Egypt and Russia deepen relations
Washington - Political currents unleashed by the “Arab spring” four years ago have roiled across the Maghreb and Middle East, upending stability and longstanding politics.
Since the overthrow in July 2013 of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government of President Muhammad Morsi, its successor, that of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been politically ostracised for instigating the coup. The Sisi administration has subsequently been seeking political allies and has found one in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is reviving one of the older 20th-century traditional Middle Eastern political relationships.
Egypt’s rapprochement with Russia, which included a Putin visit to Egypt in February, is occurring against the background of its increasingly problematic relationship with Washington.
Egyptian-Russian relations date to the 16th century, when Russia began supporting Orthodox Christian interests in Egypt, while for much of the Cold War Egypt was a major Soviet ally.
Military cooperation, which began in 1955 when Egypt became the first Arab nation to buy Soviet weapons, is increasing between the two states. Egypt remains one of Russia’s largest arms importers. Since November 2013, the two have signed $3.5 billion in contracts for MiG-29s, Mi-35M attack helicopters, a K-300P Bastion-P mobile coastal missile system, firearms and ammunition. After Putin’s visit, MiG Russian Aircraft Corporation head Sergei Korotkov said his firm was ready to supply advanced MiG-35 fighters, should Egypt request them.
The February official visit by Putin included a delegation featuring energy, economics, agriculture, nuclear and space development industrial experts. Putin last previously visited Egypt a decade ago. Sisi visited Russia twice in 2014, first as Egyptian defence minister, then as president.
Putin signed a number of economic agreements to deepen bilateral cooperation in trade, energy, security and tourism. Most notably, Egypt agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union, joining Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan in Putin’s project, intended as a counterweight to the European Union.
In 2014 bilateral Russian-Egyptian trade surpassed $4.5 billion, an 80% increase compared to 2013.
Putin also offered the Egyptians Russian assistance in building the country’s first nuclear power plant. Not surprisingly, Sisi said at a news conference following his meetings with Putin, “We see in Russia a strategic friend and a real asset to balanced foreign relations for Egypt.”
During Putin’s visit the countries also agreed to intensify efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian conflicts as well as coordinate their efforts in combating terrorism.
On February 26th, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, leading an Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) delegation, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow to discuss OIC collaboration with Russia against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel Atti said the pair also discussed Libya and its “effect on international peace and security” and considered how to support the “legitimate government in Libya and empower it to combat terrorism” while encouraging political dialogue between all parties.
Trade relations in light of Western sanctions have become increasingly important to Russia after it imposed sanctions of its own against European and US foodstuffs. Egypt and Russia are very compatible in agricultural capabilities. Egypt enjoys year-round good weather allowing multiple harvests, particularly fruit and vegetables, which can meet the seasonal needs of the Russian market. Russia has wheat surpluses and Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. Russia provides about 40% of all Egypt’s grain, critical to the Egyptian government in producing subsidised bread.
The Sisi-Putin summit was a symbolic gesture of solidarity, snubbing Western leaders critical of both Russia’s relations with Ukraine and Egypt’s recent human rights record. While Russia weakens its diplomatic isolation resulting from its Ukraine policies, Egypt also benefits from the relationship by asserting its independent foreign policy.