Muted but concerned US response over Russian-Egyptian ties
The recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Egypt caused heartache among US officials even though neither the White House nor the US State Department issued a public statement about it.
Egyptian-Russian relations have been deepening since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president of Egypt in 2014. Sisi has visited Russia twice, a gesture reciprocated by Putin.
From Egypt’s perspective, growing ties with Moscow are important for two reasons: By playing the Russia card, Sisi puts the United States on notice that the US-Egyptian relationship cannot be taken for granted and signals to the Egyptian people that he is not beholden to Washington.
The latter is especially important when US policies are generating sharp criticism from the Egyptian public. US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was denounced by the Sisi government and the Egyptian people, Muslim and Christian alike.
Indeed, the grand imam of al- Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II have both declined to meet with US Vice-President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East, a trip scheduled for this month.
Putin’s December 11 visit to Cairo witnessed the signing of a large nuclear energy deal. Al-Ahram reported that the Dabaa nuclear reactor project would cost $21 billion, with Russia providing a loan to cover 85% of the construction costs. The project aims to generate 4,800 megawatts of electricity when completed in 2028-29.
In addition, Russia and Egypt signed agreements concerning economic zones in both countries that would enhance bilateral trade and investment.
Resuming Russian flights to Egypt for tourism is problematic, however. The terrorist bombing of a Russian Metrojet over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015 caused a rupture in Russian tourism to Egypt, which had accounted for about one-fifth of all European tourism to the country.
During his visit to Cairo, Putin declined to announce that such flights would resume but indicated that Russia would do so soon, a potential boon to Egypt’s struggling tourism industry. Indeed, on December 15, Russian Transportation Minister Maksim Sokolov and Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation Sherif Fathi signed a protocol on security cooperation allowing direct flights between Russia and Egypt to resume as of February.
The growing economic ties are not as worrisome to Washington as are developing military relations. In November, Egypt and Russia approved a draft agreement to allow Russian military aircraft access to Egyptian military bases. During Putin’s latest visit to Cairo, Egypt agreed to purchase more Russian weapons. Although Egypt has purchased Russian weaponry in the recent past — with money from the Arab Gulf countries — allowing Russia access to Egyptian military facilities has not happened since Egypt was a Soviet ally during the Cold War.
By playing this Russian card, Sisi is taking a risk because the history of foreign access to military bases has been controversial in Egypt since the colonial era when Britain maintained bases in the country, including a very large one along the Suez Canal. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to allow 10,000 Soviet military advisers into Egypt after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war tarnished his nationalist reputation and proved highly unpopular with the Egyptian populace.
Nonetheless, the US decision in August to suspend $195 million in military aid and cut $96 million in economic aid, even as Trump and Sisi have developed good personal relations, apparently so upset Sisi that he was willing to allow the Russian military to return to Egypt, albeit in a limited manner.
Interestingly, US officials have not publicly commented on the growing Egyptian-Russian military ties, perhaps because they do not want to give prominence to Sisi’s gamesmanship. Despite recent Egyptian arms purchases from Moscow, US officials seem to believe that the Egyptian military is so heavily dependent on US arms and military systems that it would not be easy for Cairo to shift to Russian military hardware in a major way.
While the United States is unpopular in Egypt, Russia may not be too far behind. Although Sisi and Putin have been in sync on the Syrian crisis, Egypt’s majority Sunni population has little sympathy for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom Russia has been supporting militarily.
There is a growing consensus among US policymakers and foreign policy specialists in Washington that Russia is flexing its muscles around the world, including in the Middle East, a view shared by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent Washington think-tank, is to launch a 2-year study of Russia’s foreign and military activities that will likely include analysis of Russia’s new military engagement with Egypt.
The muted US official response to growing Egyptian-Russian military ties probably masks genuine concern.