The United States has announced it is lifting its hold on the supply of military equipment to Egypt, which was frozen when the military took power in Cairo nearly two years ago.

The White House said President Barack Obama was freeing up the equipment and making other changes to military ties with Washington's long-time ally to support US interests while encouraging Egypt's political reforms.

This was "in the interest of US national security," National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.

Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics, she said.

The decision was announced after a telephone call between Obama and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in which they also discussed the turmoil that is gripping the region.

Sisi is leading an initiative to form a unified Arab military force in the region to confront Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, and other threats.

The White House said Washington would "modernise" the way it provided military aid to Cairo to focus on counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has been active.

"In this way, we will ensure that US funding is being used to promote shared objectives in the region, including a secure and stable Egypt and the defeat of terrorist organisations," Meehan said in a statement.

Obama told Sisi he would continue to ask the US Congress for $1.3bn in military aid for Egypt per year, but said the US would stop allowing Egypt to buy equipment on credit starting in fiscal year 2018, the White House said.

Rights activists expressed concern. Resuming full military aid would send a dangerous message that human rights were not a priority concern for the US, said Neil Hicks, a director at Human Rights First.

Second-largest recipient

The deals for the released equipment were paid for long ago, so were not expected to have much impact on the companies.

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid since its peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Aid was frozen after the Egyptian army overthrew former President Mohamed Morsi. Obama resisted calling that a coup because it would have resulted in aid being cut completely, the Reuters news agency reported. 

Some restrictions were relaxed last year, but Congress made aid dependent on the US Secretary of State certifying that Egypt was taking certain steps to govern democratically, a delay which angered the Egyptian government.

"The animosity had been growing because of an Egyptian sense that they were at a point of mortal peril and we were engaged in academic games about modifying assistance programs," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to tell Congress within the next two weeks that the aid is in the US national security interest, even though he will not make the "democracy certification," a senior administration official said.

Source: Reuters