Egypt’s shift toward Russia: Breakthrough strategy or tactical ploy?
Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi with Russian President Vladimir Putin - YOUM7

CAIRO: Recent signs of Egyptian-Russian rapprochement fueled a split in views on the nature and future of Egyptian-Russian relations. While some analysts perceive signs of a historic shift toward Russia, others are more doubtful and see the continuation of a typical Egyptian ploy to pressure the Unites States.

Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy arrived to Moscow for talks with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on February 13, 2014.

“I know you have decided to run for president. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people. I wish you luck on my own behalf and that of the Russian people,” Russian premier Vladimir Putin told Sisi in televised remarks, who had not yet announced his bid for the presidency and was the first defense minister to visit the ex-Soviet nation in over 40 years.

Sisi, who announced his presidential bid March 26 and is widely expected to become Egypt’s next president, responded by thanking the Russian president for “giving the Egyptian people economic and defense aid,” adding that the visit “offers a new start to the development of military and technological cooperation between Egypt and Russia.”

 “Historic breakthrough”

These meetings ignited controversy among local and international experts about the future of Egypt’s relations with Russia and a possible rift in U.S. ties, seeing a potential redrawing of the map of alliances in the Middle East.

“Egypt witnessed a dramatic transformation after June 30. Prior to June 30, Egypt might have appeared to be approaching Russia to pressure the U.S. This time, however, the shift is real. We have no other options. We absolutely need to diversify the sources of our weaponry,” Dr. Noha Bakr, assistant to the minister of international cooperation and  professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, told The Cairo Post.

Bakr is not alone in her analysis. Former Egyptian Ambassador to Russia Alaa al-Hadidy wrote in Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya’s (Egypt’s most prominent quarterly international relations journal) February 2014 edition that “in spite of Russia’s desire to strengthen ties with Egypt, it realized that Cairo lacked the political will necessary to truly forge strong ties. The Russian side used to interpret any Egyptian steps as maneuvering to gain leverage when negotiating with Washington; not an expression of a real or authentic desire to develop relations.”

“Russia’s suspicions were reinforced by Egypt’s continuous initiation of talks on different subjects, only to discover they had been used as bargaining chips to pressure the Americans,” Hadidy said, adding that, “The Russians have expressed their discontent with the Egyptian approach many times … they stopped counting on initiatives by Egypt to strengthen ties … because they knew the true intentions and trajectory of Egypt.”

However, Hadidy believes relations between Egypt and Russia changed after June 30, saying that Russia was able to accurately read “the seriousness and sincerity of the Egyptian leadership to develop relations between the two countries.”

Recent hints of growing rapprochement between Egypt and Russia also sparked local and international press reports that something momentous was taking place in the Middle East.

“Sisi’s recent visit to Russia marks a major turning point in strategic relations between Cairo and Moscow, and also served to hand a “yellow card” to Washington,” state owned Al-Ahram newspaper wrote Feb. 23.

Chinese state-owned the People’s Daily described the visit as a “historic breakthrough” in Egyptian-Russian relations, reported Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

“Sisi’s visit to Moscow points to a potential pivot toward Russia by Egypt – traditionally a stalwart U.S. ally – that could dramatically reorient international relations in the Middle East,” Russian state’s RIA Novosti wrote February.

“Greater maneuverability”

Some see the overtures as a tacit stratagem by Egypt to exploit its relations with Russia in order to pressure the Unites States. They agree that a certain shift is happening, but also dismiss notions that a breakthrough shift, especially a military one, is taking place at the expense of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

Former Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Orabi, commenting on indications of warming ties said, “For Egypt it will offer greater maneuverability with regard to pressures exerted by the U.S. It will open space to move and help Egypt,” Al-Ahram reported in November.

Ambassador Sayed Amin Shalaby reiterated this sentiment, saying that a “multi-polar international system … gives Egypt freedom to maneuver and frees it from the grip of a single dominant power,” he said during the 2014 conference of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations.

Bakr told The Cairo Post that while the shift is real and necessary, “hopefully Egyptian-Russian rapprochement will pressure the U.S. to respect its alliance with Egypt and find real solutions to any complications.”

Strengthening the relationship with Russia could provide Egypt with political and economic “bargaining chips,” Bakr said.

Some American analysts also perceive the matter as maneuvering by Cairo that is being exploited by Moscow.

