Closer ties between Russia and Egypt

Friday 04/09/2015
Common interests. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, centre, takes part in a ceremony in Moscow, on August 26, 2015.

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.