Russia-Egypt relations: Farewell to old alliances?

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.”

The West

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.

Regional dimension

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.”

Can the Pink Taxi solve Egypt’s harassment problem?

For years, Egypt has been grappling with the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment. Rights organizations have launched a wide range of initiatives mainly aimed at encouraging women to report verbal and physical harassment. While recent jail sentences against men proven guilty of sexual harassment have been greeted with relative optimism, preventive measures on the ground remain lacking.

The introduction of the women-only Pink Taxi is, in this sense, seen as a positive step toward making Egyptian women feel safer in public. The ability of the project to tackle such a large-scale problem has, however, been questioned from the outset.


Azza Kamel, a women’s rights activist and head of the Appropriate Communication Techniques center (ACT), said the Pink Taxi “encourages segregation of the sexes, and this undermines the cause of fighting against harassment. Women have the right to feel safe while men are around. It is a society made up of men and women, and they have to coexist safely.” Kamel expressed concern that the project would promote segregation as a means of solving the problem in other fields such as education.

Intesar al-Saeid, a lawyer and director of the Cairo Center for Development and Human Rights, said the project promoted taking Egyptian women back to “the era of the harem,” and widened the class gap.

“The Pink Taxi is only for women who can afford taking taxis, and ignores other women who use public transportation,” she said, adding that all such projects are useless if the law is not strictly applied to sexual offenders, and if no effort is made to change the culture of Egyptian society.

Journalist Wael Abdel Fattah also used the word “harem” in reference to the project. “What this project does is locking women up instead of changing their surroundings,” he wrote. “The Pink Taxi only highlights the gravity of the problem but will never solve it.” Abdel Fattah compared the Pink Taxi to upscale gated communities in which people “pay millions to isolate themselves from the rest of the community,” and called both “a consumerist” way of escaping the problem.

In addition to agreeing that the project undermines calls for gender equality, sociology professor Ahmed Yehia Abdel Hamid finds the Pink Taxi less safe. “A taxi with women only is more subject to acts of aggression like harassment and kidnapping,” he said. “This will especially be the case if the taxi breaks down in a deserted area.”

Nehad Abul Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women Rights, said the project would not give women more freedom, as it claims. “Starting such a tradition will lead women to see taxis driven by men as dangerous, and there will never be enough pink taxis to accommodate women who use taxis,” she said. “The end result is that women will become more restricted and more isolated.”


Fouad al-Saeid of the National Center for Social and Criminological Research said: “In a city like Cairo, our priority should be looking for as many practical solutions as possible to the problems, and the Pink Taxi is one such solution.”

He added that separating men and women in public transportation is not new. “For years, we’ve had women-only cars in the Cairo subway and this protects them from harassment.” Saeid said the project promotes equality by allowing women to occupy jobs customarily reserved for men, such as driving taxis.

Pink Taxi driver Inas Hassan said women feel much more at ease when the driver is also female. “We talk about women issues, and if they are tired they would sleep through the trip, which is something they don’t do if the driver is a man,” she said. “Also, when they know me, they trust me with their children, also something they wouldn’t do with male drivers. I once drove a third-grade child from east of Cairo all the way to the west.”

Professor of political sociology Saeid al-Sadeq said the project was the inevitable result of the security vacuum that followed the Jan. 25 revolution, which led to an increase in sexual harassment among other crimes. “Women were not only harassed but sometimes kidnapped, and many of them were grounded because they are afraid of taking a taxi, especially that women in Egypt are not trained to defend themselves against assaults,” he said.

Sadeq added that the Pink Taxi was one of the immediate reactions that would solve the problem at the moment, until further long-term actions are taken. “While providing those solutions, we can start working on other issues like the phenomenon of moral deterioration among youths in Egyptian streets.”

Despite supporting the project as a means of giving women more freedom of movement, Mona Abdel Radi, spokesperson for the Women of Egypt Front, criticized restricting the service to relatively well-to-do women. “The project needs to be implemented on a larger scale so that, for example, women-only buses are made available,” she said.