Online U.S. news website GlobalPost conducted a Feb. 24 joint interview with Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, in which the two experts expressed doubts on the substance of a real military shift towards Russia.

During the interview, Cook said, “It’s clear that Moscow is seeking to exploit difficulties in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.” He added, “I’m not convinced it will be successful, but the Egyptians are … receptive to Russian overtures.”

In this sense, even if it is not successful, Egypt will gain because of the multiplicity of players.

“The more potential patrons, the easier it is for Cairo to play them off of each other and thereby secure a better deal from these outside powers,” Cook said.

White said, “The Egyptians are looking to show the United States that they are not completely dependent on us for military assistance and that they have other opportunities to get military aid.”

“I think with the Russians it’s a cleaner deal in a sense that there aren’t strings attached to it,” White added.

Ukraine crisis strengthens Egypts position

The rising tension between the United States and Russia, following the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution that led to President Viktor Yanukovich’s impeachment and a subsequent Russian military intervention, strengthened Egypt’s capacity to maneuver, according to a former Egyptian ambassador to Russia.

“While there are shared interests between Russia and the United States, sometimes their relationship experiences tension. Sometimes conflicts prevail and characterize the relationship, while other times interests prevail. But it will never be a relationship of total alliance or total enmity,” the ambassador told The Cairo Post on condition of anonymity.

He went on to explain that “before the ongoing Ukraine crisis between the U.S. and Russia erupted, interests took the lead; however, with the current crisis, hostile language transformed the relationship into one characterized by disagreement and conflict.”

The more their relationship turns towards “confrontation” the more Egypt “can maneuver between the two,” the ambassador said.

Despite whether U.S.-Russia relations improve, deteriorate, or stagnate, Egypt will be affected.

“We can predict three different outcomes that the crisis between Russia and the U.S. could take – either we see a return to the ‘50s or ‘60s, or it will stay at the point where it is now, or the relations will return to normalization – all three outcomes impact Egypt differently,” he added.

The ambassador was referring to the close economic, military and political ties that linked the Soviet Union with Egypt strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ‘60s, which also saw considerable strain between Egypt and the West.

“Although this might seem like a return to the 1950s and 60s, it won’t be exactly like that. The international balance of power has changed. Today, Europe has very strong military, financial, and economic ties with Russia. There might be limited political escalation between the U.S. and Russia now and then, but shared interests with Europe limit the potential of full-on conflict between Russia and the U.S.,” Egypt’s ex-top envoy to Russia said.

Under the rule of Anwar Sadat in the ‘70s, relations between Russia and Egypt reached an impasse after Sadat kicked out Soviet military advisors from Egypt. The relationship then witnessed some signs of convergence under Hosni Mubarak, who had visited Moscow four times.

“This is not a temporary or passing disagreement,” the ambassador added.

“The U.S. conflict with Egypt is real,” he said, and “the shift is serious.” “After June 30, the conflict uncovered different trajectories between the U.S. and Egypt,” he said, adding that “The Russians realize this and will capitalize on it.”

“The bear is back”

Sisi’s visit was preceded by a number of exchanges between the two countries, and several commentators had already been stressing the possibility of an Egyptian shift towards Russia.

“The main factor affecting the realignment of Russian interests towards the region lies in the Arab spring revolutions, especially the Egyptian January 25 Revolution,” Hadidy wrote in Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya.

He said the Russians supported June 30 because they wanted “Egypt to regain its central role in the region” in order to supersede other powers that were “not working towards Russia’s interests” and because it countered “Islamic fundamentalism, which poses a threat to Russia’s national security.”

“The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood … proved to be a source of discomfort for Russian decision makers who battle against Brotherhood-supported separatist movements in Chechnya and the North Caucasus,” Hadidy wrote.

The increase in visits between Egypt and Russia has been most noticeable after June 30.

In September, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy visited Russia and met with his Russian counterpart, along with the Secretary General of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev.

On October 24, 2013, Egypt’s new ambassador to Russia arrived to Moscow heading a popular delegation sent to explain the situation in the country after June 30.

A second popular delegation, headed by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed al-Orabi, went to Russia in November to enhance relations between the two countries.

Also in November, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Cairo to strengthen ties between the two countries. “We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union,” Russia Today quoted Fahmy as saying following the meeting with Lavrov.

