The operation to liberate Aleppo, the Mosul offensive, the situation in Iraq, the war in Yemen and the ongoing hostilities between Sunni and Shia Muslims – all these and many other events have been in the spotlight of world media recently. The Middle East has become a volatile region with shifting alliances and changing interests. Against this background, Russia and Egypt set a good example of constructive cooperation for the benefit of all.
Egypt has a relatively long story of being a US satellite but those days are gone. The Cairo’s international priorities are going through changes in favor of more independent foreign policy.
US-Egypt relations have greatly deteriorated since 2013 when the military government led by President Abdel el-Sisi came to power removing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi backed by the Obama administration.
For instance, the United States reallocated more than two-thirds of its non-military aid earmarked for Egypt this year «amid growing frustration with Cairo». According to Al-Monitor, a US State Department official said in an emailed statement that, «The US government redirected $108 million in planned assistance funding from Egypt to other countries due to continued government of Egypt process delays that have impeded the effective implementation of several programs».
According to the source, the previously undisclosed reallocation is a signal of Washington’s impatience with the Egyptian government’s refusal to work with US aid organizations. In May, a group of representatives wrote a letter to State Secretary John Kerry, asking him to reprogram up to $ 20 million in Egypt aid to Tunisia.
According to the February 2015 Government Accountability Office report, $460 million in economic assistance for Egypt remained unspent because of US restrictions.
The US military aid to Egypt was temporarily suspended after the government change in 2013 to be resumed in April 2015. It is reported that Egypt is still being denied certain military supplies and assistance to combat Islamic State (IS).
The decision negatively affected the bilateral relationship.
In September 2015, President Obama refused to meet with the Egyptian president at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.
The US policy prompted Egypt to develop cooperation with other international partners.
Egypt signed arms deals with Russia worth up to $5 billion by 2015 to include 50 MiG-29M combat aircraft, Buk-M2E and Antey-2500 long range air defense systems and about 50Ka-52K helicopters for Egypt’s new Mistral-class assault ships bought in France.
The amphibious ships had been built for Russia but the deal was suspended by France in September 2015. Russia will supply equipment and the Ka-52K naval variant scout/attack helicopters to arm the Egyptian Mistrals. Russian military instructors and personnel will be in Egypt to service the helicopters and MiG-29M warplanes.
The two countries signed several agreements for the renovation of military production factories in Egypt. A protocol is signed to grant Egypt access to GLONASS, the Russian global satellite positioning system. In September, Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy visited Russia to discuss the issues related to long-term close security relationship.
This month Egypt is hosting Russian paratroop units for a joint military exercise (15-26 October). Dubbed “Protectors of Friendship-2016”, it includes 500 troops, 15 planes and helicopters and 10 military hardware units. The militaries are honing the skills to repel a terrorist threat in the desert. The experience will be useful as Egypt is fighting terrorists in the Sinai. This is the first time Russian paratroopers with combat vehicles are air dropped into an Arabian desert. The training event comes within the framework of Russia’s joint military exercises plan for 2016-2017, which includes 30 drills with 20 Arab and African countries.
In 2015, the first-ever joint naval exercise was held in the Mediterranean, including the Russian Black Sea fleet’s flagship Moskva missile cruiser.
According to Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier battlegroup, presently en route to Syria, may hold joint exercises with the Egyptian Navy in 2017.
Izvestia has also reported that Russia was in talks to open an air base in Egypt.
If the negotiations succeed, the base in Sidi Barrani may begin operations as soon as 2019. So far, this information has not been confirmed by other sources.
It does not boil down to military cooperation only. In February 2015, Egypt signed a breakthrough agreement on establishing a free trade zone with the Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
The ceremony took place during the official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Cairo. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Sochi in August 2014. It was his first international visit after taking office.
In 2015, the countries signed a nuclear agreement. Rosatom intends to build four nuclear plants overall, creating the entire nuclear power industry in Egypt. The project is expected to be completed by 2022.
With Western sanctions imposed, Russia has been trying to diversify and intensify its economic ties with countries outside the US and EU orbit. Egypt became a Russia’s important trade partner against the backdrop of cooling relations between Washington and Cairo.
On October 8, Egypt backed a Russian resolution in the UN Security Council on Syria. This is a very important expression of political support from a country, which is a party to the ongoing international effort to manage the Syria’s conflict.
Egypt had known the support for the Russian measure would put it at odds with the West and Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil giant Aramco informed Cairo it wouldn’t supply Egypt with subsidized petroleum products this month, a heavy blow to an Egyptian economy. But the Egyptian government stands up to outside pressure. It defied the US and Saudi Arabia by refusing to get involved in the Yemen’s conflict and hosted the representatives of Yemeni rebel movement – the Houthis – in 2015.
Russia used to be a vital source of tourists to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, providing a reliable stream of revenue. The two countries are negotiating the resumption of tourist flights, after a bombing claimed by Islamic State downed a Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015.
Russia and Egypt have a good opportunity to nurture a very close partnership relationship cooperating in many areas, including the crisis management in Syria. The operation in Syria has marked Russia’s spectacular return to the Middle East as a major player at the time the US influence is waning as a result of flawed Middle East policy implemented by Obama administration. The Russia-Egypt rapprochement provides a good opportunity to influence the events in the region in a positive way.