On February 9-10, Russian President Vladimir Putin will pay an official visit to Egypt. Numerous talks have already been scheduled to consider the prospects of the further development of the bilateral relations, including political, economic, humanitarian and military spheres. Russia’s president is going to discuss the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the problem of the Palestinian-Israeli settlement with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
It should be noted that this visit takes place in a time when the both countries are facing an increasing number of challenges: Russia is trying to overcome the effects of illegal economic sanctions imposed by the West over the situation in Ukraine, while Egypt struggles to fight through an increasingly aggravating political situation. So the outcome of negotiations will have a far reaching effect for the two two countries, both political and economic. It’s a noteworthy that the US and Saudi Arabia are desperate to prevent the strengthening of the Russian-Egyptian partnership, given the crucial role Egypt has been playing in the Middle East, even despite a considerable weakening of its positions after the “color” revolution of January 2011 .
The terrorists attacks in the Egyptian province of North Sinai on January 29 took the lives of 30 people leaving a more 100. A terrorist group that goes under the name Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, that is closely connected to the Islamic States, holds the responsibility for the wave of terror that has recently swept across Egypt, including the recent attacks and numerous acts of sabotage committed in Egypt. On top of all, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Yousef al-Qaradawi addressed Islamists by making a number of instigating remarks. He’s residing in Qatar now since there’s an arrest warrant waiting for him in Egypt due a number of charges for treason, religious extremism and links to terrorist organizations that were put forward by the Egyptian government. It’s unfortunate that despite that considerable efforts the local authorities have made to put an end to the rise of radicalism in the country, they haven’t managed to succeed on this path yet. It is clear that in a tough economic crisis and the lack of real improvements in the standard of living of regular people, the Egypt government embarked on a risky mission of promoting anti-Islamist sentiments. After all, if the military command does not reconsider its attitude towards moderate Islam supporters in Egypt by providing them with a way to engage legitimately in the political life of the country, the situation in the state with Islamist underground movements can become fairly grave, and the permanent instability, that has been plaguing the north of the Sinai Peninsula, will spread all across the country.
Earlier, after the overthrow of President-Islamist Mohamed Morsi back in 2013, due to the tricky political standing the US has developed towards its Arabian satellites, while supporting the Islamists at one point, and then taking sides with their opponents, the government in Cairo decided to turn their eyes towards Moscow . So, on July 26, 2013, demonstrators who supported General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, took to the streets with portraits of President Vladimir Putin, and later on that year Egyptian politicians sent an official invitation to the head of the Russian state. From that on a new phase in the bilateral relations between the Russian Federation and Egypt has started.
In November 2013 Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov together with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Cairo. On the same daysI a Russian cruiser Varyag docked in port Alexandria, the first Russian warship in the last 21 years. However, both sides proceeded with the development of bilateral relations cautiously. Both Moscow and Cairo repeat time and time again that Russia is not trying to replace the US in Egypt. And in must be quite obvious that American influence in the country has not been threatened in any respect. It’s enough to say that General Al-Sisi, like most of his colleagues was educated in the United States, while most of the weapons that Egypt has today were shipped by the US.
But what goals does Russia pursuit in Egypt? According to analysts, those are the establishment of a common position on a long list of topics, including the Syrian crisis, promotion of bilateral economic cooperation, with a particular emphasis being placed on cereal imports and tourism, and military cooperation, whether it’s the delivery of Russian weapons, join training programs for Egyptian officers or a possible establishment of a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean coast.
