Moscow and Egypt’s changed calculus
Egypt and Russia are good examples when it comes to changing policies in reaction to context. Both countries are aspiring to recover influence in the military conflicts and political deals in the region and preserve their strategic interests.
Russia and Egypt have followed different orientations and approaches and instruments depending on the case being dealt with and the degree of priority assigned to the case.
Russia adopted a gradual approach depending on the internal and external challenges it was facing. It took advantage of the opportunities it found to reaffirm its role as a major international power. The Ukrainian crisis and the civil war in Syria were the first contexts for the rise of Russia as an influential power in the region. Russia, of course, took advantage of the apparent atrophy in the US foreign policy in the region during US President Barack Obama’s term in office.
In Egypt, the change of regime after the protests of 2013 and the subsequent success in revitalising relations with countries in the Middle East and in the West gave Cairo the impetus to strive to recover its regional influence. Cairo is discretely involving itself in some of the hot issues in the region while being very careful not to directly antagonise the existing powers — except for Qatar and terrorist organisations.
Given the similarities in foreign policy goals between Russia and Egypt, the two countries have adopted similar stances with respect to security and political issues and have strengthened their bilateral cooperation. While Moscow wishes to win over Egypt totally to its camp, Cairo is not willing to lose its good relations with the United States.
The hesitation shown by Egypt led Moscow to bide its time in dealing with Cairo. Russian-Egyptian relations were seriously shaken when a Russian passenger plane crashed in Sinai in October 2015, killing all 240 Russian citizens on board. Moscow halted flights and tourism with Egypt and thus fulfilled the objective of those — the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed to plant a bomb on the plane — behind the crash.
Russia did not hesitate to use the incident to pressure Cairo. On the surface, Moscow dealt with the incident in a highly professional manner. In reality, Moscow jumped on the opportunity to make sure Egypt would side with it on some regional issues. It refused to resume Russian flights to Egypt and dragged its feet in the nuclear power plant project on the Mediterranean coast. It also showed no enthusiasm to sell Egypt weapons or import Egyptian crops.
Russia seemed unwilling to get over the Egyptian change of heart of the 1970s. During the 1950s and 1960s, Russia was Egypt’s top strategic partner. In 1972, however, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided unilaterally to expel Russian military experts in Egypt. By so doing, he dealt a major blow to Russian-Egyptian relations and many Russian politicians do not seem to have gotten over it. Egypt had definitively switched to the American camp.
In the past few years, Moscow has seen a second opportunity to win Egypt back to its side. Cairo, however, seemed hesitant and its relations with Moscow seemed contingent on the degree of tension in Cairo’s relations with the United States. Realising this, Russia seemed to keep a distance in its relations with Egypt and thus denied it the excuse through which it would sneak into Washington’s heart.
It seems that the Russian leadership needs to realise that Egypt’s strategic interests have changed. Egypt’s foreign relations previously obeyed the simple logic of choosing one’s camp. Even the so-called non-alignment movement of the 1950s, of which Egypt was one of the founders, was in many ways and issues aligned.
Today, however, international issues and crises have become so complex that a country like Egypt can no longer afford the luxury and comfort of making simple and clear-cut decisions. Egypt is quite close to Russia and not far away from Washington.
Egypt enjoys a good degree of internal stability and a clear improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This gives it a larger comfort zone to move on a regional level and go beyond the immediate horizon of its national security requirements. Cairo is beginning to be strongly involved in the Libyan situation and has plans to be involved in Iraq and Syria.
Russia knows that Egypt can be an influential partner in the Syrian file. Egypt has kept relations with the Bashar Assad regime and at the same time maintains close relations with influential parties in the Syrian opposition. It is allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has access to Washington and is not in conflict with Iran.
For those reasons, Moscow might want to befriend Cairo again and hint at a resumption of its flights to Egypt. Of course, Cairo will have to be willing to side with Russia in the Syrian file.
The recent visit to Cairo by a Russian delegation and the latter’s words of praise about the security measures at Cairo International Airport can be seen as a step in the direction of the scenario outlined above. This is further strengthened by Russia providing necessary cover for Egypt’s mediation in the recent ceasefire at Eastern Ghouta in Syria. Perhaps this came about because Moscow believes that Egypt can play an important role in realising Russian objectives in Syria and stop Iranian influence there without antagonising various parties in the crisis.