Cairo's dalliance with Moscow

As America’s stock in Egypt tumbles, the Russians come calling.

(photo credit: ASMAA WAGUIH / REUTERS)
Tahrir Square is quite possibly the least attractive public space in central Cairo.
Bounded on one side by the Mogamma, the concrete beast that houses the belly of Egypt’s bureaucracy, hemmed in by a building site on another, and smothered with liberal amounts of cracked tarmac in the middle, the focal point of the Arab Spring scarcely lives up to its hallowed reputation.
Recently, however, Tahrir (Liberation) Square has undergone something of a facelift.
The curbstones have been repainted, the statues of Egyptian luminaries cleansed of graffiti, and the weed-infested center circle covered with grass.
It’s all designed to scream, “Egypt’s back”; and, to an extent, it is.
But while life for most Cairenes has resumed some semblance of normality following the bloody dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in August, many of the wounds inflicted by this summer’s mayhem will take a while longer to heal.
The US, in particular, has seen its stock in Egypt tumble dramatically.
American Ambassador Anne Patterson’s discouragement of the mass demonstrations that led to the removal by the military of President Mohamed Morsi in July convinced many Egyptians that the US government favored the Islamist regime.
Posters of Patterson emblazoned with a red X soon appeared across Cairo, while banners demanding that “Obama stop supporting terrorism” hung limply from many street signs.
The placards and banners are gone now, but the anger and suspicion of American motives remains. “To have such high walls, they must have something to hide,” said Mohammed, a taxi driver, as he drove near the fortress-like US Embassy compound shortly before Morsi went on trial on November 4, charged with inciting the killing of protesters in clashes outside the presidential palace last year.
Tariq Saleh, a teacher from near Alexandria, echoed that distrust. “The US knows how bad terrorism is, so why ar ethey supporting the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood here?” he queried.
Just how anti-US sentiment has reached such worrisome levels is no mystery.
Egypt’s flagship, state-owned newspaper, Al-Ahram, ran a front-page story on August 27, accusing Patterson of conspiring with leading Brotherhood figures “to spread chaos.” Another leading daily went as far as to claim the US and Morsi were intent on carving up the Sinai Peninsula to relocate the Palestinians, before later speculating that US President Barack Obama himself was a Muslim Brother. Egyptian journalists often have vivid imaginations, and uncertainty about America’s role has given them plenty of fodder.
Five months after the coup, disdain for US politicians shows little sign of abating. “Down with Morsi, [Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah] Sisi and Obama,” chanted many of the young revolutionaries who congregated near Tahrir Square in mid-November to commemorate the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud massacre, where security forces killed at least 47 people protesting the army’s unwillingness to announce an election date following the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak. They’re particularly infuriated by the authorities’ use of US-made tear gas, but thus far the virulent anti-Americanism in the media hasn’t translated into difficulties for Americans themselves.
Still, the attack on an American academic outside the US Embassy in May and the murder of another US citizen in Alexandria over the summer have cast a long shadow.
The US continues to advise against travel to Egypt and the receptionist at the King Hotel in the Dokki district can’t even think when he last saw an American tourist. “Not after June, definitely,” he says.
The US was dealt a desperately tricky hand by this past summer’s events, but theWhite House made a real mess of its few options, commentators say. “The Obama Administration’s lack of a coherent strategy has sent Egypt very mixed signals,” Adel El Adawy, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, comments to The Jerusalem Report.
Washington tied itself in knots to avoid describing Morsi’s ouster as a coup (a label that would legally precipitate a cutoff in aid), choosing instead to cancel joint military exercises, while advising Egypt’s security forces to exercise caution. In so doing, the US merely infuriated Islamists opposed to any acceptance of the military’s actions, while also angering the military and nationalist bloc, which resented American efforts to bring the Brotherhood back into the political fold.
IT WAS the United States to which army chief General Sisi was delivering an unsubtle swipe when he said in early October, “We will remember those who stood with Egypt and never forget those who stood against it.”
By that point, the worst of the damage in the US-Egypt relationship looked to have been done; but the deaths of another 50 Morsi supporters during protests accompanying the military’s commemoration of the October 1973 war proved to be one massacre too many. A few days later, the US suspended some of the $1.3 billion it gives Egypt in annual military aid.
