Egypt and Russia: a new beginning

Following the fall of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Moscow has worked to strengthen its ties with Cairo, something that would have wide reaching geostrategic repercussions.

al-monitor Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a meeting with Egyptian officials at El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Nov. 14, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

us-egyptian relations, russian foreign policy, russian diplomacy, muslim brotherhood, foreign policy, egyptian army, egypt crisis

Nov 22, 2013

It seems that relations between Egypt and Russia have been heading toward a new beginning in recent days, as the Russian ministers of defense and foreign affairs paid Egypt a rare visit.

Once again Cairo and Moscow decided that the ties between them had an undeniable impact on US-Russian, Russian-Egyptian and US-Egyptian relations. Undoubtedly, with this new beginning, Egyptian-Russian relations will reshape Russia's relations with the rest of the Arab world. These developments will not occur within months but rather over several years. It's certain that the changes to Egyptian-Russian relations in the coming period will be both as important and as radical as the development that resulted from Egyptian-Soviet relations in the era of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. They will also be as important and radical as those resulting from the deterioration of these relationships after Egypt allied with the United States during the Anwar Sadat era. This alliance led Egypt to conclude a reconciliation pact with Israel, give up its leadership role in the Arab nation and waive its role as a key player in the affairs of the developing world and the world as a whole. The situation was further established by the Soviet Union’s dissolution and the United States’ unilateral leadership on world affairs.

Currently, it is possible for Egypt and Russia to build new relationships without fearing communist and intellectual influence from Russia. Previously, the United States tried to obstruct this influence and succeeded in most cases, starting with Egypt after the 1973 October War. These relations are starting at a time when Egypt is committed, above all, to the foundations of Arab Nasserism under a new leadership. This new leadership has exerted obvious efforts so as not to trigger hostile positions from the United States, while ensuring that its own position does not arouse Russia’s anger. Currently, the doors are open for Egyptian-Russian relations. Even though marked by economic, political or strategic competition, these US-Russian relations clearly show signs of global coordination.

The current international scene is characterized by the supremacy of the US role in guiding the world politically, strategically and economically. However, this same scene witnessed an unquestionable decline in US supremacy to the point where the world became convinced that China — not Russia — was preparing to take the leading economic position which had been held by the United States ever since the end of World War II. There is no doubt that Russia will not accept a third or fourth ranking in this global competition between major countries.

At the same time, a clear vision must be reached in terms of the position taken up by Egypt. The United States fell into the trap of siding with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. It believed that supporting them would ensure its continued influence over Egypt and guarantee the impediment of Egypt’s economic, political and strategic progress. Therefore, the Egyptian people allied themselves with the Egyptian army to oust the Muslim Brotherhood, while the United States hesitated. It thought that by taking sides with the Brotherhood it could ensure its continued grip over power. The United States sustained a serious loss due to this reluctance, that lasted only a few weeks.

Then Egypt and Russia rushed to reach an agreement, causing a serious setback to the United States. One cannot forget in this regard that Russia is a heavyweight arms trader and is a worthy competitor with the United States. Moreover, based on past experiences, Egypt knows that Russia is its most important arms supplier because of the quality of arms and the strategic distance between Russia and Israel.

Soviet Russia did not respond angrily or irrationally when the crisis with Egypt erupted under Sadat. Moscow was able to keep relations friendly. In this respect, Moscow was farsighted as if it had expected the circumstances to change — as is happening now — to make way for the two countries to develop relations. Cairo’s new behavior is described in the US press as a “step to break free from the narrow circle of an alliance with Washington,” and that there are disagreements among Americans on how to deal with Egypt. Interestingly, these disagreements are not determined by differences between Democrats and Republicans, but by positions taken by each of the two parties within the US Administration and in Congress.

One cannot ignore that the American press confirmed that the series of visits by figures from both houses of the US Congress to Cairo “will fall within the scope of a US effort aimed at reading into the details of the political map of Egypt after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, amid a significant deterioration of Egyptian-US agreement.” One of these figures even described this deterioration as “the worst in decades.” US sources were keen to indicate that the Pentagon was the most assured when it came to the possibility of mending Egyptian-US relations. 

According to the Pentagon's interpretation of the situation in Egypt, the impact of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the largest buyers of US weapons, tends to be positive. The Israeli stance is not far from this idea because Israel wants a strong leadership in Egypt. Moreover, the cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv is extensive at the current stage. Nevertheless, this has not prevented the same sources in Washington from confirming that the US government is concerned about the situation in Egypt, “especially with the ongoing systematic political repression against the Brotherhood.”

These US statements suggest that the gap is growing wider between Washington and Moscow regarding events in Cairo. The Egyptian military leadership said it was planning on benefiting from this situation, although it knew that the US weapon supply over the past 30 years to Egypt could hamper Russia's role in replacing the United States. The arms issue is not the only problem that could obstruct the renewal of ties between Moscow and Cairo. The United States continues to criticize the Egyptian regime’s policy against the Brotherhood, and sometimes the United States seems to want the Brotherhood to remain in power in Egypt. This situation certainly represents an opportunity for Russia on all levels.

It is not surprising that, upon receiving the Egyptian political delegation that visited Moscow recently, Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of Russia, said that Moscow would be standing side by side with Egypt until it overcomes its crisis, and that Moscow respected the will of the Egyptian people.

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More from  Samir Karam