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Lawmakers question gift of 20 F-16s to Morsi's Egypt

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Turmoil in Egypt isn't stopping a shipment of 20 F-16 fighter jets, including this one - already emblazoned with Egypt's flag. (Courtesy: Carl Richards)

Key lawmakers expressing concerns about the Obama administration's plan to send 20 F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, where new President Mohamed Morsi's allegiances are as uncertain as his grip on power.

Under a foreign aid deal signed in 2010, when Morsi's U.S.-friendly predecessor Hosni Mubarak was in charge, the U.S. is giving the planes to Egypt's air force, which already has more than 200 of the aircraft. The first four jets are to be delivered beginning Jan. 22, a source at the naval air base in Fort Worth, where the planes have been undergoing testing, told FoxNews.com. But the $213 million gift is raising questions on Capitol Hill as Morsi is under fire for trying to seize dictatorial powers and allegedly siccing thugs and rapists on protesters.

Florida Rep.Vern Buchanan, who recently called for ending foreign aid to Egypt altogether, said the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi government has been sending increasingly troubling signals to Washington, and giving it state-of-the-art fighter jets is a dangerous idea.

“American tax dollars must not be used to aid and abet any dictatorial regime that stands with terrorists,” Buchanan said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told FoxNews.com Egypt is a wild card under Morsi.

“At this point, we don't know where Egypt is headed," Thornberry said. "We should be cautious about driving them away, but we should also be cautious about the arms we provide.”

Just last week, vigilante supporters of Morsi captured dozens of protesters, detaining and beating them before handing them over to police, according to human rights advocates. Morsi-backed groups have also been accused of using rape to intimidate female protesters who have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest a Sharia-based constitution and Morsi's neutering of the nation's legal system.

“At this point, we don't know where Egypt is headed."

- Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas)

The U.S. government ordered and paid for the fighter jets for Egypt's military back in 2010. But since Mubarak's ouster, the democratically elected Morsi has sent mixed signals about whether he wants an alliance with Washington, even meeting with leaders in Iran earlier this year.

"The Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government has not proven to be a partner for democracy as they had promised, given the recent attempted power grab," a senior Republican congressional aide told FoxNews.com.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently criticized U.S. military aid to Egypt:

“The Obama administration wants to simply throw money at an Egyptian government that the president cannot even clearly state is an ally of the United States,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said.

The package had to be approved by lawmakers in Washington. While the basic F-16 has been a military workhorse for top air forces for more than 25 years, the cockpit electronics are constantly updated and the models Egypt is getting are the best defense contractor Lockheed Martin makes.

"This is a great day for Lockheed Martin and a testament to the enduring partnership and commitment we have made to the government of Egypt," said John Larson, vice president, Lockheed Martin F-16 programs. "We remain committed to providing our customer with a proven, advanced 4th Generation multirole fighter."

"In an air combat role, the F-16's maneuverability and combat radius exceed that of all potential threat fighter aircraft," the U.S. Air Force description of the plane reads.

"The F-16 can fly more than 500 miles, deliver its weapons with superior accuracy, defend itself against enemy aircraft, and return to its starting point. An all-weather capability allows it to accurately deliver ordnance during non-visual bombing conditions."

A Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. and Egypt have an important alliance that is furthered by the transfer.

"The U.S.-Egypt defense relationship has served as the cornerstone of our broader strategic partnership for over thirty years," said Lt. Col. Wesley Miller. "The delivery of the first set of F-16s in January 2013 reflects the U.S. commitment to supporting the Egyptian military's modernization efforts.  Egyptian acquisition of F-16s will increase our militaries' interoperability, and enhance Egypt's capacity to contribute to regional mission sets."

But Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, warned that Egypt's murky intentions could lead to the prospect of U.S. ally Israel facing an air assault from even more U.S.-made planes. 

“Should an overreaction [by Egypt] spiral into a broader conflict between Egypt and Israel, such a scenario would put U.S. officials in an embarrassing position of having supplied massive amounts of military hardware … to both belligerents,” Innocent said. “Given Washington's fiscal woes, American taxpayers should no longer be Egypt’s major arms supplier.”

The writer of this piece can be reached at maxim.lott@foxnews.com