A November 2013 Jerusalem Post editorial commenting on the visit of the Russian ministers to Cairo in November read, “Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.”

“The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the world’s single superpower with the most populous Arab state. The Russian ministerial visits were preceded by a visit by the chief of Russian intelligence and by Russian naval vessels,” the Israeli editorial added.

Meanwhile, a Saudi Gazette editorial, commenting on the same visit, wrote that the meeting “extends Cairo’s foreign policy beyond that of ex-President Hosni Mubarak, who was closely tied to Washington, and allows Russia to launch a new front in its attempt to wrest power in the Middle East away from America by selling arms and influence to Egypt.”

“Moscow’s comeback should be welcomed, not because Egypt wants to fight American interests, but because it will help protect its own national interests,” the Saudi editorial continued.

A November Al-Ahram piece titled “Egypt-Russia: The bear is back,” quotes Michael Riyabov, a Russian political analyst and military affairs expert, as saying, “Politics is the art of the possible, so why shouldn’t the two sides seize this opportunity. We have to do something as long as we are able to,” referring to “a perfect opportunity … to revive historic mutual cooperation between the two countries.”

In another November Al-Ahram piece, former Deputy Foreign Minister Ambassador Hussein Haridy, wrote, “The international system has been steering away from the New World Order that president George Bush Sr. talked about after the fall of the Berlin Wall.” He said, “We should welcome the comeback of Moscow to the Arab world … and solicit the support of Russia and China in questions that we deem crucial to our independence, territorial integrity and prosperity.”

“Our alignment with Moscow in the past was a decision of necessity, but today,” he said “it should herald a new relationship with Moscow based on a decision of choice.”

“The U.S. continues to misinterpret the Egyptian psyche”

Whether they view the shift as real and historic, a ploy to pressure Americans, or a bit of both, many political actors and spectators concur that strained relations between the United States and Egypt lie at the root of the recent shift towards Russia.

“Once again the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable political stupidity in its dealings with a number of countries, including Egypt,” an Egyptian ambassador who wished to remain anonymous told The Cairo Post March 24.

Egypt-U.S. relations soured particularly after June 30 with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who, many believe, enjoyed U.S. backing.

He said that “the U.S. continues to misinterpret the Egyptian psyche,” adding, “When Egyptians are threatened we become more stubborn. The same mistakes were committed by U.S. policymakers during the 1950s when Nasser came to power. They refused to supply Egypt with arms and refused to fund the Aswan High Dam,” the ambassador said.

Ultimately, he said, Egypt turned to the Soviet Union for arms and took “measures no one could have foreseen, such as nationalizing the Suez Canal.”

Following Morsi’s ouster and the dispersal of the pro-Brotherhood Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins, the U.S. withheld some aid to Egypt, infuriating Egyptians and fueling the drive towards Moscow.

“When military and police forces move to combat terrorists in Egypt,” the ambassador said, “the U.S. denounces them for violating human rights. This makes it seem as if only terrorists in Egypt deserve human rights, while enemies of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Guantanamo do not. These double standards affect all Egyptians and draw us to Russia.”

“We see a friend in Russia, someone willing to fill in the gap left by the U.S.,” he added.

Professor Noha Bakr also expressed displeasure with U.S. policy.

“Egyptian foreign policy witnessed a transformation after June 30. Even the foreign policy of Gulf countries changed after June 30. The United States had been taking policies against the interests of the region. The U.S. allied with the Islamists. We can no longer rely on a single country as we did before,” she told The Cairo Post.

She said the United States “failed to fulfill its obligations towards Cairo.”

“We need Apache helicopters to counter terrorists in Sinai and the U.S. is backing out on us. We need to diversify our weapon sources … Russia and China seem like great options.”

Assistance from the United States to Egypt has been a staple of its foreign policy since the Camp David Accords, signed on Sept. 17, 1978.

The United States announced in October it would freeze the delivery of some military equipment to Egypt, including Apache helicopters and other tanks and jets, furthering the popular conception in Egypt that the Unites States was hostile to the interim government.

Washington promised in January 2014 to unfreeze economic aid and restore the full $1.5 billion to Egypt, on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures “democratic reform.”

“The U.S. will not be happy about this,” Bakr said, adding “American arms producers will definitely be unhappy.”

“To what extent will the U.S. be able to afford this strain in relations and our move towards Russia, particularly in light of the current U.S. economic crisis?” she asked.

