Just as the red carpet was being rolled out in Cairo in honor of the visiting
Russian foreign and defense ministers, Egypt’s headliners were busy declaring
that nothing had altered in their country’s geopolitical
According to them, all is as it was – they still are
officially allies of the US, still cooperate with its intelligence agencies and
would still welcome American economic largesse.
But the very fact that
the Egyptian leadership felt bound to articulate and accentuate a
business-as-usual message indicates that its business agenda is anything but
usual. The very fact that high-level and high-profile Russian visits are taking
place for the first time in a very long time, replete with pomp and
circumstance, attests quite loudly that things are hardly quite what they
It is not difficult to pinpoint the triggers for change.
ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime was greeted with undisguised American
displeasure and was followed by Washington’s decision to suspend much of the
$1.3 billion earmarked for military aid to Egypt each year.
The US not
only withheld cash subsidies but indefinitely deferred the delivery of
large-scale military systems.
Egyptian government spokesmen described
this as “wrongheaded” and vowed that Cairo would “not surrender to American
US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to punctuate the
American moves with the assurance that this wasn’t “a withdrawal from our
relationship.” Yet he was as unconvincing as the official Egyptian assurances
that the Russian ministerial visits signify no policy departure on Cairo’s
The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked
shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the
world’s single superpower with the most populous Arab state. The Russian
ministerial visits were preceded by a visit by the chief of Russian intelligence
and by Russian naval vessels.
More important, the visits by Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu involve a
major sale to Egypt of sophisticated Russian military hardware – clearly a
counter move to the American halting of weapons supplies.
are essentially saying that they can shop elsewhere and not have to shell out
cash. According to reliable reports, another exasperated American ally, Saudi
Arabia, is footing the bill for this transaction to the tune of $4b. The
Russians may receive additional compensation in the form of access for their
navy to port facilities on the Mediterranean.
Like it or not, this smacks
of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the
days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling
Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.
rulers might be realistic enough not to expect the same now, and likewise
today’s Kremlin likely does not expect to wield quite the same clout as
yesteryear, but the direction is unmistakable.
Russia is eager for a
toehold in Egypt and Egypt has every reason to play along to spite US President
Barack Obama and Kerry, who are resented for what are regarded in Cairo as their
sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Obama and Kerry may proclaim ad
infinitum that they were only supporting democratic rule in Egypt but this will
not wash. For one thing, the deposed Mohamed Morsi violated his country’s
constitution and limited the authority of the courts in clear contravention of
democratic precepts. But, far more telling, Muslim Brotherhood adherents
denounce the Obama administration with vituperation that markedly exceeds that
of their political antagonists in Egypt.
Obama and Kerry figured this out
a tad tardily and on his recent stopover in Cairo, Kerry sought to talk his
Egyptian interlocutors out of the Russian deal by offering to restore full
military aid. Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however, made it clear
that Egypt intends to take whatever it can get from both sides.
Russian reappearance in this region is entirely made-in-America and it was
This serious-cum-superfluous complication in already
too problematical an arena constitutes yet another spectacular US foreign policy
flop, arising from a fundamental failure to fathom the Middle East’s
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