PARIS --- Egypt on Saturday signed a €950 million contract to buy the two Mistral-class amphibious ships (LHDs) that France originally built for Russia, substantially less than the €1.3 billion Russia had originally agreed to pay for the ships and related services.
This price also includes crew training and modification to Egyptian requirements, and the two ships are due to be handed over to Egypt by March 2016, according to sources quoted by French media. The sale could mean a loss of up to €250 million for France, according to a Sept. 29 report by the French Senate, but it also avoids maintenance and legal costs potentially worth several hundred million euros.
Egypt also recently ordered an undisclosed number of Airbus A400M airlifters, according to a Spanish website, which would generate hundreds of millions of euros of business for French industry. Andalusia Informacion reported Oct 5 that Pilar Albiac, the executive vice-president of Airbus Defence & Space, had told the Airbus Group board the previous week that Egypt had requested delivery of A400M airlifters “as soon as possible.”
An Airbus spokesman said Oct. 11 that he had no comment on the report, which if confirmed would make Egypt the second A400M buyer outside the original consortium, after Malaysia.
France’s biggest-ever arms customer?
In the space of just over 18 months, Egypt has ordered almost €8 billions’ worth of French weapons and services, becoming the first foreign buyer of the Rafale fighter, the Gowind corvette and now the Mistral LHD, as well as the second foreign buyer of the FREMM frigate. This makes it arguably France’s biggest-ever arms customer, after three decades during which it bought virtually no French weapons. While this has not been officially confirmed, it is widely accepted that Saudi Arabia is paying for Egypt’s rearmament.
Paris has been superficially criticized for its eagerness to sell weapons to a régime that took power by a military coup in June 2014, and which has harshly repressed its political opposition and severely abridged civic rights. However, such are the size and timeliness of Egypt’s orders for several French arms programs that criticism has been muted, and that General (now President) Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is considered a close ally of France.
It is ironic, however, that these record sales were concluded by a Socialist president supported by the Socialist party, one of whose historical goals has been to stop the arms trade. In fact, it was President François Hollande’s only Socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand, who famously requested that missiles be removed from Mirage fighters before he visited the Dassault Aviation static park at the 1981 Paris air show, just a month after being voted into office.
But, if it is embarrassed by such deals, the French government is hiding it very effectively. The delegation which visited Cairo to sign the Rafale contract in April was led by President Hollande and included a large number of ministers and businessmen, while this week-end’s was led by Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, also accompanied by ministers and businessmen.
During a Oct. 10 press conference in Cairo for the Mistral contract with his Egyptian opposite number, Valls waxed lyrical about the “exceptional relationship” between the two countries, which is “supported by history and culture,” while observing that the French “are fascinated by Egypt…in which France believes.”
Both delegations also included Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, another long-standing member of the Socialist party, who personally concluded both sales to Egypt, and who is informally celebrated in Paris as France’s best-ever arms salesman.
In February, Egypt became the first export buyer of the Dassault Rafale fighter, ordering 24 aircraft as part of a package said to be intended to protect the enhanced Suez Canal, and which also includes a FREMM frigate and a large quantity of guided weapons to be supplied mostly by MBDA. This package was estimated to be worth €5.3 billion.
In early 2014, before Al-Sissi took power, Egypt ordered four Gowind corvettes from DCNS, the French state-controlled shipyards group, one of which will be built in France and the rest in Egypt. This contract’s value is estimated at a little less than €1 billion, with an additional €400 million for their MBDA MICA Vertical Launch air-defense missiles and MM-40 Exocet anti-ship missiles, and €100-200 million contract for torpedoes.
On Sept. 26, the Sagem unit of France’s Safran group announced it had signed an “exclusive commercial and industrial collaboration agreement” with Egyptian manufacturer AOI-Aircraft Factory for the Patroller surveillance drone system “to address the requirements of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense.” While no contract has been announced, one is clearly expected, if not already signed.
The largest deal currently under negotiation, however, is for NH90 naval helicopters. Initially, Egypt was said to be planning to buy two for its only new Fremm frigate, but sources now say the number has been substantially increased as the current plan calls for also deploying an NH90 on each Gowind corvettes, and several more on each of the Mistral ships.