The Russian "Comeback" to Egypt

Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived to Cairo for a two-day visit, in a move aimed at bolstering bilateral ties with Egypt. Dr. Shaul Shay outlines the implications for the region in light of Egypt's quest for a nuclear program and the setback in relations with Washington

On February 9, 2015, Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived to Cairo for a two-day visit, in a move aimed at bolstering bilateral ties with Egypt. Putin last visited Egypt a decade ago in 2005, when Hosni Mubarak was president.

The Russian head of state was welcomed by President El-Sisi at the capital's airport. Russia's President Vladimir Putin was honored at the presidential palace of Qasr El-Qobba, in east Cairo, on February 10, the second day of his first visit to Egypt. A 21-gun salute and a military parade featuring officers on horseback greeted Putin, as he entered the vicinity of Qasr El-Qobba palace. Putin was the first president to be received at the 19th-century Qasr El-Qobba palace instead of the Itihadiya palace since the 2011 popular revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. A Kalashnikov rifle was Vladimir Putin's gift to Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.

Many pro-regime Egyptians are fond of Putin for his unconditional public support for Egyptian president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Russia was also one of the first countries to endorse Sisi's presidential bid in 2014. Egypt’s state newspaper printed a long feature about Putin that called him “a hero of our era”. El-Sisi said at the press conference: "We see in Russia a strategic friend and a real asset to balanced foreign relations for Egypt."

El -Sisi himself visited Russia soon after ousting Morsi as a defense minister amid deteriorating relations with Washington, and followed it up with another trip in August 2014 as president. Cairo also hosted the Russian defense and foreign ministers in November 2014, the first such visit since the Soviet era, for discussions on an Egyptian arms purchase plan.

Egypt – U.S relations

On more than one occasion, the US has withheld parts of its $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt in objection to the toppling of Morsi, a president who was democratically elected to office in June 2012.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, faced harsh criticism from Washington for his deadly crackdown on dissent since Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the then army chief in July 2013. Hundreds of Morsi's supporters have been killed and thousands imprisoned in a crackdown since his ouster.

However in recent months Washington has warmed to Cairo again and resumed its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, also delivering Apache helicopter gunships to fight jihadists in Sinai.

The nuclear power plant

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have signed an agreement for Russia to construct a nuclear power plant to generate electricity in Egypt. At a press conference, Putin said that "if final decisions are reached" regarding the power plant, construction would start straight away. He said the project would include capacity building and studies. Egypt's president, El-Sisi said Russia had great experience in nuclear power.

Military cooperation

The heads of the two countries also discussed "endorsing military cooperation" and a collaborative approach to combating the "spread of terrorism". An arms deal has continually been mooted between Egypt and Russia over the past two years, but has not been conclusively sealed.

The last two years have seen the most intensive exchange of visits between Cairo and Moscow since 1970.

In August 2014 president El-Sisi met with president Putin at Putin's summer residence in Sochi. The two discussed Russia supplying weapons to Egypt.

Cairo also hosted the Russian defense and foreign ministers in November 2014, for discussions on an Egyptian arms purchase plan. At the time, Russian media said the two sides were close to signing a $3-billion deal for Moscow to supply arms.

Cairo and Moscow are still discussing delivery arrangements for S-300VM, Tor M-1 and Bok M-2 air defense systems, Mi-17 combat helicopters, missiles, MiG-29 and Sukhoi-35 combat aircraft and the Yak-130 military training aircraft.

Discussions are also ongoing over upgrading Russian equipment that has been a part of the Egyptian arsenal since the middle of the last century and there is also talk of a licensing agreement for the domestic production of Kalashnikov rifles.

Investments and projects

The leaders paid special attention to ramping up trade and economic ties between the two countries. Investment projects are to include an Egyptian-Russian industrial zone to be established in Suez Canal area and infrastructure development. Putin said that around 3 million Russians visited Egypt in 2014, a 50 percent increase compared to past years.

Putin was expected to hold discussions about ending the use of the US dollar in bilateral trade between Egypt and Russia.

Collaboration between a Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya and Egypt's state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper was also reported to be scheduled for discussion. On February Al-Ahram newspaper has ran a full-page article headlined "Putin - hero of this era".

Regional matters

Putin and El-Sisi have discussed the main regional matters: Iraq, Syria and Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I am convinced that a multi-faceted dialogue between Russia and Egypt will continue to deepen and expand for the benefit of the peoples of our countries, for the sake of peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa," said Putin in an interview with Al-Ahram daily newspaper on February 9, 2015.

El-Sisi meanwhile took the opportunity to praise his counterpart's stance on Egypt in an interview with the Russian state-owned newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "In recent months special value has been attached to the position adopted by President Putin, who supports Egypt in matters relating to the fight against terrorism and is aware of the real situation in our country," he said. "It is on such understanding that our relations need to be built."

Summary and conclusions

Cairo has sought to strengthen its ties with Moscow, against the backdrop of strained ties with its long-time ally Washington, since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Both sides, though interested in forming stronger relations, primarily seek to signal to the international community that their foreign policies are not to be dictated by others. Putin wants to show that he’s not isolated and he still has allies, and Egypt's primary interest in hosting Putin is to show that it is not beholden to US foreign policy.

Diversifying the sources of Egypt’s armaments became a priority among state strategists after the 30 June Revolution. Overreliance on one provider was now seen as shortsighted. Egypt was also keen to ensure its armaments policy responded to international political developments, including the growing influence of China and Russia.

The need to diversify was driven home by Washington’s growing tendency to link arms sales to political developments. The US first called off the Bright Star joint military exercises and then halted the delivery of arms purchases to Egypt and suspended maintenance and training. Egypt responded by turning to Russia, China, Germany and France.

In a speech in September 2014, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said that electricity production and distribution were not developed enough to keep up with consumption. The speech was a response to a large-scale power outage in various parts of the country, part of an ongoing power crisis that has seen recurrent power outages nationwide throughout the summer.

The growing need for energy is not the only motivation behind Egypt’s interest in a nuclear power program. Egypt sees itself as the leader of the Arab world; therefore a decision to pursue nuclear energy serves political purposes domestically as well as internationally. Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear activities could elicit a regional nuclear race, as Tehran’s traditional rivals in the Middle East —Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf states — could counter the Iranian threat with nuclear programs of their own.

Israel is quietly stepping up its military co-operation with Egypt as both countries confront security threats from jihadist groups in the Sinai region and Hamas in Gaza strip. But Egypt continues to see Israel as its primary military potential threat despite a decades-old peace treaty.

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