On August 12, 2014, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Russia with his first official foreign visit in this capacity. Egypt’s president received an unusually warm welcome in Moscow that Arab leaders have not seen since the times of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when the bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and Egypt were at their height. Even the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Kirill addressed the guest with a welcoming speech. The visit of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Moscow was intended to strengthen the existing strategic partnership between Moscow and Cairo, in the times when the Russian influence in the Middle East grows while the pro-American sentiments are in a sharp decline. This statement can be proven true by the fact that the Egyptian president landed in Saudi Arabia on the eve of his trip to Moscow. In Riyadh al-Sisi had a discussion with Saudi King Abdullah, putting a particular stress on the urgent need to combat terrorism. The victory march of radical Islamists across Iraq, their strengthening positions in Syria and the attempts that are being made to destabilize Lebanon do not simply endanger the Gulf States, but it has been a threat to the entire Arab world. No wonder that the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became the symbol of the fight against radical Islam after he has removed from power the former President Mohamed Morsi and banned the radical Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The key to this change was achieved to the dimplomact victory of Russia in Syria, when it had succeeded in preventing the imending US invasion and save the country from total destruction. The rulers of the Arab countries saw a strong political player on the international scene, able to defend its interests and allies, refusing to back down in a difficult situation.
As for the bilateral military cooperation, the list of weapons that Russian can ship to Egypt is a long one: including an improved version of the fighter-bomber MiG-29, anti-aircraft systems, combat helicopters, long and short-range missiles and TOWs. But Moscow is willing to ship its weapons on the condition that Egypt would be able to pay for the deliveries. And here Saudi Arabia is coming into play, willing to provide a generous support to the Egyptian regime. This country is ready to provide up to 2 billion dollars to Cairo, that is necessary for the successful weapons trade between Cairo and Moscow.
Egypt and Russia also agreed to hold joint naval exercises once or twice a year and to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The Egyptian side has offered Russia to build a weapons factory in Egypt, that could sell the weapons produced to third countries. By the time Vladimir Putin lands in Cairo, Egypt will prepare a number of contracts that will worth a total of 3 billion dollars, according to which MiG-29M / M2, air defense systems of several types, Mi-35, onshore anti-ship weapon systems, various ammunition and small weapons are going to be shipped to Egypt.
Things are going well in the sphere of economic cooperation. In March 2014 Russian Ministry of Economic Development sent a business mission along with Russian companies interested in joint projects in the field of trade and investment. The delegation included representatives of 10 Russian top companies. The Russian delegation held meetings with the leaders of the six ministries of Egypt, as well as the leading Egyptian companies that could become the potential partners. Egyptian Minister of Industry, Trade and Small Industries Hatem Saleh supported the proposal of the Russian mission to increase the bilateral trade volume up to 10 billion dollars by 2020 (by now it amounts to 3.5 billion). Cairo has invited Russian organizations to a broader participation in the implementation of infrastructure projects, the development of industrial cluster western zone of the Suez Canal, as well as the construction of new underground lines in the Egyptian capital.
In addition, both countries will pay particular attention to the promotion of projects, that has been presented by Russian entrepreneurs on their business trip to Egypt: the promotion and certification a medium Russian jet MC-21 that was built by Irkut company in Egypt, the part that the Russian Power Machines company will play in the modernization and enhancing of energy generating capacities of Egypt; the delivery of “Nameks” construction equipment (cranes) and the prospect of building those in Egypt; the participation of Gazprom Neft in bidding rounds held on the acquisition of assets in the oil industry, the creation of a national dispatch center in Egypt and the consequent production of various devices (Russian Navigation Technologie ); the shipment of road-building equipment. by the Concern Tractor Plants company.
Of course, there are the difficulties encountered due to Western sanctions against Russia, especially in the tourism sector. The number of tourists from Russia over the last year has dropped by half, and Russians are accounted for 50% of the total number of tourists visting Egypt. Egyptian tourism can still be saved by the transition to the use of national currencies. The head of Egypt ordered his government to evaluate such an option, when which Egypt will import goods from Russia for Egyptian pounds, while Russians will be buying tickets to the Red Sea in rubles.
So Putin’s visit to Egypt aims to become a landmark in the whole complex of further cooperation between Russia and Egypt, and serve as turning point in Russia’s return to the Middle East as a key player.
Viktor Titov, Ph.D, is a political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.