Egypt and Russia, not quite a strategic alliance

Trust obviously is not flourishing and there is a long way to go before Russian tourists return to Egypt.
Sunday 24/12/2017

Considering their evolu­tion during the last few years and agreements announced during Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Cairo, there has been specula­tion about whether ties between Moscow and Cairo have attained the level of a “strategic relationship.”

During recent years, Egyptian- Russian relations did not seem to reach the level of a strategic alliance but they didn’t die either.

The relations received a shot in the arm with Putin’s December visit to Cairo. Putin’s trip ended the debate surrounding the fate of El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant and fixed details for its financing and construction. It also heralded the return of Russian tourists to Egypt, launched a new stage in Russian- Egyptian anti-terrorism coopera­tion and reinforced bilateral understanding about political solutions for the crises in Syria, Libya and the Palestinian territo­ries.

Because of disappointments in US policies, whether under Barack Obama or Donald Trump, Cairo is betting more and more on Russia. Cairo still has several reservations about Russia, which make labelling the state of Russian-Egyptian relations as the expression of a “strategic alliance” not the most accurate.

Cairo was counting on a Putin decision to lift the ban on Russian tourists to Egypt but instead got a promise towards that goal. Russian tourists accounted for up to 40% of the total revenues from tourism in Egypt until the bombing of a Russian jetliner over Sinai in 2015. That attack led to a ban on Russian flights to and from Egypt.

The Russian side has promised to resume flights to Egyptian airports by February but did not specifi­cally mention a date for the return of Russian tourists. The Russians insisted on having their own security inspectors in Egyptian airports and the Egyptians coun­tered with a similar condition.

Trust obviously is not flourish­ing and there is a long way to go before Russian tourists return to Egypt.

The decision to resume flights between the countries seems to be congruent with two factors. With construction on El Dabaa plant to start soon, Moscow needs direct flights to Egypt to ferry its engi­neers and experts. Similarly, Egypt has qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia. So there is a need for direct flights to Moscow for the team and fans. Russia is banking on the World Cup to boost its tourism.

When it was announced that Russia and Egypt agreed on bilateral sharing of airspace and air bases, there was a talk of a “strate­gic alliance” between the two countries. Pro-alliance pundits seem to have forgotten it is common practice to share access to airspace and facilities in special circumstances and under special conditions. During the first Gulf War, Egypt authorised the United States to use its bases.

The pundits also forgot that Egypt refused to have a Russian military base on its territory. The same pundits seem to have overlooked the importance of the words “bilateral” or “mutual.” If Russia has major interests in the Middle East that might push it to seek using Egyptian military bases, what would be Egypt’s need for Russian bases?

Posting security inspectors in each other’s airports and giving access to each other’s bases are signs that bilateral relations between Egypt and Russia are shy of reaching the level of a strategic alliance. That Egypt insists on mutual terms belies misgivings from the Egyptian side about Russian intentions.

When tremendous quantities of natural gas were discovered off the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, Moscow fretted until Russian energy giant Gazprom secured a 30% stake in the supergiant Zohr field. Let’s not also forget the wheat crisis between Russia and Egypt in 2016. Cairo refused a shipment of Russian wheat because of high levels of ergot fungi infection. Moscow responded by threatening to ban citrus imports from Egypt.

Washing dirty linen in public and handling issues by scoring points off each other could hardly be signs of a “strategic alliance.”