A Russian-Egyptian alliance?

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September 11, 2015 – 

Valentin Domogadsky, PolitRussia – 

Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski

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“What does the president of Egypt want from Russia?”

Rapidly expanding instability in the Middle East, coupled with the inconsistency of Washington’s foreign policy, is driving Arab leaders to seek partners and allies on the side. Since China is totally absorbed by problems in South-East Asia, the status of “political Mecca” has gone to Moscow, which is known in the Middle East for its integrity and faithfulness to promises that have been made. Even the sponsors of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad appreciated Russia’s iron stance on Syria. 

Events in the last week of August, such as the international air show MAKS-2015, once again confirmed the accuracy of the thesis that Russia has returned to the political arena in the Middle East. Several high-ranking politicians from a number of Muslim countries, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UA, Mohammed al-Nahyan, Vice-President of Iran Surna Sattari, Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah, all visited Moscow on business trips. It is this last meeting which is of greater interest to us. 

First of all, Egypt has aspired to become the leader of the Arab world. The argument in favor of this is its very good geographical position and the presence of one of the strongest armies in the region. Egypt’s demographic and industrial potential also cannot be discounted.

Secondly, the content of American-Egyptian dialogue significantly changed after the military junta led by Abdel Al-Sisi came to power. Despite the fact that Washington and Cairo, under the pressure of regional challenges and threats, overcame a number of contradictions, there has been no talk of restoring the frank “Americanism” of Hosni Mubarak. 

Thirdly, Egypt is one of the pillars of stability in the region, guaranteeing the security of the Persian Gulf monarchies. In particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE act as the main sponsors of the Al-Sisi regime, considering the Egyptian army to be a natural protection against the threat posed by the “Islamic State.”

Fourthly, Egypt is teetering on the brink of a full-fledged civil war, has all the chances to become the force in the region which will have managed to push the ideology of radical islam out of its political space. It’s more likely that after the restoration of parliament, Al-Sisi will begin to implement a unified national idea – Egyptian nationalism. 

The problem of combatting the spread of radical islam and expanding the geography of a “Green International” occupies a special place in Russian-Egyptian relations. In particular, the President of Egypt expressed his support for the Russian program for resolving the Syrian conflict, whose main point is the necessity of forming a broad anti-terrorist coalition led by Syrian government forces.

The solidarity of the Egyptian side with Putin’s proposed plan of settling the Syrian conflict means exactly one thing: Egypt not only recognizes the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad, but also believes that “the tyrant doesn’t have to leave at all.” This is a very significant statement, as the main sponsor of Egypt is Saudi Arabia, for whom the overthrow of Assad is a cornerstone of regional policy.

Issues of economic cooperation were discussed individually by the leaders of Russia and Egypt. In particular, it was noted that last year trade turnover between the countries grew by 86% to 5.4 billion dollars. The main articles imported from Russia are energy and grain – 1.1 and 1 billion dollars respectively. It is noteworthy that Russia provides about 40% of Egypt’s cereals. 

In the course of the meeting, they also touched on Russian integration projects: “Among the specific additional steps to stimulate the economy, the creation of free trade zones between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union, the use of national currencies in mutual settlements, and the promotion of investment cooperation and investments flows are possible,” Vladimir Putin said at the final press conference. 

Among other things, they discussed the possibility of cooperation in the industrial sector and a question was raised in particular about the creation of an industrial zone in the Suez canal area. The “Rosatom” project of constructing a nuclear power station in the al-Dabaa area didn’t go without discussion. Vladimir Putin noted that “experts from both countries are finalizing the practical aspects of constructing this station.” The governor of the Egyptian Marsa Matrouh province promised that the first stone in the foundation of the future plant will be laid in October. 

But the most significant aspect of the Russian-Egyptian dialogue was cooperation in the military-technical sphere, which in general is characteristic for cooperation with any country in the Arab world since the establishment of the state of Israel. 

Remarkably, the resumption of Egyptian interest in Russian weaponry (after 30 years of “stagnation”) was provoked by the reactions of the United States to the military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi. Washington postponed the decision on delivering F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters, “Harpoon” anti-ship missiles, and similar products of its military-industrial complex, to Egypt. 

The UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia immediately reacted to the decision of the United States by transferring 12 billion dollars to the Egyptian Central Bank. A little later, Russia left proposals for 3.5 billion dollars in Egypt’s shopping cart. The concrete list of products, until recently, was unknown. However, after Vladimir Putin’s visit to Egypt, the information was leaked on the internet. 

Firstly, in March, TASS News Agency reported that Russia will leave Egypt an Antey-2500 air-defense system until the end of next year. An employee of the organization for military-technical cooperation with other countries commented on the news: “In accordance with the contract, Egypt will be left with a regiment of Antey-2500 systems with a three-division composition including a command post. The value of the contract exceeds 1 billion dollars. The cost includes training Egyptian soldiers to operate the system, which will start this year in one of the Land Forces’ training centers.” 

Secondly, in May, Egypt and Russia will have agreed upon a contract to supply 46 MiG-29. In the case of a contract, this deal will become the largest export order for the MiG corporation in the entire post-Soviet period, the value estimated to be at 2 billion dollars. The Russian company will be able to double its portfolio, which will ensure its operation until around 2020. 

Thirdly, in June, Russian and Egyptian sailors held the “Bridge of Friendship 2015” joint exercise, which was worked out by the organization of air defense. One of the representatives of the Russian Navy said: “According to the joint leadership doctrine, the crews of the ships of the two countries successfully carried out maneuvering in formation at the exit of the facility and effectively trained to repel small-target attacks. In accordance with the established parameters and standards, they carried out a joint exercise for organizing air defense in the area of action with the involvement of F-16 fighter jets of the Egyptian Air Force.”

Fourthly, in mid-August, the Egyptian fleet was replenished with a R-32 missile boat of the 1241 type of Russian manufacturing, as well as Mosquito anti-ship missiles. The ship already successfully took part in the opening ceremony of the second branch of the Suez canal. The Ministry of Defense of Egypt also reports: “In the near future, Egypt will send a group of sailors and technicians to Russia for training.” 

Fifthly, just a week ago, after the visit of the Egyptian president to MAKS-2015, news arrived that Egypt ordered Russian helicopters of the Ka-52 model. Parallel with this, news arrived that Cairo is interested in buying the French “Mistral,” for which Moscow has already received its money. This news is interesting for one reason – since a part of the helicopters are being gathered at Russian shipyards, Russia can block the sale. And since the Mistral was designed for a deck-mounted version of the Ka-52, the most likely scenario in this epic is a comprehensive sale of two Mistrals with a full set of Russian helicopters – 16 on each of them. So it’s possible that, in the near future, the Egyptian air force with by replenished with 32 Ka-52. 

Despite the fact that President Al-Sisi has managed to solve a number of strategic problems by building a productive dialogue with Moscow, saying that Russia is for Egypt an indispensable partner and, even more, an ally – only someone with such analytical conclusions feeds themselves with this. 

In reality, any colorful words about fruitful cooperation between the two countries is only tribute to the process. Egypt is diversifying its foreign contacts at the expense of Russia, proving the existence of a number of major, independent players in the global arena. And there is nothing unique in this strategy – balancing between two superpowers accompanied by the receipt of a number of economic and political rewards from both sides was the basis of all of Egypt’s foreign policy during the Cold War years.

A similar picture can be observed now. The warming relationship with Washington came even before the recent visit of the US Secretary of State to Egypt. In particular, in March of this year, Washington resumed supplies of arms and financial aid to Cairo, and next year they will be resumed in full. And since problems with the functioning of democratic institutions in Egypt have not been eradicated (which was the reason freezing aid), it is safe to say that the flirting of Egyptian President Al-Sisi with Vladimir Putin achieved its goal.

Thus, when speaking of a warming in Russian-Egyptian relations, it is necessary to understand that the value of any partner should be measured in financial or geopolitical “equivalent”, and not in any amount of warm greetings or sonorous syllables of praise. In the case of Egypt, the “equivalent” is a relatively modest sum. However, the prospects for cooperation are very attractive.

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