The Brotherhood’s Istanbul conference: Turkey’s message to Egypt?

The Conference for Countering Despotism and Bloodshed, held on Aug. 8-9 in Istanbul, slammed Egypt’s government – referred to as “the coup” – for its clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood during the past two years. It was organized by the Union for Sunni Scholars, an association known to be pro-Brotherhood, and hosted affiliated Islamic associations.

The closing statement, read out by a number of leading preachers, said Egypt’s government was illegitimate, so “people should not abide by any of the state’s decrees and should, instead, strive to rise against them.” The statement, which accused the government of state terrorism and crimes against humanity, specifically slammed death sentences against Brotherhood leaders, including former President Mohammad Mursi.

“These are politicized sentences and if they are executed the consequences are bound to be grave on the domestic, regional, and international levels,” said the statement. “Stopping the execution of those sentences is a legitimate, moral, and human right.” The statement argued that by “waging a war against Islam,” the state drove Egyptians to either atheism or extremism.

It said Aug. 14, which marks the second anniversary of the dispersal of protest sit-ins in Cairo, would be a day of “popular uprising against tyranny” under the leadership of Islamic scholars. The statement held the government responsible for the death in jail of Essam Derbala, a former Islamist militant and leading figure in the movement Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya: “When you intentionally stop giving a sick man his medication, then this is pre-meditated murder for which you will burn in hell.”

The statement delivered “a message for the apostate Abdel Fatah al-Sisi [Egypt’s president]: You are a criminal and a murderer… you and all your thugs from ministers of interior all the way down to prison wardens. You are all murderers.”


Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa, the governmental body in charge of issuing religious edicts, said the conference was another attempt by Islamist factions to legitimize violence and spread chaos across the country. “This is especially clear in the choice of venue. Turkey’s hostility towards Egypt is no secret and so is the role it is trying to play in the region,” said a statement issued by the Fatwa Monitoring Observatory at Dar al-Iftaa.

The statement said the conference “was attended by the most extremist of Islamist preachers who are willing to receive foreign funding to further their goals.” It cited the focus on the Sunni nature of the conference as proof of collaboration between factions of political Islam and external powers. “This rhetoric corresponds to foreign agendas that aim to divide the region along sectarian lines.”

Al-Azhar deputy Abbas Shouman objected to conference participants presenting themselves as representatives of Sunni scholars: “Who gave them the right to claim this? Isn’t Al-Azhar the world’s biggest Sunni institution?” Shouman said what was common among participants was not that they were Sunni scholars, but that they were all members or supporters of the Brotherhood. “Was there one single scholar there who wasn’t tied to the Brotherhood?”

Emirati writer Mariam al-Kaabi said the conference was one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tools to achieve his regional ambitions under the pretext of religion. “Turkey hosted a conference whose main purpose is inciting violence against Egypt and its leaders because Erdogan cannot let go of his dream of restoring the Islamic caliphate under his leadership and is using religion and sectarianism to achieve this goal,” she wrote. Kaabi adding that the Brotherhood was Turkey’s main agent in weakening Egypt’s regional influence. “Turkey has been helping the Muslim Brotherhood in every possible way.”

Former Brotherhood leader Tarek al-Bishbishi said the group “wants to ward off the charge of terrorism by holding conferences in which members and supporters of the group condemn extremism and highlight the difference between the Brotherhood and other militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS].”

The Brotherhood, Bishbishi added, was now fighting for survival. “In addition to proving it isn’t a terrorist group, the Brotherhood is also desperate to seek help from sympathetic countries so it can guarantee it won’t be eliminated,” he said. “This shows the group is starting to realize that its end is near.”

How significant is Egypt’s ‘New Suez Canal’ to the world?

Preparations for the inauguration of the new Suez Canal are being accompanied by a variety of nationwide festivities for a project marketed by the state as the most vital since the High Dam, and the biggest triumph since the 1973 war with Israel.

Main squares across Egypt are decorated, statues are erected at the entrances of canal cities, and the site of the canal is being prepared for a gala event to be attended by VIPs from around the globe.

