02/12/2015 02:23 EST | Updated 04/14/2015 05:59 EDT

French official: Egypt to buy 24 Rafale jet fighters for 5.2B euros; jets' first foreign sale

PARIS - 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) defence 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.

"Egyptian authorities just let me know today of their intention to buy 24 Rafale combat planes and a multi-mission frigate along with associated equipment," President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement. He will dispatch French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Cairo on Monday to sign the accord, the statement said.

"This equipment will allow Egypt to increase its security and play its full role in regional stability," it said.

A French Defence 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 defence missiles and other weapons.

The Egyptian deal came together with unusual speed for a big-ticket defence 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 defence 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 defence 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.


Maggie Michael contributed from Cairo.