The British government has quietly resumed multimillion-pound arms deals with Egypt two years after the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a coup led by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, new figures have revealed.
Amid a diplomatic drive to boost ties with Cairo, the British government in the first three months of 2015 sanctioned arms sales to Egypt's autocratic regime worth 48.8 million pounds ($76.3 million). The approved military licenses to Egypt were for "components of military combat vehicles," figures released by the government and compiled by pressure group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) show.
This represents an increase of 47.2 million pounds (3,000 percent) in arms trade between London and Cairo on the previous year in the same period. The licenses sanctioned included one for 8.3 million pounds ($12.98 million) in January and one for 40.3 million pounds ($63 million) in March.
Following the July 2013 coup in Egypt, which saw Sisi leading the military in ousting and imprisoning the Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi, Britain suspended a number of arms licenses to the regime, resulting in a drop in arms sales to the North African country last year. Britain had been supplying arms to the Morsi regime before its fall. For the first quarter of 2014, the British government only sanctioned around 1.6 million pounds ($2.4 million) in licenses to the Sisi regime.
The increase in sales comes as British Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to boost financial ties with his Egyptian counterpart Sisi. Last month, the Conservative leader invited the former military general for talks at Downing Street despite opposition and condemnation from 32 members of parliament over the Egyptian leader's human rights record. Also, an Egyptian delegation was present at the Security and Policing arms fair in February, according to information obtained by CAAT under the freedom of information act.
The boost in military trade between the two is controversial because of Egypt's poor human rights record. Egyptian security forces have been accused of violently cracked down on protests, sit-ins and other gatherings, with 1,500 people being killed mostly by Sisi's forces since the ousting of his predecessor. No security officers have been held accountable for the Rabaa massacre, in which 1,000 people were killed on 14 August 2013 while holding two sit-ins in Cairo.
In response to the figures, human rights and advocacy groups criticised the British government's decision to boost its arms trade with Egypt. CAAT condemned the government for attempting to warm relations with Sisi and boost his regime despite a series of documented human rights abuses.
"The UK should be condemning the appalling human rights abuses that are taking place in Egypt," says Andrew Smith, a researcher at CAAT. "However, these increasing arms sales, and the forthcoming visit, suggest that the government wants to strengthen its ties."
"Sisi has carried out abuses that are every bit as bad as in the days of Mubarak, and yet he is being treated as an ally," he adds. "There must be an end to arms sales to Egypt and an end to the political support that bolsters the regime."
Human rights group Amnesty International also called on the British government to suspend all arms trade with Egypt because the licenses issued could be used to crack down on freedom of expression and critics of the regime.
"Amnesty International continues to call on all governments including the UK to suspend the transfer to Egypt of arms including weapons, munitions and other military, security and policing equipment – such as tear gas, small arms, including shotguns, and light weapons and related ammunition," the statement reads. "As well as armoured vehicles and helicopters that could be used by the police or army in internal repression such as cracking down on protests with excessive and unwarranted force."
While the British government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which has the authority to sanction and suspend military licenses, declined to reveal the details of the "military combat vehicle" licenses, Smith says the license could be components for "armoured patrol vehicles, jeeps or even tanks."
"It has to be something substantial if it's a license worth 40 million pounds," he adds.
A spokesman for BIS insisted that the government takes the matter of human rights abuses seriously and has strict standards for exporting arms to countries where there is cause for concern.
"The UK Government continues to have concerns about human rights in Egypt, which is why we apply rigorous standards in assessing export licence applications," the spokesman says. "We continue to monitor the situation in Egypt, particularly in relation to crowd control operations, and keep in close contact with EU partners on the application of export licensing policy."
Britain is not the only Western nation supplying the Sisi regime and its military. In February, the French government sanctioned an arms deal worth 3.68 billion pounds ($3.76 billion) to sell 24 Rafale fighter jets to Cairo as well as a naval frigate and missiles. The first three French fighter jets arrived in Egypt last Tuesday. Last December, Washington delivered 10 Apache attack helicopters to Egypt as relations continue to improve between Egypt and its traditional Western allies.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers