Egypt buys 2 warships from France, 2nd big military purchase

Egypt has agreed to buy two assault ships from France, the French government said Wednesday, dramatically increasing its capabilities on- and off-shore as the country tries to assume a more prominent role against Islamic State militants.

The assault ships, which can each carry 16 helicopter gunships, 700 troops and up to 50 armored vehicles, were originally intended for Russia. France continued building to Russia's specifications — including stenciling Cyrillic writing throughout the vessels — until the deal finally fell apart because of the Ukraine crisis. It was originally supposed to be the biggest arms sale ever by a NATO country to Russia.

France agreed to refund 950 million euros ($1 billion) already paid by Russia. France didn't say how much Egypt has agreed to pay, but denied losing money. A military official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the deal said Egypt would pay 950 million euros ($1 billion) for both ships, which will be delivered next March.

Russia had traditionally supplied Egypt's military, but the country has turned more recently toward Western arms purchases, with France taking a leading role. Egypt bought 24 advanced fighter jets from France earlier this year for nearly $6 billion, as it sought international help to bomb IS targets.

President Francois Hollande said he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi closed the deal Tuesday after several weeks of talks.

"France will assure delivery of these boats while losing nothing, and by doing so protecting Egypt," Hollande said. He noted French military cooperation with Egypt and Egypt's "important role" in the Middle East.

He said el-Sissi underscored the role of the Suez Canal and "how important it is for Europe, for the Middle East, for trade that the Suez Canal be protected."

Analysts said it was unlikely that Egypt would re-sell the ships to Russia given the increasing value of its relationship with France. And the military official said it was not permitted for the buyer of a warship to re-sell without permission from the original seller.

But, conveniently, Egypt already owns Russian-made helicopters that are of the same kind originally planned for the decks of the two Mistrals, the official said.

The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the northern Sinai region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule, and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local IS affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in the area.

Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former Royal Navy officer, said Egypt's military is shifting its focus, previously on the Sinai, to a more regional outlook.

"It does provide an interesting window into the decision-making of Egypt's leaders at this moment," he said.

Analysts said the purchase showed Egypt's attempt to take a more muscular role in the region, notably with the disintegration of Yemen and Libya.

"The reality is that Egypt isn't going to try to conquer Libya or Yemen," said Ben Moores, an analyst with IHS Janes. "It's not trying to change those countries. It's just trying to keep a lid on them."