WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama has delayed the delivery of four U.S. F-16 fighter jets to Egypt because of the country’s political unrest, officials said Wednesday - reversing earlier assurances from the Pentagon.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. no longer believes it is "appropriate to move forward with the delivery" of the jets.
The announcement contradicted statements two weeks ago by Pentagon officials that the U.S. would continue to send the jets as part of a large arms package.
Washington’s annual $1.5 billion aid to Egypt has been under the spotlight since the July 3 ousting of elected President Mohammed Morsi by the country’s military.
The army has installed an interim government and says it will seek fresh elections, but supporters of Morsi – including regional allies such as Turkey – have denounced the move as a coup.
U.S. law requires that aid be cut off to a country that undergoes a military coup, but Western leaders have stopped short of declaring the July 3 transition as such.
Egypt is the second-largest recipient of USAID support, after Israel. Almost all of it comes in the form of military funding that is mandated to be spent with U.S. defense companies. In 2011, a Cornell economist estimated that U.S. aid made up one-third of Egypt’s broader military budget, the Washington Post noted.
Little said Obama made the decision to delay the delivery "with the unanimous consent" of his national security team.
He would not elaborate on what had happened in Egypt to change the administration’s mind over the delivery, saying the decision was based on "the dynamics on the ground in Egypt," which he described as "a fluid situation."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Egypt’s military chief Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi earlier Wednesday to inform him of the decision.
Little said the call "lasted quite a long time" and that the pair discussed Sissi’s speech urging mass demonstrations.
Little refused to say whether the U.S. now believes the situation in Egypt represents a military coup.
The jets were supposed to be delivered to Egypt by the end of the month. They are part of a package to provide 20 F-16s to Egypt over the course of the year. Eight jets have already been delivered.
Egypt already has more than 200 F-16s. The order was placed more than two years ago when President Hosni Mubarak was still in office.
NBC News' Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.
First published July 24 2013, 9:16 AM