France inks jet sale to Egypt as Cairo bombs IS

Cairo (AFP) - France signed an agreement with Egypt on Monday for the first foreign sale of its Rafale fighters, in a deal boosting Cairo's military as it tackles jihadists on two fronts.

Paris hopes the 5.2 billion euro ($5.9 billion) deal for 24 Rafale fighters to be delivered later this year -- which comes as Cairo launched air strikes against the Islamic State group in Libya -- will prompt others to snap up its premier combat jet.

For Egypt, the agreement is a show of support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013 and wants to break a US monopoly over arms sales to Cairo.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Sisi oversaw the signing of the deal at a presidential palace in Cairo.

"Our two countries are pursuing a common struggle against terrorism," Le Drian said during the signing ceremony.

"Egypt's stability is an important element in the stability of the countries overlooking the Mediterranean sea, especially your country that has witnessed recent terrorist events," Egyptian Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi told Le Drian.

The overall deal includes three contracts with Egypt -- supplying Rafale fighter jets, an FREMM multi-mission frigate from naval group DCNS, and missiles.

Before heading to Cairo, Le Drian had said the beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya that prompted the air strikes earlier Monday was an "additional reason" for Cairo to boost its security.

The sale comes as welcome news to cash-strapped France, which is even diverting three jets away from its own air force for the delivery.

"This contract puts Rafale at the top of the pyramid of combat aircraft," Le Drian said.

French President Francois Hollande said the agreement -- clinched in only three months of negotiations -- provided Cairo with "a quality aircraft" and was important for Egypt "taking into account the threats existing around the country".

- Catalyst for Rafale sales -

With Libya wracked by instability to the west and the threat from militants linked to IS in it Sinai Peninsula to the east, Egypt plays a key role in providing stability in a troubled region, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.

France is hoping the deal will act as a catalyst to unblock hoped-for sales to other countries.

Eric Trappier, chief executive of Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale, has said he is "very confident" that three years of exclusive talks with India on the sale of 126 the jets worth 12 billion euros would soon result in a deal.

He said talks were slow as Delhi wanted some of the jets manufactured at home in a bid to boost manufacturing.

Paris is also eyeing possible deals with Qatar and Malaysia.

"There is a psychological barrier that has been broken down," Trappier said in an interview with French business daily Les Echos.

"In terms of our image, it will help us get over the line in other countries," he said.

Attempts to sell the jet to countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Morocco, Switzerland and Brazil have seen the Rafale lose out to its foreign competitors.

Despite the cheering in Paris, the agreed sale has sparked fury from some groups over perceived human rights abuses in Egypt.

Amnesty International attacked the decision to sell the 24 jets and a frigate to a nation it accused of "alarming" abuses.

Others have accused Paris of double standards for freezing its delivery of two Mistral-class warships to Russia over the Ukraine crisis but going ahead with the Egypt deal.

Sisi was elected in May 2014 with 96.91 percent of the vote a year after toppling the country's first freely elected president, Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi.

A subsequent crackdown on Morsi's supporters has left at least 1,400 dead and thousands more in jail.

"Just because we are selling these Rafales to Egypt doesn't mean we agree with every point in their domestic policy," Fabius said in a radio interview.

"When there are excesses that are committed, we tell the Egyptian authorities -- from our point of view -- and we are hoping to move step by step towards more democracy."

"But the stability of Egypt is a very important point."