Egypt’s military leader, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, got a surprise compliment at the start of his visit to Moscow that began on Feb. 12. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was “aware” of Sisi’s decision to run for president and, welcoming that decision, congratulated Sisi “both personally and on behalf of the Russian people."
The 59-year-old leader of Egypt’s interim government has yet to officially announce his bid for the April presidential polling, although he has long been rumored to be planning to run. But Putin’s rush to voice his satisfaction as soon as he and Sisi met in Moscow suggests the Russian leader knows what is on Sisi’s mind.
Putin’s warm remarks were certainly only a flavor of his meeting with Sisi. The meeting’s actual significance is in the signal it sends that Russia and Egypt are at the threshold of a new alliance. Both sides are keen on and see an interest in such a rapprochement.
The events in Egypt have created an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its influence in the region. The fact that Sisi came to power through a military intervention and embarked on non-democratic practices bears no significance for Putin in terms of bilateral ties. On the contrary, things have become even easier for him at a time when the field marshal, deprived of US backing, needs the support of a major power, like Russia. Thus, Russia gets the chance to further advance its regional presence and influence in a strategic context, in addition to reaping economic benefits by gaining access to a new market in a military context, as reflected in an initial $2 billion deal to supply aircraft and helicopters to Egypt. In this way, Moscow aspires to put Egypt back under its influence, like during the Cold War era.
On the Egyptian side, a rapprochement with Russia gives Sisi’s administration an opportunity to cement its legitimacy. Sisi is now able to show he is not isolated internationally and has alternatives to compensate for the withdrawal of US support.
The rapprochement will also boost Sisi’s standing at home. The military regime has already suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood by declaring it an illegal organization and imprisoning its senior leaders. Demonstrations and acts of violence continue to take place occasionally, but they are no longer making a major impact. The liberal-secular quarters instrumental in overthrowing the [Hosni] Mubarak regime maintain their wait-and-see approach.
In sum, Sisi plans to clinch a victory in the presidential elections atop his referendum success to consolidate his regime.
All these developments come as food for thought for Turkish diplomacy.
Since the coup, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has taken an extremely tough stance against the military regime, maintaining its support for [ousted president Mohammed] Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result of this policy, Ankara and Cairo have become mutual enemies.
It is pretty clear that political developments in Egypt are advancing on a course contradictory to Ankara’s original calculations. Therefore, Ankara’s policy needs to be reviewed and readjusted in line with the new realities on the ground.