Commerce Department, where they fall under looser controls. The changes were heavily lobbied for by military firms, including Lockheed Martin, Textron and Honeywell.
AMY GOODMAN: In related news, the United States recently announced plans to scale back aid to Egypt’s military government three months after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. Last week, the State Department said the United States will withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance until "credible progress" is made toward a, quote, "inclusive, democratically elected civilian government."
But a new investigation from Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines program shows the recent aid cuts might be more symbolic than anything else. Al Jazeera’s Anjali Kamat joins us here in New York, former Democracy Now! producer.
Great to have you back, Anjali.
ANJALI KAMAT: Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Juan.
AMY GOODMAN: Amazing report that you did.
ANJALI KAMAT: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you explain what you found as you traveled from the United States, Washington, to Egypt?
ANJALI KAMAT: Right. I mean, so, I think the important thing to understand is that this has been portrayed as a pretty substantial cut to U.S. military aid to Egypt and a big change. And in some ways it is—it amounts to several hundreds of millions of dollars. But what’s important is that this is temporary and—this is something that Obama administration officials made very clear—that it can be reversible.
And the other thing is that, at the end of the day, it’s very symbolic. You know, from the research that we did and the reporting that we did in this film, which aired last week on Al Jazeera America and is airing now on Al Jazeera English — it’s called Egypt and the USA — we found that what actually matters is the transfer of spare parts and maintenance contracts. And that is continuing. That has not stopped. Egypt already has a surplus of these large military systems. What was announced last week by the administration was a temporary delay in the delivery of large weapons systems, which include F-16s, M1A1 tanks, Apache helicopters, Harpoon missile systems. Egypt’s military already has a surplus of this. It has the fourth-largest amount of F-16s in the world. And when we spoke to Egyptian generals, retired Egyptian generals in Egypt, as well as defense analysts here in the U.S., what became clear is that they don’t need these—you know, these kind of large weapons systems for what—for anything they’re confronting right now. It’s also interesting that the U.S. military has been trying to push for Egypt to kind of switch from these large military systems to lighter systems designed for counterterrorism, for border surveillance, for use in the Sinai. And all of that support will continue as before.
What will also continue is the funds for military training. You know, every year, Egyptian officers and generals come to the U.S. to be trained in American war colleges. One of those generals was today Egypt’s strongman; General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 2006. This exchange program will continue. And from what, you know, major generals in the American military and the Egyptian military told us, this is a key part of the relationship. It creates lasting friendships between the two militaries.
AMY GOODMAN: This is IMET?
ANJALI KAMAT: This is IMET, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: International Military Education and Training.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, mm-hmm, that’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, you found that even as the Obama administration was announcing these cuts, huge shipments were on their way to Egypt.
ANJALI KAMAT: Right. I mean, what we found is that—so there was a military coup in Egypt on July 3rd. Under U.S. law, the U.S. is required to suspend military aid to a country if there’s a determination that there’s been a military coup there. The U.S. has declined to make this determination so far. What we found—and this is on the Department of Defense website—is that after July 3rd, in the three months after the coup before this latest announcement, the Pentagon continued to award defense contracts to large defense corporations for equipment headed to Egypt. So this was to Raytheon, BAE Systems and to General Electric. And this continued through July, August and September.
When we asked the Pentagon to comment on this, they directed us to the State Department. When we asked the State Department to comment on this, they had no idea about this. So we commissioned further research on arms shipments to Egypt from the United States, from a group that tracks arms shipments in Chicago called Transarms.
And what we found is that in the three months after the coup there were nearly 2,000 tons of military equipment that continued to flow to Egypt. This is despite the administration’s pronouncements that business would not be continuing as usual and that there was a review underway. That might have led some people to assume that maybe there’d be a hold on some of this equipment. And we found that, you know, 2,000 tons continued to flow on eight ships that left from Baltimore, New York, Norfolk, Virginia, and they arrived in Alexandria and Damietta as late as late September. And this continued despite the pronouncements of concern and despite, you know, on August 14th—it’s been described by Human Rights Watch as one of the worst incidents of mass killings in Egypt. Hundreds of protesters were killed. The day after that, President Obama spoke and said that, you know, business cannot continue as usual. But these ships and shipments of arms continue to flow.
AMY GOODMAN: In his speech to the United Nations in late September, President Obama said the United States had avoided choosing sides in Egypt after the military’s July 3rd overthrow of Morsi.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America has been attacked by all sides of this internal conflict, simultaneously accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and engineering their removal of power. In fact, the United States has purposely avoided choosing sides. Our overriding interest throughout these past few years has been to encourage a government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people and recognizes true democracy as requiring a respect for minority rights and the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly and a strong civil society.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama. He was speaking at the United Nations. Anjali Kamat, not taking sides?
