US Defence Department sources say an informal notification of the planned sale was sent to Congress at the start of November. This is normally followed by a public notification, after which Congress has 30 days to pass a resolution opposing the sale.

The new deal is said to entail the supply of 53 Harpoon Block II missiles, manufactured by the Boeing Company, and four missile patrol craft, made by Halter Marine, of Gulfport, Mississippi. The total value of the deal is put at $400 million.

The Washington Post on 27 November said that Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Jesse Helms, the senior Republican on the committee had both expressed reservations about the deal. The daily also quoted Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House international relations committee as saying: ‘A stable and prosperous Egypt is in our interest, while an arms race between Israel and Egypt is not.’

Egypt has faced criticism from Congress in the past for its robust political position towards Israel, and questions have been raised about the level of Egyptian support for the US after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.