What Does Putin’s Visit to Egypt Promise for the Middle East?


Putin’s visit to Egypt at a time when Russia has a growing rift with the US and the Western Europe over Ukraine may carry some significant messages. ...

Putin’s visit to Egypt at a time when Russia has a growing rift with the US and the Western Europe over Ukraine may carry some significant messages. The increasing Russian presence in the East Mediterranean may also have potentials to change fragile balances in the Middle East. At the first instance it looks as if the rest of the world witnessed “much pomp“ rather than expecting much hope for the existing circumstances[1].

The Pomp, which Lacked the Fine Tune at the Beginning

The “Pomp" began with the cacophonic orchestration of the Russian National Anthem, at the routine greeting ceremony, which did not move a single muscle on Putin’s face, but was ridiculed by the world audience. Indeed, beyond a visit of courtesy with some material attachments regarding bilateral trade and investment between Russia and Egypt, it may not have a particular significance, since it is still not yet another cold war era, and the Camp David accords are still very much alive and effective to keep peace between Egypt and Israel.

The Russian-Egyptian Alliance is not Unheard of

Even when Egypt was ruled by the Ottomans, the Russian Empire had interest in Egypt with the pretext of establishing connections with the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church, and found a niche of influence in that country by hiding behind religious affinity. Centuries of Russian support to the Coptic population of Egypt transformed into political support to the Khedive Mohammed Ali against the Ottoman Empire in due time.

The Russian-Egyptian relations had evolved to become secular during the Soviet period, after two countries engaged in diplomatic relations in 1943. Throughout the Nasser period from 1950 to early 1970s Egypt enjoyed the Soviet aid and assistance particularly in the area of education and security.

Business not as Usual after Nasser

The Soviet Union and Egypt had remained close until Sadat replaced Nasser in 1971. Even though new friendship treaties tried to ensure the continuation of the status quo, the bilateral relations between Egypt and the Soviet Union had become particularly tense, after the Egyptian government expelled the Soviet instructors in 1976 and had completely stagnated after the Camp David peace accords were signed and ratified between Egypt and Israel. In the aftermath of the Camp David accords Egypt untied knots with the Soviet Union to accept the influence of, and establish closer ties with the US and its Western European allies.

Business as Usual Despite the Spring Storms

Nevertheless during the Mubarak period the relations were reestablished with the Russian Federation and had been put back in the right track with the mutual state contacts, after Putin’s visit to Egypt in 2005, and Mubarak reciprocated in 2008.

The creation of a nuclear program in Egypt was first pronounced those years only for peaceful, civilian purposes and the Mursi visit of Moscow in 2013 highlighted the down of a renewed friendship between Egypt and Russia.

In 2014 after the ousting of Mursi of the office, the Al Sisi led government reiterated the enthusiasm of Egypt to upgrade the Russian-Egyptian relations and showed enthusiasm to elevate it to the level of the Soviet times. Four rounds of state visits dominated the regional and global agendas, when the Russia-Egypt handshake meant increased bilateral cooperation, sales of arms, which reached $ 3.4 billion as of September 2014, and restarting the Russian technological and military assistance once more to Egypt.

Prospects for Spring Showers

As long as the US conditional aid to Egypt continues, Egypt (Al Sisi) may continue to pursue balanced relations with Russia and the West at the same time. From time to time, a double game on Egypt’s part may be expected, which opens options for some black mailing of the US for more aid or to make the existing aid "unconditional“. A Russian-led nuclear power program in Alexandria should be expected to start soon for civilian purposes. Whether Egypt takes the model of Iran or Turkey with respect to Israel and the Western Europe is not entirely up to Egypt, but it is enforced by the US aid to Egypt.

A Kalashnikov as a Gift?

The gift giving of a fine Kalashnikov at the latest meeting in Cairo caught the eye as it renewed about a 3.5 $ billion- arms sales promise to Egypt. Where or against which targets Egypt is planning to utilize those arms may be an important question to ask. Most likely to be against the terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula However, it needs to be scrutinized further.

Bilateral trade (non-arms and non energy) between Russia and Egypt should be expected to pick up too. Russia is likely to replace what Egypt looses in trade because of its soured relations with Turkey. Russia will probably be exporting wheat and, whatever it can, in return for good Egyptian cotton and textiles. The Ricardian trade however will not dominate the once again renewed Russian-Egyptian relations but economics of geopolitics would.

What more Russia Hopes in the East Mediterranean through Egypt?

There is also the possibility that Putin wants to have a balanced relationship with Egypt and Israel at the same time, after all Russia wants to have its controlling hand over the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas "exclusive zones“, which include, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and who knows Gaza(back yard of Egypt). Through Syria and Cyprus, Russia had already been there before the Putin "Pomp" appeared once more in Cairo. Now the bracket is closed and the Russian presence is consolidated in the East Mediterranean. If it helps balance the global power game in the region and bring some peace and quiet the idea should be welcomed.

[1] Mark, Katz(11Ffebruary, 2015), “Putin’s Visit to Egypt: Much Pomp but Little Circumstance“, Atlantic Council, see http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/egyptsource/putin-s-visit-to-egypt

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