Back into an embrace with the Russian bear

With Washington’s Middle East policy in disarray, Cairo once again turns to Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Egypt's Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Egypt's Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The sudden rapprochement between Egypt and Russia should concern the West and Israel. In a yet unexplained twist, the United States appears unaware of the fact that by pressuring the new regime in Cairo to demonstrate its commitment to democracy it is driving it straight into the willing embrace of one of the least democratic countries in Europe.
An unprecedented arm deal is about to be concluded, according to a number of reliable sources. Moscow will supply Cairo with $3 billion worth of such sophisticated weapons as MiG-29 warplanes, anti-aircraft systems, Kornet anti-tank guided missiles and combat helicopters. It follows that Russian experts will be sent to Egypt to train and advise in the use of these weapons, as well as help with maintenance.
This new cooperation will probably not be all-pervasive the way it was in the ’60s and ’70s, but it will bring the two countries much closer together.
Russian experts will replace the many American experts keeping a low profile but at work helping the Egyptian Army with American weapons and equipment bought with the $1.2b. in annual military aid granted to Cairo by the US since the peace treaty with Israel.
Egyptian officers and technicians will be sent to Russia to learn the technology and the methods of a regime which is not too preoccupied with democracy.
Members of the intelligence services of Egypt will probably be next – once again as in the Soviet era: During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser it was the KGB which helped set up the intelligence and internal security services in its image. They went on functioning under subsequent presidents, Hosni Mubarak included, and their influence extended to economic, social and cultural activities including business with foreign countries. No plan could be implemented without having first been vetted for security risks.
The US could have changed all that and steered Egypt toward more democracy over a long period. That it did not was a serious mistake. Since 1980, thousands of Egyptian officers – including one Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – underwent training in America and were exposed to liberal and democratic values.
Back in Egypt, however, these officers had no influence on the political sphere. America did not try to use its good relations with Cairo to exert its influence on the security services – which did set their stamp on the regime – by sending their members to the United States where they would have been confronted with a different mindset.
The new regime in Cairo, which has its hands full fighting radical Islam, desperately wants closer ties with the West but has to be content with the embrace of the Russian bear – an embrace which is not limited to military assistance. Russians make up most of the tourists coming to Egypt these days.
Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world and it is mainly Russian wheat which feeds its masses. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has offered his country’s help in building the first nuclear plant in Egypt. The two countries are to develop common projects in the fields of economy and culture as well as in the military and technological domains.
After the visit of the Russian foreign and defense ministers to Cairo in November, and that of their Egyptian counterparts Sisi and Nabil Fahmy to Moscow last week, another ministerial meeting is scheduled for March 28 in Cairo. Apparently time is of the essence.
Strangely enough, the US, Egypt and Russia are at pain to stress that the new policy will in no way change Cairo’s relationship with “other countries.”
A State Department representative said after the visit of the Egyptian dignitaries to Moscow last week that the rapprochement between the two states “will not impact our shared interests.”
Before leaving for Moscow, Marshal Sisi stressed that closer relations with Russia would not replace existing relations with “other countries.” Even Lavrov found it necessary to say that Russia was not aspiring to replace any country as strategic partner to Egypt. As for the Egyptian foreign minister, he said that closer ties with Russia would not affect his country’s relations with the US – but that the new policy of Egypt would not focus on a privileged relationship with any given country but rather strive to develop relations with all countries. He did mention, however, that Egypt had submitted to the US several detailed proposals for greater dialogue between the two countries – and was still waiting for an answer.
What is obvious is that words cannot hide the deepening chasm between Washington and Cairo. The White House was unhappy with Mohamed Morsi’s arrest and suspended its military aid “until it is convinced that the country is working toward democracy.”
In a yet unexplained move it gave its support to the Muslim Brotherhood, though Morsi had neglected his country’s economy and devoted all his efforts to putting Muslim Brothers in all government posts and promoting a constitution with worrisome Islamic undertones.
Egypt – and not only Field Marshal Sisi – felt insulted and betrayed. They can’t understand why the US – despite all the checks and balances and all the data it gets from its intelligence agencies – is on a collision course with its longtime ally, the main anchor of its policy in the Middle East. With no clear answer, Sisi felt compelled to turn to Russia to get support in his struggle against the Muslim Brothers and radical Islam, which launch terrorist attacks again civilian and military targets; he also needs weapons and other military equipment.
According to Egyptian sources, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will finance the arms deal, in what can be seen as a rebuke to the US, which was for so long their greatest ally; they have yet to come to terms with the fact that Washington held secret talks with their greatest enemy, Iran, and concluded a highly unsatisfactory deal which will not prevent Tehran from advancing its nuclear program.
American foreign policy in the Middle East is in disarray; the pragmatic alliance against Iran is no more; now Egypt is turning to Russia. One wonders what comes next.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.