Meanwhile, TV channels display the countdown to the inauguration as they broadcast patriotic songs, some made especially for the occasion, and host analysts who innumerate the benefits of the canal. Yet amid this jovial ambiance, a few skeptical voices can still be heard, questioning how representative the propaganda is of the actual value of “Egypt’s gift to the world.”

Wael Kaddour, a former member of the Suez Canal Authority, criticized completion of the canal in one year instead of three.

“Cutting construction time doubled the expenses,” he said, referring to the 19.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.49 billion) that constitute the total excavation cost.

Kaddour explained the motivation behind the timing thus: “The project was announced at a time of instability and political divisions. A national mega project was necessary to unite Egyptians over a common cause.”

Rasha Qennawi, a member of the Popular Front for the Suez Canal Corridor, said: “Instead of building a new canal, the area surrounding the old one could’ve been fully developed. This is what would really increase economic growth, job opportunities, and the state’s resources.”

Khaled Abdel Fattah, an economic expert and professor of investment, said the project, which he called a “branch” rather than a canal, would not benefit Egypt’s economy. “Talk about increasing the revenue of the canal is incorrect. There’s no relation between revenue and the digging of a branch of the Suez Canal,” he said, adding that revenue is only linked to global trade.

“Only 1-2 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal, and the new branch will not increase it.”

Economic expert Mamdouh al-Wali said global trade has been receding in 2015, and this will reflect on revenue. “For example, economic problems in the Euro zone led to a decrease in demand, hence a decrease in imports, and the Ministry of Finance admitted that this is bound to affect Egyptian exports and traffic in the Suez Canal,” he said.

Wali added that from 2009, the number of vessels crossing the canal daily had decreased to 47 in 2014. “This means there was no need for another canal, since the old one isn’t working with full capacity,” which is 76 vessels daily.


Economic expert Fakhri al-Feqi said according to feasibility studies, the revenue of the canal is expected to rise from $5.3 billion to $13.5 billion over the coming eight years. “Global trading is expected to increase by more than 10 percent with the opening of the new canal, because with the digging of another waterway the waiting time of each vessel will be minimized,” he said, adding that the new canal is the first step toward developing the surrounding area.

Adel Amer, chairman of Al-Masreyin Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said: “This is a mega project that isn’t limited to the digging of a passageway. The entire area will be developed, and a vital trade center will be established. Think of the job opportunities this would bring.” Amer added that the new project would allow the Suez Canal to compete with the Panama Canal.

Businessman and economic analyst Hussein Sabbour said the new canal aborted foreign conspiracies against Egypt. “There was a scheme to divert traffic from the Suez Canal, and Egypt had to act quickly,” he said. “Plus, because of climate change a new trade route is expected to emerge in the North Pole in the coming 50 years, so Egypt had to take serious steps toward utilizing the strategic location of the canal.”

Sabbour added that the construction of the new canal, and the presence of dignitaries from all over the world at the opening, will attract investors to Egypt and open the door for more projects that will boost the economy.

Economic researcher Hisham Khalil said the new canal is a mega project that cannot be underestimated. “Constructing the canal in one year is indeed an engineering miracle, and we have to give credit to all those who worked on completing it and accepted such a tough challenge,” he wrote.

The problem, he said, was not the canal itself but the priorities. “The topmost priority of the state should be human beings – their health and education. This is the most important investment” he wrote. “Yet the state seems to care more about publicity.”

Khalil said while the new canal was a major achievement and the state must have meant well when it initiated it, the project could have been postponed until more important problems that require huge funds were solved. “The state acted like a man with 10 children who decided to send one of them to Harvard while the other nine are starved.”

The curious case of Egypt’s banned preacher Mohamed Gibril

“May God avenge us on those who spilt our blood and orphaned our children… May God avenge us on corrupt politicians, those who oppressed us, violated the sanctity of our homes… May God avenge us on tyrants and despots,” said preacher Mohamed Gibril in the sermon he delivered at a Cairo mosque in the last week of the holy month of Ramadan.

