Egypt, Russia relations expanding amid regional uncertainty

Economic cooperation between Cairo and Moscow offers Egypt a lifeboat at a time of great economic suffering.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Close cooperation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry  after a joint news conference in Moscow, on May 14. (AP)
Close cooperation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after a joint news conference in Moscow, on May 14. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt and Russia have agreed to expand military and political cooperation and coordinate on regional issues.

Egyptian and Russian foreign and defence ministers met in Moscow as part of annual two-plus-two meetings that have sought to guarantee political and defence coordination between the two countries since 2014. This was the fourth such meeting in four years, highlighting the deep ties between Egypt and Russia at a time of regional uncertainty.

“The meetings reflect the importance of strategic relations between Cairo and Moscow,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said following the May 14 meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

“There is a growing need to intensify consultations on fast-developing events in the Middle East region,” he added.

The latest meeting took place at a time of major changes in the region, including the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and increasing animosity between Tel Aviv and Tehran.

“The region is getting ready for major shifts, which gives consultations between Cairo and Moscow added importance,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Similarities between the Egyptian and Russian positions on most regional issues abound.”

Russia has boots on the ground in Syria and fighter jets in the Arab country’s skies. However, Cairo has sought to take a more nuanced approach, including explicitly refusing to send troops to Syria while implicitly backing the Syrian regime.

Egypt has been calling for preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and state institutions, fearing that the country could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — a branch of which Cairo is fighting at home.

In Libya, Egypt and Russia back the same side, namely the Libyan National Army, commanded by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, which is dominant in eastern Libya.

Cairo views the situation in the restive North African country as a major destabilising factor, particularly as a source of arms and militants.

However, Russian-Egyptian ties are less about shared views and more about securing their own national interests.

“Russia wants to secure presence in the East Mediterranean and North Africa region, the world’s next energy hub,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of Egypt’s Strategic Studies Centre think-tank. “For Russia, Egypt is an important gateway to the region, especially with the unending turmoil in Syria.”

Egypt, for its part, is in need of Russian political, economic and defence support.

Relations between Cairo and Moscow have continued to develop since 2014, at a time when Western powers, including the United States, adopted a more cautious approach to Cairo following the ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

The United States withheld military and economic aid to Cairo and prevented the delivery of arms shipments to the Egyptian army.

Moscow offered Egypt needed arms shipments, allowing Cairo the opportunity to diversify its military stock. Since 2014, Egypt has bought billions of dollars worth of arms from Russia, including fighter jets, air defence systems and naval units. Russia agreed to provide Egypt with a naval version of the Kamov Ka-52 helicopter for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers the Arab country bought from France in 2015.

Following his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Sedki Sobhi, on May 14 in Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed that military cooperation between the two countries was steadily expanding.

“There has been a steady, positive development in the expansion of cooperation in the military sphere and we note with satisfaction Egypt’s desire to equip its army with Russian military equipment,” Shoigu said. “Russia is interested in Cairo’s leading position in strengthening regional and security stability.”

Russia resumed direct flights to Cairo in April, after two years, during which the Egyptian tourism sector suffered greatly. The Russian flight suspension to Egypt followed the late 2015 downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, which caused the death of all 224 passengers and crew members on board.

However, direct flights to Egypt’s main tourist resorts — Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh — have yet to be reinstated, meaning that Russian tourists are not returning in the same numbers as previously. Lavrov said close cooperation with Egypt on security issues would help restore a direct air link to the Red Sea resorts.

The current level of security cooperation, he added, provided a good foundation for the restoration of Russian flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada.

Economic cooperation between Cairo and Moscow offers Egypt a lifeboat at a time of great economic suffering. Trade exchange between the two countries reached $6.7 billion in 2017 and 423 Russian companies are operating in the Egyptian market.

Russia has also offered Egypt a loan of $25 billion to construct its first nuclear power plant and a Russian industrial zone is now being constructed in Suez.

Continued economic cooperation between the two countries, economists said, benefits both of them and proves that Cairo and Moscow have a lot to offer each other.

“Russia, which continues to reel under Western sanctions, needs economic cooperation with Egypt to alleviate these sanctions,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, a professor of economics at Cairo University. “Egypt is also a huge market and a potential gateway for Russia into the Arab and African regions.”