“It was an unforced error in the extreme,” Egypt expert Eric Trager wrote in the New Republic magazine; and El Adawy agrees.
“It’s completely untrue that halting aid will have an influence on the Egyptian military’s internal policies,” El Adawy says. “Egypt will just look at other countries willing to give it advanced military equipment.”
And so it has proven. An Egyptian “popular diplomacy” delegation wrapped up three days of talks in Moscow, in late October. Very soon thereafter, Russia reciprocated by dispatching its head of military intelligence to Cairo in advance of a visit by its foreign and defense ministers in mid-November.
For 20 years, under president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt aligned itself with the Soviet Union, and certainly some Egyptians have exhibited a willingness to embrace their old benefactor. “Russia showed that unlike the West, it does not attach itself only to the cosmetic aspects of democracy,” Raouf Saad, a former ambassador to Russia, told state-owned Al-Ahram. Interim Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi also floated the prospect of deepening relations, noting that under Nasser, “Egypt went with the Russian military for support and we survived.”
The Cairo Tower, Egypt’s tallest building, which looms over the affluent Zamalek district, stands as a compelling token of that time. The legend goes that it was funded by bribe money the CIA gave to Nasser in the 1950s, when it was trying to dissuade him from accepting Soviet support.
It was to that age of close collaboration that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was alluding, during his two-day visit in mid- November, when he heralded Egypt as “not just a regional power, but a country with which Russia has long had historical ties.”
Thousands of Soviet military advisers helped to develop Egypt’s army in the years following the fall of the monarchy in 1952 and the expulsion of the British from the Suez Canal zone in 1956, while Soviet funding made the massive Aswan High Dam possible.
But that was to be the high-water mark of Russian influence in Egypt. Nasser’s death in 1971, his successor Anwar Sadat’s change of ideological tack, and the collapse two decades later of the Soviet Union minimized the leverage of America’s once fierce regional adversary.
Things haven’t been much better in recent years. Russia’s attachment to Bashar Assad in Syria, its lone regional ally, has alienated many erstwhile admirers in staunchly Sunni Egypt, where at one time several families of Syrian refugees pointedly set up camp outside Cairo’s Russian Cultural Center.
But Russia’s swift blessing for the military’s takeover altered all of that. President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Egypt’s interim government “has met the demands of the people after their revolt on June 30” saw him competing with the Gulf State rulers for the title of Egypt’s favorite foreign leader. “Putin, a big thank you from the people of Egypt,” read a big banner in a coffee shop near Tahrir.
Some political players, notably the Tamarud movement, which spearheaded the campaign to topple Morsi, advocate ditching US aid altogether. “The Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove Egyptian history to make space for America’s schemes,” a Tamarud spokesman recently told the Youm7 newspaper. But in matters of aid, arms and national security, it’s not their judgment that holds much weight. Adly Mansour might be interim president on paper, but it’s themilitary that is calling the shots.
The sight of the cruiser, Variag, moored in Alexandria harbor on the 11th of November can’t have sat easily with the American defense establishment – it was the first time in 40 years that an Egyptian port had welcomed a Russian warship.
But shortly after the arrival in Egypt of the Russian foreign and defense ministers, Nabil Fahmy, the interim foreign minister, set about dispelling the prospect of a drastic shift in alignment. Egypt might seek to reduce much of its dependence on the US, he said, “but this cannot be done by substituting one party for another.”
For decades Egypt has served as the cornerstone of American strategy in the Middle East, “but this is a point of potential change,” Graeme Bannerman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, tells The Report. “The movement to suspend American assistance was a letdown for the Egyptians. If you’re a military planner, this makes you rethink how you’re going to provide for your military projects.”
A mooted multi-billion dollar arms deal proposed by the Russian visitors has been deemed the biggest threat to America’s status in Egypt for decades; but the peril to the US position, as things stand, looks to be overstated. This order – reputedly financed by Saudi Arabia – is said to cover air defense technology only.
Egypt has shifted alliances twice before.
In the 1950s, it cozied up to the USSR after previously siding with the West. From 1973, it switched back, expelling the almost 20,000 Soviet military personnel stationed across the country. It could happen again, but both America and Egypt appear to have too much to gain from their current arrangement to rock the boat unnecessarily.