Gibril dedicated just under half the 40-minute sermon to “corrupt politicians who divided the Egyptian people,” and particularly those “who killed youths in the squares” and “imprisoned thousands unjustly.”

He pleaded with God to help the families of martyrs, detainees and exiles. Gibril cried while reciting the supplication, and a large number of worshippers followed suit as they repeated: “Amen.” Shortly after, Gibril was banned from preaching in Egypt, then banned from leaving the country.

“We’ll never allow places of worship to be used for political purposes,” said Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, who decreed the ban against Gibril. “Mixing politics with religion has inflicted a lot of harm on the country, and we need to make sure this never happens again.”

Gomaa equated Gibril’s sermon with the previous use of mosques for electoral campaigning by the Muslim Brotherhood, and said the ministry would monitor mosques across Egypt and take serious measures against any that allow political talk during sermons.

“The ministry will request that Egyptian TV doesn’t broadcast any of Gibril’s sermons, and that no Arab country or no country at war with terrorism allows him to preach at its mosques. We won’t give him another chance to emotionally manipulate the people,” Gomaa said, adding that anyone proven to help Gibril deliver sermons or give religious lessons would be penalized.

The ministry filed a complaint against Gibril, accusing him of “supporting extremism” and citing his use of expressions previously used by Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei, such as comparing government officials and pro-government journalists to “the pharaoh’s sorcerers.”

Mohamed al-Shahat al-Guindi, a member of the Islamic Center for Research, said Gibril was serving the Brotherhood’s agenda, even if unintentionally. “Instead of calling upon the Egyptians to unite, he’s turning them against each other through inciting supplications,” he said. “This is exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood wants: to see Egyptians divided.” Guindi said the Brotherhood also took advantage of the incident to attack the regime. “Now they’re saying the Egyptian state is persecuting religious figures, and this isn’t true.”

Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Saeid Raslan said whoever attacked the Egyptian state was a “traitor,” and this applied to Gibril. “If you find a preacher attacking the state, then be sure he has a hidden agenda and wants to incite sedition among the people,” he said, adding that worshippers who responded to Gibril were also traitors because they support his scheme.
Raslan accused Gibril of ingratitude since he attacked the very government that gave him the opportunity to become a renowned preacher. “How did he get to preach at the first mosque in the African continent?” Raslan asked, referring to Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque in Egypt’s old capital Fustat. “Is that how he repays the state that raised him to this rank?”


TV anchor Tamer Amin said Gibril’s penalty was in no way equal to his offense. “Yes, he made a mistake when he mixed religion with politics, but it was enough to suspend him or refer him to a disciplinary committee. Banning him from traveling is taking it a little too far,” Amin said, adding that Gibril’s offense was administrative, not criminal. “This way the state isn’t abiding by the law, and is only demonstrating that opposition won’t be tolerated.”

Journalist Reda Hamouda said Gibril’s punishment was part of a plan by the state to eliminate all Islamist voices, which he argued constitute the main opposition bloc against the current government. “This is despite the fact that this same regime came to power through opposition,” Hamouda wrote. “It looks as if the regime is worried that what it did to its predecessor would be done to it if it does not eliminate voices of dissent.”

While agreeing that Gibril had an agenda when he included politics in his sermon, journalist Emad al-Din Hussein criticized the state for its reaction. “Through its exaggerated response, the state made a sermon heard by a few people the talk of the town, and made a hero out of Gibril,” he wrote. “If he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, then this is the best propaganda ever for them.”

Hussein said the state looked extremely insecure when it took such extreme measures without tangible proof of who Gibril meant in his sermon. “The question that inevitably poses itself now is: Why was the state infuriated with a preacher who prays to God against tyrants?”

Political activist Gamal Eid sarcastically responded to the measures against Gibril with a counter-supplication: “May God grant tyrants victory and endow despots with strength. May God avenge us on those who seek justice and strike the insightful with blindness and cast his fury upon supporters of democracy.”