Closer ties between Russia and Egypt
Washington - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s fourth meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place near the end of August in Moscow, has led observers to conclude that Cairo really is turning more towards Moscow and away from Washington.
It is indeed increasingly clear that the Russian and Egyptian governments share important common interests. But the Sisi-Putin relationship is more a marriage of convenience than a true alliance, which may explain why Russian-Egyptian cooperation has not, at least yet, developed more fully.
One common interest, or viewpoint, that Putin and Sisi share is antipathy to criticism from the United States and the West over their authoritarian practices and human rights records. At a time when Russia has come under Western sanctions due to its policies towards Ukraine, economic cooperation with Egypt and other authoritarian governments is important to Putin not only as a means of bypassing Western sanctions but also as a sign of his legitimacy.
Similarly, Moscow’s support for Sisi’s crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists is important to Sisi in showing that, even if Western governments do not appreciate the service he is performing in suppressing these groups, Russia as well as other important non-Western governments do.
In addition, Putin and Sisi share a common view of the conflict in Syria. While Cairo does not actively provide military assistance to Damascus as Russia and Iran do, Sisi has made clear that he sees the Assad regime as preferable to its Islamist opponents. Putin especially values Sisi’s position on Syria since it differs from that of Turkey and several Gulf Arab states that have been supporting Assad’s opponents. He may well hope that other Arab governments adopt Sisi’s view.
There have been several concrete indicators of increased Russian- Egyptian cooperation. Bilateral trade between the countries rose to $5.4 billion in 2014 — an 86% increase over the previous year. On August 27th, the Russian oil giant, Rosneft, signed a deal to supply Egypt with liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moscow and Cairo are also in talks for Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt.
At their meeting, Putin and Sisi discussed plans for Russia to build a “free industrial zone” near the Suez Canal. Cairo is a major (indeed, Al- Ahram claims, the largest) buyer of Russian wheat. The countries have also talked about Russian arms sales to Egypt.
Still, cooperation between the countries has not grown as strongly as it could have. Before Sisi’s visit to Moscow, the Russian fighter aircraft producer MiG not only announced that it does not have a contract to supply MiG-29s to Egypt but its press secretary said: “Rumours about our promising contracts are exaggerated and are nothing but speculations.”
A week later, the Russian arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, denied a report from a Russian source that a deal had been signed for Russia to supply Ka-52 “Alligator” combat helicopters to Egypt. In addition, fulfilment of Putin’s offer of last year to sell more than $3 billion worth of Russian weapons to Egypt has apparently not yet occurred — probably due to lack of money to finance the deal. Further, the announcement by the Italian firm ENI about its discovery of a “supergiant” natural gas field off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast raises doubts about just how much Russian LNG Egypt will be buying.
Finally, the Egyptian state grain buyer reportedly paid “the lowest price the authority has paid for wheat in years” in its recent purchase from Russia. Cairo clearly sees Western economic sanctions against Russia as an opportunity to secure a good deal for Egypt.
In the larger foreign policy context, Moscow and Cairo do not seem to have quite the same interests vis-à-vis the United States and the West. Putin sees them as enemies and he is looking for other countries for support against them. Sisi, by contrast, dislikes Western criticism of his internal policies but would be happier with the United States and Europe if they supported him more fully.
His meetings with Putin, then, may be less about actually switching alliances than about showing Washington, in particular, that Cairo could turn to other countries for support and so persuading them that America and the West need to behave more respectfully towards him if they do not want this to go too far. It may be no coincidence, then, that Sisi’s latest visit to Moscow occurred just before his government announced that Egypt’s long-delayed parliamentary elections would occur in October and November. It is doubtful that opposition parties will be completely free to contest, much less win them. How much the United States and other Western governments object to this may well influence how soon Sisi meets with Putin again.