Cairo bolsters bond with Moscow as US grows distant

Egypt, feeling a chill in the air in Washington, is warming up to Russia.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sit inside an Aurus limousine of the presidential motorcade in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Oct. 17, 2018.  Photo by Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS.
Albaraa Abdullah

Albaraa Abdullah


Topics covered

us-egyptian relations, power station, suez canal, military, egyptian economy, abdel fattah al-sisi, vladimir putin, egypt-russia ties

Nov 2, 2018

CAIRO — Russia and Egypt are making the most of their bilateral relations in many sectors, which was evident recently during the ninth meeting of their presidents in the past five years.

Russian Ambassador to Egypt Sergey Kirpichenko, speaking at a press conference Oct. 23, noted the countries had signed a comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation agreement when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Russia on Oct. 15-17. Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin tackled regional issues as well as economic and military cooperation.

Sisi and Putin said during a joint press conference Oct. 17 in Sochi that they had discussed the Palestinian cause and agreed on several issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including the need to achieve a comprehensive and fair two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

Sisi added, “We agreed on the importance of continuing coordination between Egypt and Russia over Syria and supporting a political solution to the crisis.”

Egypt and Russia are constantly communicating on the latest developments in Syria, and most recently have intensified efforts to form a constitutional committee in the war-torn country. Meanwhile, Egypt has hosted several meetings between political rivals in Syria, while the Egyptian Foreign Ministry brokered truces between regime forces and Russia on one hand, and the armed opposition on the other.

Putin said during the Oct. 17 press conference that he had informed his Egyptian counterpart about the agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara to prevent a Syrian regime offensive on the rebel stronghold of Idlib.

Rokha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said Egyptian-Russian relations are moving in the right direction, and the increasing investments between the two countries attest to that. He cited the Russian industrial zone to be built within the Suez Canal Economic Zone, an investment worth $6.9 billion. The industrial zone will be Russia's first outside the country and is expected to create at least 35,000 jobs.

Russia and Egypt are also cooperating to build a nuclear power station in el-Dabaa area at an estimated cost of $45 billion — $25 billion of which Russia will pay. The station is expected to generate 4,800 megawatts of energy.

“The nuclear station project will connect Egypt to Russia during the next 25 years," Hassan told Al-Monitor. "Its construction should take 10 years, and another 10 years during which Russia will have management rights. Russia beat South Korea in winning the project, which stirred US reservations."

On Oct. 24, the day after Kirpichenko's press conference, a delegation representing dozens of US companies, members of the US-Egypt Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce met with Sisi to discuss possible investments in Egypt. No agreements were reached.

Despite the importance of US-Egyptian ties, their relationship is moving slowly. Hassan said, “This is the third time a US economic delegation has visited Egypt since 2014 without agreeing on investments or operations.”

Perhaps Sisi was wrong, Hassan said, to put faith in US President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump has repeatedly promised Sisi he would visit Cairo, but hasn't. “I don’t think he will — at least not during his first presidential term,” Hassan added.

It seems Trump has been cautious about visiting Egypt, which has been labeled an “authoritarian regime” by The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index for 2017.

In 2012, the US Congress issued legislation that includes conditions Egypt must abide by to receive US military aid — mainly, improving its human rights record. The United States withheld $195 million in aid in fiscal 2016 because Cairo failed to make progress in human rights.

Hassan pointed out that US-Egyptian relations are currently cold. The United States hasn't had an ambassador in Cairo since Robert Stephen Beecroft finished his three-year term on June 30, 2017, and left Cairo. "Washington hasn't appointed a new ambassador since,” Hassan said. The United States has not given reasons for this decision, though Trump has yet to fill vacancies in dozens of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

On the regional political level, Hassan believes Egypt's perspective aligns with Russia's, especially regarding the Syrian crisis and the Palestinian cause. The US and Egyptian views on those subjects diverge.

Sisi opposes the isolation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's ally, and rejects the disarmament of regime forces in Syria, which he believes would create more chaos in the Middle East. The United States believes Assad should not remain in power.

Tarek Fahmi, director of the Department of Israeli Studies at the National Center for Middle East Studies, believes the Palestinian cause has become a point of contention between Cairo and Washington, since Trump announced in December he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Cairo objected to this step.

Fahmi told Al-Monitor, “Sisi was excited about coordinating with the Trump administration in the past regarding the Palestinian cause. It now seems [Trump's proposal for peace] will not go through.”

He noted Egypt has reservations about the US provisions of the proposal, which have yet to be made public, and said Sisi will not be able to agree with the United States on the Palestinian matter. Fahmi said Egypt's take on the Palestinian cause is closer to Russia's than to the American stance. He noted, “This doesn't mean we are now on Russia’s team though.”

He added, “Egyptian diplomacy plays a pivotal role in the Arab region, but Sisi has to conduct political maneuvering when it comes to world powers [Russia and the United States]. In the Syrian issue, he moves with Russia, while in the Palestinian cause, he deals with the US.” This is because Russia has no significant role in the Palestinian dossier, unlike the United States, which is Israel’s main ally and largely involved in the peace process. As for the Syrian issue, Russia is more active. So Egypt is in the middle of a balancing act to preserve relations with both world powers, according to Fahmi.

On Oct. 17, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with roots in the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), published a paper titled “Sisi’s Anti-Israel Rhetoric: New Speeches, Old Problems.” In the paper, the institute said the Trump administration “needs to convey more signals to tone down the [Egyptian] political leadership’s rhetoric against their eastern neighbor [Israel]."

"Such statements will not help the administration promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan,” the report said. The institute believes Cairo is a key component in the potential Palestinian peace process.

Mohammad al-Arabi, a former member of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Sisi has diplomatic panache, as he separates out the issues he disagrees with Washington on — like the Syrian and Libyan issues — and tries to gain common ground with it [the United States] on issues like the Palestinian cause.”

Although Egypt disagrees with the United States on some Palestinian issues, such as the US Embassy move, it can't completely freeze its relations with Washington, which is the main player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Arabi believes US-Egyptian relations are unstable and constantly fluctuating. He considers the Russian-Egyptian rapprochement to be in part a byproduct of Cairo’s inability to back Washington completely, since the United States hasn't offered Egypt anything of late.

Arabi continued, “Egypt’s take on the Palestinian cause and the Syrian situation has been the same since 2013. I think it would be difficult to change it now.”

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