May 24, 2024




© Pavel Golovkin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi enter a hall during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 17, 2018.

President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi of Egypt, one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East and a major recipient of U.S. aid, recently ordered subordinates to produce up to 40,000 rockets to be covertly shipped to Russia, according to a leaked U.S. intelligence document.

A portion of a top secret document, dated Feb. 17, summarizes purported conversations between Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials and also references plans to supply Russia with artillery rounds and gunpowder. In the document, Sisi instructs the officials to keep the production and shipment of the rockets secret “to avoid problems with the West.”

The Washington Post obtained the document from a trove of images of classified files posted in February and March on Discord, a chat app popular with gamers. The document has not been previously reported.

The disclosure comes as Russia is fighting a war with Ukraine, in which both sides are seeking resupply of depleted arsenals.

In response to questions regarding the document and the veracity of the conversations it describes, Ambassador Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said that “Egypt’s position from the beginning is based on noninvolvement in this crisis and committing to maintain equal distance with both sides, while affirming Egypt’s support to the U.N. charter and international law in the U.N. General Assembly resolutions.”

“We continue to urge both parties to cease hostilities and reach a political solution through negotiations,” he said.

A U.S. government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address sensitive information, said: “We are not aware of any execution of that plan,” referring to the rocket export initiative. “We have not seen that happen,” the official added.

Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh noted that the Justice Department has opened a probe into the leak of classified documents.

Providing arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine would represent a potentially explosive gambit for Egypt, a nation that, despite deepening ties with Moscow, remains deeply invested in its partnership with the United States, which for decades has provided the country more than $1 billion a year in security aid. The document does not explicitly say why Russia is interested in acquiring the rockets, but its military has been expending huge amounts of ammunition in the war, and the U.S. government has claimed that North Korea is clandestinely supplying Russia with artillery rounds and that China is considering doing the same.

Egypt and other American partners in the Middle East have attempted to stay on the sidelines of Western nations’ standoff with Russia over Ukraine, seeking a potential hedge against America’s declining role in the region and new means to ensure their economic and military security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised commodity prices globally and put serious pressure on Egypt, the world’s top importer of wheat, which has received more than 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in recent years.

“Egypt is one of our oldest allies in the Middle East,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Appropriations committees. “If it’s true that Sisi is covertly building rockets for Russia that could be used in Ukraine, we need to have a serious reckoning about the state of our relationship.”

Sarah Margon, director of U.S. foreign policy at the Open Society Foundations and the Biden administration’s onetime nominee for the State Department’s top human rights post, said that “an intentional sale and delivery of rockets to the Russian government, which has committed such explicit war and other atrocity crimes, is just beyond the pale, especially for an ostensibly close U.S. ally.”

The revelations in the document, if true, raise the question of whether the United States “should continue to defend and support” Egypt if Sisi’s government is seeking a sale that would “serve Cairo’s immediate needs but is likely to have serious negative global impact,” she said.

Michael Hanna, director of U.S. programs at the International Crisis Group, noted that the Biden administration has been leading Western efforts to deny Russia and its mercenaries technology and arms needed for its war in Ukraine and punishing American adversaries such as Iran and North Korea who have done so.

“The idea that it would be Egypt in this role — that’s an embarrassment to the U.S.,” he said.

The document describes Sisi issuing instructions on Feb. 1 for keeping the supply of rockets secret in order “to avoid problems with ‘the West,’” telling a person referenced only as Salah al-Din that factory workers should be told the projectiles are intended for the Egyptian army. Salah al-Din is probably Mohamed Salah al-Din, the minister of state for military production. The gunpowder offered to Russia would come from Factory 18, the document said, which is the name of a decades-old chemical manufacturing plant.

The document quotes Salah al-Din as saying he would “order his people to work shift work if necessary because it was the least Egypt could do to repay Russia for unspecified help earlier.” The document does not make it clear what the earlier Russian help was. The leaked document quotes Salah al-Din as saying the Russians told him they were willing to “buy anything.”

Moscow and Cairo have inked several significant deals recently, including an agreement this year for Russia to build a massive railway workshop in Egypt. Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, also began construction last year on Egypt’s first nuclear power plant.

Perhaps most importantly, after the war in Ukraine disrupted access to Ukrainian wheat, Cairo began relying heavily on purchases of Russian grain. The arrangement has helped Egypt avoid wheat shortages that could spark social unrest in a country where poverty is widespread and bread is served with nearly every meal. Egypt is eager to avoid an uprising at home, where an acute economic crisis, including a devalued currency, high inflation and soaring food prices — fueled in part by the war in Ukraine — are stirring up frustrations among civilians.

In the document, Sisi is quoted as saying that he was considering selling “ordinary stuff” to China to make room for “more Sakr 45 production,” a reference to a type of 122mm rocket manufactured by Egypt. The document does not explicitly say whether the rockets that would be produced for Russia were Sakr 45s, but such rockets would be compatible with Russian Grad multiple rocket launchers.

Provision of weapons to the Russian government might also trigger U.S. sanctions on Egypt.

Military-owned companies have thrived under Sisi’s rule. He has overseen the opening of several new military factories in recent years, including one in 2020 called Factory 300, which produces small arms, ammunition and missiles. That same year, Egypt presented a plan to expand its production of such materiel, including producing more ammunition and parts for different kinds of weaponry.

While the document does not state how the U.S. government gleaned the details of the Egyptian deliberations, some of the information in the recently leaked documents appears to come from signals intelligence, which refers to technical means such as communications intercepts. The U.S. government has long had a vast eavesdropping capability and a history of intercepting communication from foreign leaders.

The Feb. 1 conversation involving Sisi would have occurred just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Egypt’s president during a visit to Cairo. Immediately after Blinken’s visit, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Moscow for talks with Russian leaders. Relations between the United States and Egypt have been strained in recent years as the Biden administration has increased pressure on Sisi’s government over its record of repressing civil society, jailing dissidents and employing force against critics.

Sarah Yager, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, which has previously called for an arms embargo on Egypt for its security forces’ involvement in abuses, said that rocket sales to Russia would enable more abuses abroad.

“I would also question whether any U.S. security assistance is being used to manufacture these arms that might go to Russia,” Yager said.

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In September, U.S. officials announced they would withhold $130 million from Egypt’s annual allotment of $1.3 billion in security aid over Cairo’s human rights record. They cited steps toward releasing political prisoners in their decision not to withhold more aid, part of the administration’s attempt to balance concern about human rights with U.S. and regional security interests.

Successive American administrations have valued Egypt’s role in brokering agreements to contain violence in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In March, representatives from Israel and the Palestinian territories met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in an attempt to cool tensions around the latest flare-up of violence.

But for its part, Egypt has grown increasingly dissatisfied with its U.S. relationship, including the conditions Washington places on human rights and democratization. Cairo believes its position is weakened if it grows over-reliant on the United States and has sought to use its long-standing relationship with Russia as a way to exert leverage, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The military feels taken for granted by the U.S.,” he said.

Hanna said the fact that the two countries’ partnership had withstood intense disagreements in the past may have encouraged the Egyptian government to believe it could risk a move that would be sure to be met with intense disapproval in Washington.

“The story of the relationship is that it just continues,” he said. “There’s a lot of inertia and path dependence here.”

O’Grady reported from Cairo.