The visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Moscow yesterday [Aug. 12] seemed more practical than ideological. Egypt today is not the Nasserite Egypt [of the 1950s]. And Russia is not the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the visit happened in an atmosphere evocative of the 1960s. A swarm of Russian fighter jets escorted the Egyptian presidential plane, while a military ceremony was set up on a ship from the Black Sea Fleet, reflecting Russia’s desire to build new alliances to face the repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis.
Sisi’s visit to Moscow has taken a special dimension for Russia, and this dimension is no less important for Egypt. After the faltering of relations between Egypt and both the United States and the European Union, following the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo is greatly in need of balance in its foreign relations and for some breathing room in the Levant to deal with the Western pressure on Egypt.
In this context, Sisi, who met Putin at the latter’s residence in the coastal city of Sochi on the Black Sea, said, “The entire Egyptian people are following my visit to Russia with interest and are expecting strong cooperation between our two countries … and I think that we will achieve the hopes of the Egyptian people.”
In addition to the political aspect, the United States' hesitation to provide arms to Egypt in light of the challenges faced by Cairo, due to the escalating terrorism on its eastern and western borders, has made Cairo look to Russian arms. Meanwhile, there are rumors that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are ready to finance a massive Russian arms deal to Egypt. Putin alluded to this during a joint press conference with Sisi by saying, “We are working on increasing cooperation in the field of arms.” He also spoke about “the possibility of establishing an Egyptian logistics center on the Black Sea coast,” and about “continuing to cooperate in the field of space.”
On the economic front, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the United States represent a good opportunity to open the markets between Russia and Egypt. Putin said Russia will provide Egypt with at least 5 million tons of wheat in the current year and will increase its imports of Egyptian agricultural commodities. Putin said his talks with Sisi addressed establishing a free trade zone with the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union, which is composed of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
The economic cooperation between Egypt and the Soviet Union had tangible results in building heavy industry and the arms industry in Egypt, and in training technical personnel in different areas. And there are new horizons for this form of cooperation after Sisi announced that he discussed the establishment of a Russian industrial zone in Egypt as part of a project to develop the Suez Canal with Putin.
In the field of energy, Egypt is looking forward to building the al-Dabaa [nuclear] reactor with Russian help. Egypt and the Soviet Union once cooperated in building the Anshas nuclear research reactor.
But it seems that cooperation between the two countries will include traditional sources of energy, especially since Egypt needs Russian gas, as well as Russian investments and expertise to explore for and extract oil and natural gas [in Egypt].
At the political level, the visit comes at a crucial time. Russia is now an international player, primarily in the Syrian crisis, which has turned into a cross-border crisis that is knocking on the doors of the Gulf states and Egypt with the emergence of the danger of the Islamic State and the other jihadist danger coming from Libya.
Perhaps coordinating Egyptian-Russian positions on regional issues, whether in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Palestine, has become necessary for both sides. Russia’s Middle East presence is in decline and Egypt is facing efforts that could marginalize its regional role to the benefit of other parties, especially Turkey and Qatar. For example, Egypt was excluded from the Paris meeting that discussed the Israeli aggression on Gaza.
Putin has supported Sisi in the latter’s war on terrorism. Putin said that “Russia shares Egypt’s position” on this issue. Sisi went so far as to say, “There is a uniformity between us and Russia on international issues.”
With regard to Syria, Sisi stressed the importance of negotiation and coordination within the framework of applying Geneva II and in helping Syria reach a political solution to put an end to the bloodshed and achieve the Syrian people’s aspirations.
On Iraq, Sisi said, “We and Putin have emphasized our commitment to Iraq’s unity, regional integrity and its response to terrorism,” calling for “the formation of a government of national consensus [that includes everyone] in Iraq without excluding any party.”
He continued, “We have agreed with Russia that Libyan territory should remain united and that the outside [powers] should not interfere,” adding that he coordinated with Putin on the means to settle the Palestinian issue.
Commenting on Sisi’s visit to Moscow, Mohammed Farraj, an Egyptian expert who specializes in Russian affairs, told Al-Safir, “Evoking the era of the 1960s during Sisi’s visit to Russia may be just an awakening by the Soviet’s old friends and the traditional left.” But the transformations in the region may have begun to affect international relations.
In this context, Farraj said, “We see today that Saudi Arabia is moving to finance the arms deal between Cairo and Moscow despite the fact that it contradicts its alliance with the United States. But after the danger from the extremist groups reached Saudi Arabia’s border, Riyadh thinks that only the Egyptian army can face this danger. … And given America’s [unpredictability] toward Egypt and [how that is affecting US arms to Egypt], Saudi Arabia has no choice but to finance the purchase of weapons to Egypt from Russia.”
As to how the West may react to Egyptian-Russian relations, Farraj said, “This convergence will not make America or the European Union happy. Most likely, Washington will try to pressure Cairo indirectly, whether by fueling chaos in Libya or by marginalizing Egypt’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” as well as by ramping up diplomatic or economic pressures.
Farraj said, “The visit is taking place when there are new signs of the Cold War. The Egyptian move comes in response to changes in the regional and international situation. [Those changes] require [a country to have] diverse political and economic alliances and arms sources. … This is an important shift in Egyptian foreign policy.”
In an interview with Al-Safir, Ahmed al-Khumaisi, a writer interested in Russian affairs, said, "Egyptian-Russian relations are based on a history that goes back to the era of Muhammad Ali [in the early 19th century], [a history where] the Russian state never entered into a war with Egypt, unlike Britain, France and America by proxy, i.e., Israel." He said, "Restoring these relations is a good step, provided that we don’t fall into the illusions of the past."
He added, “The visit may impose repercussions that come from the past. But those repercussions are incorrect. The Russian president is not like the one who knocked on the UN platform with his shoe, or like the one who directed an ultimatum to Paris and London threatening to strike them with missiles,” in reference to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. “So, the visit must be seen in the context of the present moment and not go beyond that.”
Despite his reservations about evoking the 1960s legacy, Khumaisi said, “The visit is very important. There is no doubt that Egypt needs to diversify its foreign relations, politically, economically and militarily, despite the fact that this diversification will be inside the same camp, since there are no longer two camps.”
The margin of maneuver in Egypt’s foreign relations is no longer tight. There are ways for Egypt to face outside pressure. Russia has warmly welcomed the Egyptian initiative to assert that Western pressure regarding the Ukrainian crisis will not isolate the Russian bear. [Was Sisi’s visit] just intended to tell his original allies to stop their pressure? Or is there a genuine shift in Egyptian diplomacy?
Perhaps the answer to that question depends on how the various regional and international parties behave in the next phase.
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