If anything, the US ought to have been encouraged by the Egyptian military’s stance. Cutting ties with the US would likely win it support across Egypt’s political spectrum and further boost the army’s already sky-high popularity. And yet it has, for the most part, refrained from inflaming anti-American sentiment.
Bannerman thinks he knows why. “This is a demonstration to the US saying that we care about this relationship, but we can’t have you interfering in our internal affairs,” he says.
Sisi, who has twice attended army training programs in the US, has reportedly spoken with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel more than 20 times since July 3 – when the army announced Morsi’s ouster, while Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion in mid-November that “the Muslim Brotherhood stole Egypt’s revolution” seemingly reflected the Obama Administration’s intent on resetting a valued relationship.
Relations, however, are unlikely to regain their pre-coup luster entirely. The Egyptian military looks intent on permanently reducing its reliance on a single country, but the strong inter-military rapport will likely ensure that the US and Egypt’s long association endures.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s domestic scene remains horrifically fractured. Months of extreme political polarization has sapped Egypt’s economy and paralyzed its fledgling democratic institutions.
The military-backed interim government has shown little taste for compromise with the toppled Muslim Brotherhood organization.
Instead, it has pursued a merciless crackdown that culminated in the deaths of hundreds of Morsi supporters and at least 45 policemen on August 14.
Almost all of the group’s senior leadership is behind bars, while most Morsi supporters seem to have been sufficiently cowed by the severity of the security forces’ suppression to stay away from most pro-Morsi gatherings.
A much-hyped “million-man” march to condemn Morsi’s trial in early November numbered a few thousand, while some Friday marches have been canceled at the last minute, seemingly because attendance was embarrassingly low. A campaign of civil disobedience (occupying metro stations and blocking roads) went largely unheeded.
The army maintains it is powerless to act any other way – a reinvigorated Brotherhood would plunge the country into civil war, military officials say – but there are fears that the vehemence of the security forces’ approach will see leaderless young Muslim Brothers resort to more violent means.
“People will start bringing guns out onto the street. They feel they have no choice because the police just shoot us when we march peacefully,” says Mahmoud, a teacher and Morsi supporter who declines to give his surname to The Report for fear of the security services.
Many Egyptians, particularly in staunchly pro-military Cairo, will tell you the Brotherhood has long since turned to terrorism. “When the army took their power, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to cause chaos across the country,” Abdullah, an apartment building doorman, tells The Report. He cites a recent assassination attempt on the interior minister as evidence of Morsi supporters’ malevolence.
And certainly there were weapons in the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps. At least a dozen camp inhabitants unraveled guns from their prayer mats and leveled them at police during a particularly brutal exchange in the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood in August.
But the Egyptian media’s decision to equate Brotherhood support with terrorism has cast the country’s nationalist-Islamist split in particularly toxic terms.
For decades many Egyptians were identified as kanaba, politically apathetic “sofa dwellers” – but no longer. Several movements have sought to claim the political middle ground, but they’ve attracted minimal support. One movement, Masmou3, requested that those opposed to both army and Brotherhood rule bang a pot at their window for five minutes at 9 p.m. every night. As a measure of how few moderates are left, scarcely a sound could be heard.
“Things were better under Mubarak,” says Essam Said, a cook in a restaurant who sometimes drives a taxi to make extra money.
“There was no war.”
And an ever-increasing number of Egyptians share his admiration for their deposed dictator.
It’s hardly surprising then that there’s an overwhelming undercurrent of support for Sisi. He’s the strong army man who will pacify Egypt’s enemies once and for all, his admirers claim; and it’s near impossible to find a Cairo street that isn’t decorated with posters of his face.
If he ran for president there’s little doubt he’d win, and whether he’s keen to be a candidate or not, he’ll struggle to sidestep his adoring following.
“There seems to be quite a large groundswell of support for General Sisi, from which it would take a strong character to walk away,” Angus Blair, a political and economic analyst at Cairo’s Signet Institute, tells The Report.
And so, almost three years after the January 2011 revolution, Egypt might be in much the same position it was in prior to Mubarak’s overthrow, with a military leader in the presidential palace, a sidelined Islamist movement and the United States as its key partner.
It’s not ideal, cook and part-time taxi driver Essam says, “but with Egypt like this, what choice is there?”