On 12-13 February 2014, Egypt’s Minister of Defence and Military Industry Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy were on an official visit in Moscow. Apart from negotiations in the 2+2 format with Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the high-ranking officials were received by President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin, who noted that Russia and Egypt maintain long-standing and traditionally friendly relations, they have a considerable number of large forward-looking projects in the trade-economic and other fields and expressed the hope that, with the emergence of a new power in Egypt, all the bilateral cooperation mechanisms will be fully utilised.
Russia has become the first foreign state visited by the minister of defence and actual head of the Arab Republic of Egypt, A.F. al-Sisi. As is well known, by the late summer last year, the country had been actually split into two camps: those who supported the Muslim Brotherhood, who came to power as a result of democratic elections, and the opposition striving for a more secular, democratic Egypt. The usurpation of power in the country by the Muslim Brotherhood was opposed by other Islamist groupings (Salafis) as well. In the context of the aggravating financial and economic situation and the increasing risk that the street rioting might grow into a full-scale civil war, the Egyptian army’s leadership had to intervene into this internal conflict by overthrowing President Mohammed Morsi and thus, in fact, staging a military coup d’état. Now Egypt is preparing for the new presidential and parliamentary elections, and the actions of ex-president M. Morsi are currently under judicial investigation. Ahead of the Egyptian ministers’ visit to Moscow, Chairman of the Egyptian Constituent Assembly and ex-head of the Arab League Amr Moussa said that Field Marshal A.F. al-Sisi intended, on return from Russia, to officially announce his standing as a candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections.
The first 2+2 format meeting between the Russian and Egyptian ministers was held in Cairo in November 2013. In the context of that meeting, the cruiser Varyag – the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Pacific fleet and some sort of a showcase of Russia’s military and technical capabilities – arrived in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
Those negotiations were focused on the prospects for establishing bilateral cooperation between the RF and the ARE in the military and military-technical fields. As we know, until 1972, Egypt’s main partner in this field was the USSR, but after the Egyptian leadership concluded a peace agreement with Israel, with Washington acting as a mediator, Egypt’s leaders made a shift to military cooperation with the US.
In recent years, Egypt has annually received, on a non-reimbursable basis, American weapons worth 1.4 billion US dollars. Pentagon also trained military officers and specialists for the Egyptian Armed Forces. However, the United States authorities, just like most leaders of the European Union countries, did not formally approve of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s removal from power by the Egyptian military, temporarily refrained from recognising the legitimacy of the new regime, and, in October 2013, the US programme of financial and military assistance for Egypt was reduced. Given the persistent complex internal political situation in the country and the growing terrorist threat in the region, A.F. al-Sisi had to start looking for new, alternative sources of supplies for the national armed forces. He was prompted to do that by the obsolescence and physical wear of a large number of weapons and military equipment used by the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Washington is alleged to have tacitly made it clear to Cairo that it is not going to object to partial diversification of armament sources of the Egyptian army, including the use of Russia’s capabilities, especially considering that the Egyptian Armed Forces are still using a significant number of outdated Soviet-made weapons and military equipment (up to 40% of its total military hardware, according to estimates by experts). In order to maintain its fighting efficiency, over the last decade Egypt has been purchasing spare parts and ammunition from Russia, with a total worth of about 350-400 million US dollars. The Egyptians regard as financial sponsors of possible new large contracts in the field of military-technical cooperation between the ARE and the RF the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which are already providing significant financial and material assistance for Egypt’s new authorities. At the same time, Riyadh is not trying to conceal the fact that it is interested in strengthening the positions of the Egyptian Salafis, who are close to the Saudis, as opposed to representatives of radical Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the Egyptian newspaper Egypt Independent, the first batch of Russian weapons could be supplied to Egypt as early as the middle of 2014. It is expected that the total amount of military hardware (air defence systems, combat helicopters, MiG-29 fighters, antitank complexes etc.) purchased by Egypt from Russia will be worth 2–4 billion US dollars.
During their last meeting in Moscow, the parties agreed to speed up the work on preparing the documentation on military-technical cooperation and to expand the scope of military ties (fight against terrorism, joint manoeuvres and exercises, allowing entrance to ships, training military personnel etc.). During the meeting, the heads of the ministries of foreign affairs and defence of the two countries emphasised the unity of their positions on the number one issue of the Middle Eastern agenda – the Syrian conflict. “The ministers have reaffirmed their full respect for the sovereignty of Syria and profound repudiation of any external interference in its affairs,” says the joint statement. Such a position of the new Egyptian authorities contrasts with the statements made by their predecessors. For example, Mohammed Morsi openly called for foreign intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime, advocated “support for the Syrian uprising”, and, right before his overthrow, he even broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus.
Thus, the emerging collaboration between Russia and Egypt in the field of military-technical cooperation and in other spheres points to the tendency towards the recovery of Russia’s position in the Arab world and the Middle East, as a whole. No doubt, it would be premature to talk of the final success of Russian diplomacy regarding Egypt’s issue since both the large deal in the field of military-technical cooperation itself and the prospects for the Russian-Egyptian relations in other fields can be viewed as an equation with many unknowns. In this context, we should not disregard either the continuing, quite complex internal political situation in Egypt or the positions of Washington, Riyadh and other external players which can have an impact on the subsequent events, but there are still reasons for optimism. The increased threat of the spread of radical Islamist extremism and international terrorism in the region and the world are objectively pushing the leadership of the US and Saudi Arabia towards collaboration with Russia in the field of international security. For example, Washington did not object to the diversification of its regional partner Iraq’s military-technical cooperation with Russia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. The US purchased Russian military helicopters for the Afghan Armed Forces. The US, the EU and other countries are closely cooperating with Russia in the operation on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons.
Stanislav Ivanov, senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook