There has been much commentary on the recent arms sale agreement between Russia and Egypt, announced on 12th August. Analysts have spent pages taking about “strategic balance”, and how Egypt buying $3.5 billion of Russian arms will affect its relations with its neighbours and the West.
The point everyone seems to have missed, however, is that this action has nothing to do with military matters or international diplomacy. Egypt is not being friendly to Russia, or vice versa. Egypt is fighting to get out of a hole that has dug for itself with the help of the Americans, which has nothing to do with the international community. Russia is prepared to take its money, but nothing really more, and as part of that process it effectively re-establishing friendly-relations, dating back to the heyday of the Soviet Union.
How we got to here
The succession of US sponsored Arab Springs we have seen in various Middle Eastern and Gulf states bore the usual hallmarks of US government/CIA/NED efforts at regime change. We have seen overnight changes in the political evaluations of leaders, genuine popular protest being wilfully misreported as having some other cause or intention, people previously regarded as enemies of the West suddenly being provided with Western arms and money, etcetera.
Many in the region, who may otherwise welcome the regime changes, have been reminded of what happened after Saddam was toppled in Iraq. All of a sudden, everything exile groups of different persuasions had been saying about him for years was declared to be true, after the West had spent decades refusing to listen to or act on it.
Within weeks however the US liberation was being seen as the U.S. “occupation”. The West failed to identify or address the needs of Iraqis and pursued their own, more “enlightened” agendas. The result: A dysfunctional government with no popular legitimacy, and a country devastated even before ISIL was added to the mix to pursue further Western objectives. Did any Iraqi want such an outcome?
Egypt’s revolt against former darling of the West Hosni Mubarak succeeded. Its indigenous Christian communities will tell you what happened next. They were an oppressed minority under Moslem Arab rule, despite being there first. But they were not subject to the wholesale slaughter and destruction of their homes and churches as since; this was ordered by outsiders as part of a greater destabilization effort.
It was natural that Egyptians would see a Moslem Brotherhood government as the antidote to the secularist Mubarak regime, simply because that is the alternative most people understand. It was also predictable that the first post-independence government would be removed, as it is common practice for the bringers of change, people who mean what they say, to be removed by the rest of the political class, or their foreign sponsors, when the change threatens their own positions.
But Egypt’s problem is something else. The new government has to continue to be perceived as persecuting Christians to legitimise the overthrow of Morsi – trying to say that his basic principles were right, because they were legitimised by election, but the leader was wrong. It also has to get arms from Russia now, despite the Western assistance in putting it there, because it is obliged to invoke another past to prove it has any right to govern at all – and this may ultimately prove its undoing.
Worm in a fragrant apple
Egypt is a republic because a group of army officers overthrew its monarch, King Farouk, in 1952. Though he technically abdicated in favour of his six month-old son, it was no surprise that the monarchy was abolished a year later and what was effectively a military dictatorship under different colours ran the country until the West got tired of Mubarak.
Farouk had made himself unpopular with his Western backers and a lot of his subjects, accused of being a playboy who wanted the lifestyle of a king but not the responsibility. He was also under the protection of the British but had sympathy with the Axis Powers, refusing to declare war on them until almost the very end, and then with great reluctance. The CIA has since publicly admitted, in various memoirs, that it set out to overthrow him and assisted the military coup, and the government it installed, in various ways.
Whenever such undemocratic regime changes occur, one simple thing happens. A new government which has no right to be there sets out to justify its existence by pretending to be the opposite of the previous one. Even if it does exactly the same things as the one before, it is alright this time because they are being done by completely different people for a completely different purpose, whereas everything the previous government did must automatically have been wrong, hence its removal.
Farouk was either too close to the British, the effective colonial power, or not close enough to them, depending on who you spoke to. He was also close to the Germans and Italians when they were the enemies of the political West, then represented by the League of Nations, but eventually declared war on them. So both pre-Western and anti-Western options are out for any Egyptian government which descends from the 1952 revolution, unless it wants to abolish itself and restore Farouk’s still-living son.
If any Egyptian government of today is close to either the bastions of the West or the West’s latest bogeymen it automatically has no legitimacy. It can’t rely on US arms and assistance and nor can it be too Islamist, as the West is actually attacking Moslem countries rather than just condemning them politically, as it does the new Eastern Bloc represented by the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation nations.
So to show it has an ideological right to be there the Egyptian government has to go running to Russia or China. This is the beginning of the process of chasing its own tail which will lead it to take a variety of other steps, such as waves of nationalisation and de-nationalisation and periodic changes to the constitution, until it can’t explain its own purpose to itself any more.
This is what one might call the Soviet Syndrome. It is this threat to Egypt that the arms purchases are trying to address, but it is a self-inflicted threat no one else’s guns will take away.
Clutching at fool’s gold
As Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge found, you can’t simply atomise people. If you want to break with the past you can’t just pretend it never existed. Unless you can produce a very vivid picture of the new future overnight, which you do by invoking some other country’s present, people will always look back to a golden age when things were supposedly better, even if it never existed, because everyone has a past they gained their present from.
Egypt finally stood up to the British and French during Suez Crisis in the late 1950s. It also expanded its territory, joining with Syria to form the United Arab Republic and retaining that name after Syria walked away. All this was done under the rule of General Nasser, who remains very popular in Egypt. Any government promising a sanitised and updated version of the legacy of Nasser is onto a good thing domestically.
Nasser was one of the founders of the non-aligned movement, rather than being specifically pro-Soviet. However, he gained his popularity by taking an anti-Western stance. Compared to being pro-Western or Islamist, forging arms deals with Russia is the nearest thing there is to invoking the good old days without making direct reference to the negative aspects of the Nasser period – the repression, human rights abuses and enforced socialisation now discredited.
Of course, there is considerable Western resistance to anyone doing deals with Russia, despite the far more extensive links the West itself has with The Kremlin. For the US dealing with the “authoritarian” Vladimir Putin raises question marks about the true nature of the current Egyptian government, which sees itself as “Islam with a human face”. It is all about money and the US and its NATO partner countries want to sell the military hardware, and not play “second fiddle” to the Russians.
But that again puts new president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi firmly in line with Nasser. No one really wants to provoke Russia, as we have seen every time Western governments complain about it.
As long as this aspect of Nasser’s era is made uppermost in the public imagination al-Sisi can claim to be reintroducing a positive era to Egypt, in which the country prospered in spite of Western disapproval of its independent course. No one will actually do anything to stop this deal, making Egypt triumphant against the infidel once again.
There are suggestions that the deal will create a dependency which will give Russia a toehold in the region – much as every other country in the Middle East and North Africa is also dependent on some other country, usually a Western one.
Time and again such dependencies have indeed forced governments to take one side or another in a conflict, despite their better judgment, as their economies would be ruined if they went against their patrons. But in this particular case the reverse is probably true.
The US has created every Egyptian regime since 1952. By looking elsewhere for support, Egypt can expect further US involvement to protect it from the evils of Russia – “democracy promotion” measures backed by hard cash and infrastructure investments which can’t be pinned on Russia. The guns won’t provide security, but buying them may well have done.
Similarly, Israel and any other enemy of Egypt have nothing to fear from these purchases. Al-Sisi may well want to outdo the revered Nasser by regaining the territory it lost to Israel in 1967, but is he going to create a situation where Russia and its guns fights the US and its guns in a war neither side can win, and take the blame? Israel has its own problems in Gaza and elsewhere, but it is not a sitting duck, given all the international support it still has. Once again, these purchases are more likely to improve than harm regional security.
The Egyptian government needs to buy arms from Russia to prove its own legitimacy to its public, but ultimately to itself. For reasons Egypt did not create, Russia has become the most acceptable supplier in both political and emotional terms, which enables the country to make a statement without doing anything which would endanger it.
Egypt is actually fighting against the propaganda it needs to survive. The whole Egyptian state is built on not being the Egypt of pre-1952, for the sake of it. Everything it has done since then has had to be based not only on practicality or idealism but justification of the coup, even though the change of government itself may have been a good thing.
This process does not occur in circumstances of democratic and constitutional regime change because it is not necessary. Governments in democratic countries may think everything their predecessor did was bad but they don’t rebuild the whole country as the opposite of what it was before. But when you behave unconstitutionally, even your descendants have no other option available unless they acknowledge the inherent immorality of that situation.
In the longer term, if America gets its way, it is Egypt itself which will suffer the most from this arms deal. For now Egypt as a fledgling reborn democracy has bought time. It hopes to put off what the Americans think is inevitable, having to choose one side or the other, as it has done so many times in the past.
We know what can happen when faced with few alternatives. The building of the Aswan High Dam, was a project promoted by Colonel Nasser, the soldier turned politician, who helped to oust King Farouk in a military coup in 1952, becoming Prime Minister of Egypt in 1954. Because he accepted military support from Communist Bloc nations, including what is now the Russian Federation, the US refuse to help with economic development.
But if Russia wants now to give technical and military assistance to Egypt, the world should be remained of what happened in the past and the [arrogance] of the US State Department, when the US refused to provide it. The US administration thought that the Russians [Soviets] would never be able to take on such massive development projects, such as the Aswan High Dam project. The result was in 1956 the USA and Great Britain withdrew offers made the previous year to build the dam, the French and British paratroopers tried to seize the Suez under a false pretext, working with the Israelis; the rest is history.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.