For the third time since becoming president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi heads to Russia amid another round of official propaganda about the significance of the fast-growing strategic alliance. The remarkable development in bilateral ties in the past year has been received with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm, bringing back memories of friendship with the Soviet Union while promising new possibilities away from what is seen as a suffocating uni-polar world order.
Egypt and Russia have never been that close since the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, said journalist Mustafa Bassiouni, specifically referring to the level of military cooperation, which culminated in naval maneuvers codenamed “Friendship Bridge 2015.”
Bassiouni said following the Syrian conflict, Russia lost “the only breather it was allowed in the Mediterranean” – the Tartous naval base. “Russia is not sure it will ever get it back with the escalation of the conflict in Syria, and needed to look for new alliances in the region.”
Russia’s need for new alliances, he added, has to be seen in light of the conflict with Ukraine, which earned Russia the hostility of the West. “Egypt suffered the same hostility from the U.S. and the EU following the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood rule, therefore also needed to forge new alliances, especially upon seeing its military aid from the U.S. threatened.”
Bassiouni, however, finds the comparison with Egyptian-Soviet relations in the 1960s far-fetched. “Back then it was the Soviet Union, but now it is the Russian Federation, which is driven by protecting its interests rather than ideology,” he said. “Egypt is not the same country too.”
Political analyst Samuel Plank said apart from losing its strategic place in Syria, Russia is generally keen on a strong presence in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. “Russian support of Sisi means cooperation with the Egyptian military establishment, which is tremendously powerful, both in terms of armament and the financial resources that it controls,” he wrote. “A partner with that level of strength gives Russia influence over the politics of the region.”
While acknowledging possible American consternation over growing cooperation between Egypt and Russia, Plank dismisses claims of the return of a “Cold War-style proxy battle.” It would “would require a tremendous amount of political capital” for Washington “to stage any intervention – diplomatic, economic, or otherwise – to regain the influence lost in Egypt,” he said.
The United States would also benefit from Egyptian-Russian cooperation in the war on terrorism in the region, which is seen as one of the main reasons for Sisi’s third visit to Moscow: “Russian cooperation with Egypt to target radical groups like the Islamic State does not undermine American foreign policy in the region.”
Journalist Emad al-Sayed said the recent alliance with Russia earned Egypt a lot of political gains that might not have been possible had Cairo “remained under the U.S. and European Union umbrella, or followed them in their relations with a strong country like Russia.”
Getting close to Moscow, Sayed said, played a major role in restoring Egypt’s relations with the West. “Egypt managed to partly restore the positive convergence with important international powers,” he said. “It recovered its strategic relations with the U.S. using the Egyptian-Russian convergence as its playing card, and got closer to main European powers such as Germany and France.”
Mohamed Abdel Qader, analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agreed about the impact of close ties with Russia on easing U.S.-Egyptian tension. “The U.S. is using political and military tools to re-incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood in the political scene. It froze some aid and military agreements. The decision to go East contributes to consolidating Egyptian-U.S. relations,” he said, calling the alliance with Russia “part of a consistent strategic plan.”
However, Abdel Qader said U.S.-Egyptian relations will never go back to the way they were under former President Hosni Mubarak.
Political science professor Mohamed Kamal said Sisi’s visit to Russia was far from confined to bilateral relations, as important as these were. “This visit has an important regional dimension, which mainly focuses on the Syrian crisis,” Kamal said.
“Russia is the country with the biggest influence on the Syrian regime and will, therefore, play a major role in resolving the conflict. This kind of influence is driving several countries in the region to seek closer ties with Russia.”
Strategic expert Mahmoud Zahr said Russia needed regional support to reach an agreement on Syria, and this was one of the topics to be discussed during the visit. “Russia is trying to formulate an initiative that would push the Syrian regime to hold presidential elections, and the inclusion of countries in the region is crucial since preserving the unity of Syrian territories is in their best interest.”
Alexander Shumilin, a Russian expert on the Middle East, said Iran was another contributing factor to establishing stronger ties between Cairo and Moscow: “Russia is the ideal mediator between Egypt and Iran, and will work on alleviating Egypt’s concerns over Iran and preparing for Iran’s integration into the region especially after the signing of the nuclear deal.”