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, you know, there’s been—it’s interesting. In Egypt, the U.S. has certainly been viewed as a villain from both sides. There has been a great deal of populist anti-Americanism, nationalism that’s been fueled by state and private media within Egypt, because they perceive the United States as having supported the Brotherhood and as not being as supportive of the military-led government after July 3rd as they hoped the U.S. would be. On the other side, you know, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, those who haven’t been arrested, do feel a sense of betrayal, that they, you know, didn’t get the support that they thought they would from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: You spoke to one of them.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, when I was in Cairo, you know, hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and all of the top—practically all of the top leadership has been arrested. There’s about 1,800 people who were arrested, just many of them supporters. But there are few of the top leadership that remain free, and one of them is Amr Darrag, who used to be the minister—minister for international cooperation under the Morsi presidency. And, you know, he felt—you know, one of the things he said is that he said, "I thought the era of supporting military dictatorships and military coups was over. But I should have known better."
But within Egypt, there’s a very deep polarization right now, in a way that’s probably never really happened before, between large segments of the population that support the military-led government, military-backed government, and segments of the population that are opposed to the coup and support—for a while, they were calling for the return of the ousted President Morsi, but that support the Muslim Brotherhood. There are still protests continuing—for a while, they were fairly sporadic; in recent weeks, they’ve stepped up—of Morsi supporters on the streets of Egypt. Some of these protests have been targeted. This continues to be violence from security forces against protesters.
You know, a lot of people in Egypt are also—you know, might make up some sort of a silent majority, which—it’s hard to tell, but the climate when I was in Cairo was very much one of fear. There was still a curfew in place. The curfew has been largely lifted by now. And people were very scared to speak out. There was a sense, even from human rights activists, that the police, the—Egypt’s notorious Ministry of Interior, which their abuses under Mubarak formed the basis of the January 25th, 2011, uprising, now they are stronger than ever before and seem to have a wide public backing. So it’s a very scary type of situation, and people are unable to really speak out between these two dominant narratives, one from the military and a smaller one from the Brotherhood.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Anjali, I wanted to get back to—a second, to the military aid. One of the things that you point out is that a lot of the military aid from the United States to Egypt—
ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —never actually leaves the United States.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, this is something that I think a lot of people don’t realize, is that, you know, since Egypt signed the peace accords with Israel, Camp David, 1979, there’s been a steady flow of U.S. military aid to Egypt. Since 1987, that’s averaged to about $1.3 billion a year in military aid. All of this aid stays in the United States. It never actually makes it to Egypt. What happens is that Egypt can draw on this money, or has been able to traditionally draw on this money, to purchase American-made equipment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s deposited in a bank in New York?
ANJALI KAMAT: It’s deposited in a bank in New York, that’s right. So, at this point, what we know is that half of that aid has already been disbursed. So there’s about $584 million left. I spoke to the State Department last week after their announcement to ask what was going to happen to the rest of this money. And they said they still hadn’t made a determination. They made it clear that Egypt wouldn’t have access to it immediately, but it might—it would still be used primarily to pay up the defense contractors. So, even though there’s been a delay in the delivery of these large weapons systems—I mean, some of them are weapons systems that were ordered back in 2009, so these are orders that were made years before, and some of them have been paid off already. But the ones that haven’t been paid off—
AMY GOODMAN: And they have boxes of unopened massive weapons, like tanks.
ANJALI KAMAT: Yes, yeah, that’s what we heard in Egypt, is that there are still unopened boxes of tanks. They have so many tanks that there’s no real use for them right now.
AMY GOODMAN: So it’s great corporate welfare for U.S. weapons manufacturers.
ANJALI KAMAT: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s precisely what a lot of analysts told us, is that this is really a jobs program for the defense industry here in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you travel there? It’s very dangerous right now for reporters, and especially for Al Jazeera reporters. Many of your colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic are in prison there.
ANJALI KAMAT: There’s at least a couple of Al Jazeera Arabic reporters, staff members, who are still imprisoned. They’ve been in prison since August, one of them possibly since July, and their detention just got increased by another 45 days in late September. It’s—Al Jazeera is not well loved in Egypt. The coverage on the Arabic channel is seen to be biased towards the Brotherhood. That also affects employees working for the English channel and the new Al Jazeera America channel. So, it has been very difficult for Al Jazeera staff and reporters to work inside Egypt freely.
When our team—we had a very small team, just two people—when we traveled to Cairo in early September, that was a time when four Al Jazeera English staff members had actually been arrested. And they had been detained for four days, so they were still in detention when we got to Egypt. The week we were there, they were released and sent back home. But the office was raided. So there was definitely a climate of fear, and we tried very hard to just stay away from the office and, you know, not make very public the fact that we were with Al Jazeera.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to another investigation you did. I was there on opening day, Al Jazeera America, in its headquarters here in New York City, when one of the first shows they played was Fault Lines, and it was your exposé of what’s happening in the Bangladeshi garment factories. This is Democracy Now! Anjali Kamat is our guest, now a correspondent for Al Jazeera Fault Lines, which airs on Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America throughout the United States. Stay with us.