Russia’s defence and foreign ministers have ended a highly anticipated two-day visit to Cairo, with officials from both countries promising deeper ties but offering few specifics and making no mention of a much-rumoured multibillion-dollar arms deal.
The visit comes as many in Egypt begin to see Russia as a more reliable ally than the US, which has become increasingly unpopular because of its perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its mild criticism of the military’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi in July.
Posters of Russian President Vladimir Putin have become a common sight around the country, with the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper even publishing photographs on Thursday of a “Thanks, Putin” poster hung by residents of Luxor.
Sergey Lavrov and Nabil Fahmy, respectively the Russian and Egyptian foreign ministers, said at a press conference on Thursday morning that their meetings covered a range of issues, everything from foreign policy to tourism.
Lavrov has been a regular visitor to Cairo, but Sergei Shoigu is the first Russian defence minister to travel here since 1971, shortly before then-President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union and moved Egypt fully into America’s orbit.
“Egypt is not just a regional power, but a country with which Russia has long historical ties,” Lavrov said.
“We have been friends with the Egyptian people for decades.”
‘Great military power’
Much of the commentary this week was focused on talk of an arms deal, which would send a message that Egypt has alternatives to its decades-old military relationship with Washington.
One article, in the staunchly nationalist El-Watan, called Russia a “great military power” equal to the US, even suggesting that Russian-made weapons could be “more environmentally-friendly”.
“A bilateral visit by the ministers of defence and foreign affairs, at the same time, this represents a very important political message to the world,” Badr Abdel Atty, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said.
But Russian and Egyptian officials both played down tensions with the US this week.
“Our strategy is to expand, not to replace one party with another,” Abdel Atty said.
Lavrov himself rejected the idea that Russia would be “an alternative”.
The visit, in other words, is an attempt by both Russia and Egypt to assert themselves amid a growing power vacuum in the Middle East, but it is unlikely to signal a major break with the US by the interim government in Cairo.
“Egypt for many years has been a secondary Arab power. It has been sidelined since Camp David,” said Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East Expert at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
“But with the Arab world in disarray, perhaps they can resume their traditional role.”
Russia was Egypt’s closest ally during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled from 1956 until his death in 1970.
He became popular with the Soviet Union for his statist economic programme and a foreign policy that was often critical of the West.
The Soviets provided not just military support but economic aid, playing a major role in the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Nasser himself was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest decoration, during a 1964 visit to Cairo by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
“It was a reliable ally in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was Egypt that went away from the Soviet Union at the time, not vice versa,” said Nourhan el-Sheikh, a political science professor at Cairo University who has met previous Russian delegations to Cairo.
Sadat started the split when he unilaterally expelled tens of thousands of Soviet military advisers in 1972.
The divorce was finalised two years later, when US President Richard Nixon visited Cairo, cementing a political [if not popular] alliance that would endure for decades.
But during the past three years the US has managed to alienate almost every political actor in Egypt. It was slow to support the revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
It backed a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that was democratically elected but became increasingly unpopular, and was eventually toppled by the military after massive popular protests that began on June 30.
Since the coup, the US has levied mild criticism at its longtime allies in the Egyptian army, culminating in an October decision to suspend some of its $1.5bn in annual military aid.
“Egypt didn’t abandon the US. They abandoned us,” said el-Sheikh.
“They supported the Muslim Brotherhood and criticised the revolution of June 30 … Russia did not.”
A small ‘pivot’
Still, analysts and officers say it is unlikely that Egypt can pivot to Russia as its main military supplier. After decades of close ties, the armed forces are to some extent “locked into” American-made hardware.
The mainstay of the air force, for example, is the American-made F-16: It operates 240 of the jets, which make up nearly three-quarters of Egypt’s combat aircraft.
The army has more than 2,800 American M1 and M60 tanks, compared with around 800 Russian-made models, the newest of which is nearly a decade old.
The ties also extend beyond military hardware. Hundreds of Egyptian officers train each year in the US; Sisi himself studied at the US Army War College in 2006.
“It can pivot in a small circle, as it still operates some Russian-made equipment,” said Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s armed forces and a professor in the department of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
“But it depends on the US for sustainment of its fixed-wing, US-supplied aircraft, tanks, and helicopters, among other items.”
It also remains unclear how Egypt plans to afford major new weapons purchases.
Much of its American-made equipment is essentially free, paid for through the annual military aid. But a big contract with Russia would put a dent in Egypt’s foreign reserves, which, though bolstered by $12bn in aid from Gulf states since July, still stand at just half their January 2011 level of $36bn.
And the recent tensions between Washington and Cairo already seem to be easing. US Secretary of State John Kerry barely mentioned the toppling of Morsi in a November 3 visit to Cairo, and seemed almost apologetic over the aid cuts.
Earlier this week, General Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, gave a rare interview to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Tohamy said there has been “no change” in relations with US spy agencies since the coup. But the choice of Ignatius, a writer close to the US foreign-policy establishment, suggested that Tohamy wanted to send a positive message to Washington.
‘Ready to come on board’
Beyond arms deals, Egypt’s interim government also hopes to expand economic ties with Russia.
Bilateral trade was just $3.5bn last year, a figure Russian diplomats said they hope to increase to $10bn by the end of the decade.
Lavrov on Thursday mentioned several investment projects that were already in the works before Morsi’s overthrow, with Russia planning to support the construction of new power plants in Egypt.
Foreign policy was also on the agenda, particularly the Syrian civil war. Mirsky, the Russian expert, suggested that the interim government in Cairo could move closer to Moscow’s position.
Morsi was a staunch critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: He made a controversial appearance at a June conference organised by Islamist groups “in support of the Syrian uprising”, at which several speakers urged Egyptians to support rebels fighting against Assad.
His appearance there made the army uncomfortable, and has been cited by officers as one of the reasons for the coup. The new government has taken a more restrained line on Syria, allowing Assad to reopen his embassy in Cairo.
“Under the Muslim Brotherhood regime, it was impossible to come to an agreement, because they supported the rebels against Assad,” Mirsky said.
“But now maybe the new regime will not be so anti-Assad … [so] they could put out some feelers, to make out whether Egypt will be ready to come on board.”