Some international analysts echoed the discontent expressed towards U.S. Middle East policy.

The aforementioned November Jerusalem Post editorial slammed U.S. policy towards Egypt, deeming it at as “yet another spectacular U.S. foreign policy flop, arising from a fundamental failure to fathom the Middle East’s intricacies.”

Al-Ahram Online conducted a February interview with Leslie H. Gelb, Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus and board senior fellow, in which he states, “I do not have a polite way to express my opinion of what U.S. foreign policy makers are doing in the region …They have no clear idea about what is happening there.”

When pressed by Ahram on the background and expertise of White House Middle East policy-makers — Tony Balkan, Jake Salfan, Denis MacDeans and Susan Rice — Gelb said, “I do not know what expertise each of these has with the Middle East. They have not met with others who are aware of what is happening. Hence the results that we see in the Middle East today.”

“Not an alternative”

A number of analysts and political actors concurred that a shift towards Russia would not entail a break with the United States. They stressed that Egypt strives to balance its foreign policy and broaden its options by, for example, partnering with Russia and China, but that maintaining strong relations with the United States is imperative.

“We completely rely on U.S. weapons. This is a big problem,” said Bakr. “The 1.3 billion in aid for trainings and weapons made us feel comfortable until June 30, when the U.S. started talking of a coup and claiming they have legislation compelling them to stop aid,” she added.

At this point, Egypt now needed to look for a country that could “complement its relations with the U.S., not an alternative per se, but a country that would allow it to maintain balanced relations,” Bakr said.

“This is not to say that Russia is as weighty as the U.S., but it is the second largest arms provider in the world, and it does hold veto power in the UN Security Council,” she continued, adding that “shifting militarily to another state was not a simple matter that can happen overnight.”

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Badr Abdel Atty also stressed that while Russia was no alternative, it somewhat helped fill in some of the gap left by the United States.

“One should not forget that a large part of the arsenals of our armed forces have been made up of Russian weapons, and we want to develop cooperation in this field, specifically in the training of specialists, technical servicing, and the deliveries of spare parts,” Itar-Tass state news agency quoted Atty ahead of the November talks.

The matter, however, is not as clear-cut; even a minimal gradual shift away from the U.S. seems exceedingly difficult, some analysts have suggested.

“American officials seem skeptical that there is [anything] to the Russian-Egyptian overtures,” said Cook during the GlobalPost interview. “Moscow requires payment in hard currency for weapons systems. This is the kind of cash the Egyptians don’t have and it seems unlikely that the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis will finance Egyptian purchases of Russian arms,” he said.

The repercussions of U.S. support to Egypt have historically exceeded the sum of the aid’s dollar value.

Activists Corinna Mullin, Suzanne Adely, and Azadeh Shahshahani said U.S. aid to Egypt has created “structural dependency,” in October 2013 on Jadaliyya.

A January 2014 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report titled “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations” said that the United States sent a total of $73.1 billion in aid to Egypt from 1948-2012 and has given $1.3 billion a year in military aid since 1987.

Senior writer at the New York Times, Eric Schmitt wrote in August 2013 that Egypt’s military was “firmly hooked to U.S. lifeline.” Even though the U.S. aid package of 1.3 billion is relatively small, Schmitt said, that aid “may give the United States more leverage over the Egyptian military than it may seem.” Schmitt proposed that even if Gulf states make up for any of that suspended aid, “Washington would block Egypt from buying American weaponry with that money.”

“What Egypt’s generals fear most is the cutoff of hundreds of millions of dollars in mundane but essential maintenance contracts,” said Schmitt.

Similarly the 2014 CRS report questions whether Egypt is truly turning to Russia.

The report said contrary to the perception of many analysts that Egypt’s shift to Russia is “an overt attempt to signal to the U.S. government that Egypt has alternatives when it comes to military-to-military partnerships,” Egypt’s deep military ties to the U.S. make the situation more complex.

Given that Egypt’s “high end inventory consists of almost entirely U.S.-origin systems” and the “sunk costs (force structure, officer training, weapons purchases) invested in U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation over a 40-year period,” the report says it would be “difficult to perceive how truly willing or able either side is to seek alternatives.”

Thus, the question is not only about guaranteeing the supply of effective weaponry from Russia, but also the maintenance of already existing equipment.

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