PARIS (AP) — Egypt will become the first foreign buyer of Rafale fighter jets, French officials said Thursday, purchasing 24 of the multi-role French-made aircraft as part of a 5.2 billion-euro (US$5.93 billion) defense deal that will strengthen Cairo's military might in a tense and violent region.
The sale marks the culmination of years of French efforts to sell the Dassault Aviation-built planes. It will also confirm international recognition of an aircraft that has been used in combat missions over places like Mali, Libya and most recently Iraq, as part of both national and international operations.
"It's the first export contract for the Rafale. Up until now, only the French state bought the Rafale," French President Francois Hollande told reporters in Brussels, adding that Egypt had been seeking "aircraft quickly, due to the threats that it faces."
"I believe that, given the current context, it's very important that Egypt is able to act to uphold stability and to be in security, not only stability on its own territory, but stability in the region," Hollande said.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will be dispatched to Cairo on Monday to sign the accord, Hollande's office said in a statement.
A French Defense Ministry official, speaking only on condition that his name not be used because of ministry protocol, said the total value of the sale was 5.2 billion euros. A company spokesman and a spokesman for Egypt's Army could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Rafale has been in service for France's air force since 2006, and started flying air support in Afghanistan the following year. In Libya in 2011, the Rafale took up tasks including no-fly zone enforcement, air-to-ground strikes, reconnaissance, and overflight missions. Rafales had a key role in that NATO campaign — based solely on airpower — that helped rebel fighters topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
While it excelled in the skies, the Rafale had trouble finding a foreign buyer because of its high cost, complexity and design — a marked shift from the Mirage, France's previous-generation fighter. Deals for Brazil, Libya, Morocco and Switzerland all fell through, often at the last minute.
Egypt, a decades-long American ally whose army receives up to $1.3 billion in military aid from Washington each year, has been seeking to diversify its arms providers. Its military remains largely U.S. trained and equipped, but Russian news agency Interfax said this week that Moscow has $3.5 billion in new contracts with Cairo for military aircraft, air defense missiles and other weapons.
The Egyptian deal came together with unusual speed for a big-ticket defense accord. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi first discussed a possible buy of Rafales and the FREMM frigate when Le Drian visited Cairo in mid-September, according to the French defense official.
Gen. Mohammed el-Assar, a top aide to el-Sissi, led the talks for Egypt, the official said. In an unusual breach of traditional protocol, El-Sissi requested a dinner meeting with the French minister in November and specified the number of planes he wanted with the frigate. Last month, at the crowning of the new Saudi king, the Egyptian leader discussed the deal again with Hollande and Le Drian.
Questions remain about how El-Sissi's government will pay for the deal both financially and politically at a time when Egypt's economy has been battered from four years of near-constant political upheaval since the ouster of longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. Half of the country's 85 million people live at or below the poverty line of $2 a day and rely on government subsidies of wheat and fuel for survival.
Egyptian media have reported that Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates funded other recent Egyptian defense deals. Egypt has been seeking to create a military pact with those two countries and Kuwait to take on Islamic militants, possibility around the Middle East. The alliance could show strength to counterbalance their traditional rival — Shiite-dominated Iran.
The Egypt deal comes weeks after Indian officials announced they were close to a 12 billion-euro deal to buy 126 Rafales.
Hollande said that discussions with Qatar over a possible purchase of Rafales were ongoing.
Maggie Michael contributed from Cairo. Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.