Russia draws closer to Egypt
Its relationship with Russia has helped Egypt cope with chronic economic problems, not least ensuring food security via wheat imports. Now, comes news that Russia’s top oil company Rosneft has bought a 30% stake to help develop Egypt’s offshore Zohr natural gas field, the largest in the Mediterranean. There’s also an agreement to construct Egypt’s first nuclear power plant to address the country’s persistent electricity shortage.
Egypt-Russia relations date to the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser but have waxed and waned. Nasser’s successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, downgraded relations while moving closer to the United States. It was the emergence on the national and international stage in late 1999 of Russian President Vladimir Putin that provided the basis for deepening relations.
Putin visited the Middle East for the first time in April 2005, picking Egypt as his destination. A turning point came with the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood administration in July 2013. The developments were regarded in Moscow with less ambivalence than Mubarak’s 2011 resignation. Unlike many Western countries and the African Union, which suspended Egypt’s membership, Russia tacitly supported the coup. Putin’s administration had crystallised its view that in the Middle East, stable authoritarianism was much more acceptable than fragile democracy.
Russia’s relations with post- Morsi Egypt prospered. A year after his overthrow, Russian government statistics indicated, bilateral Russian-Egyptian trade totalled $5.5 billion, almost double its 2013 level. During a February 2015 visit, Putin signed three agreements confirming that the two countries had reached a new level of cooperation.
Tourism was also a significant element in bilateral ties. Before the Islamic State (ISIS) bombed a Russian jet over Sinai on October 31, 2015, killing all 224 people on board, more than 30% of the tourists who had recently visited Egypt were Russian. They provided a major boost to Egypt’s tourism revenues, which made up nearly one-third of the country’s hard currency income. Talks are under way to revive the suspended flights.
Egypt has strategic value for Russia, as it controls the Suez Canal. The Egyptian Trade Ministry announced that it expects to sign a formal agreement with Russia by year-end to build a 5 million sq. metre industrial zone east of Port Said. It’s meant to attract more than $7 billion in investments.
Russian investment in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s proposed Suez Canal economic zone will be increasingly important. Despite the Suez Canal bypass opened two years ago, the World Bank reported that for the first quarter of this fiscal year, canal revenues dropped 4.8%.
Then there are the defence deals. By 2015, Egypt had signed $5 billion in arms deals with Russia, which included the sale of 50 MiG-29M fighter jets, Buk-M2E and Antey-2500 long-range air defence systems and Ka-52K helicopters for Egypt’s Mistral-class assault ships bought in France. Several agreements have been signed to renovate Egyptian military production factories, along with a protocol to grant Egypt access to Russia’s global satellite positioning system GLONASS. In September, a $2 billion Egypt-Russia armaments contract was concluded, underwritten by Saudi Arabia.
On the operational side, Russia and Egypt had their first joint naval drills in June 2015, followed in October 2016 by joint military exercises. In a move to enhance Egyptian security, Russia reportedly deployed Special Forces to Egypt’s Libyan border in March. It signals Russia’s growing role in Libya and Egypt’s blessing for it.
Egypt has made known its support for Russia’s efforts to assist regional stability by refusing to condemn its Syrian intervention at the UN Security Council in October 2016 and again in February 2017.
In the energy field, there is Rosneft’s stake in the Zohr natural gas field and the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) announced its readiness to build four nuclear power plant units with post-Fukushima technology at El Dabaa in northern Egypt. They would be Egypt’s first nuclear power plants.
Russia has helped Egypt with securing food supplies, a critical political issue. Russia is the largest supplier of wheat to Egypt, which is the world’s largest wheat importer. Despite recent Egyptian concerns about ergot fungus contamination of some imports, analysts said this particular trade was likely to continue to flourish.
As for the future, Russia is boosting Egypt’s presence in international forums. During the September BRICS summit in China, Putin accepted Sisi’s invitation for a state visit. Russia is also discussing plans for Egypt to join the Eurasian Economic Union, consisting of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
Russia is trying to position itself as a key player in the Middle East, particularly with countries that suffer growing threats of terrorism. For Egypt, cooperation with Russia allows it to counterbalance the United States and Saudi Arabia and diversify its foreign policy options. It would seem to be a win-win situation.