This week’s visit to Egypt by Russian President Vladimir Putin was as much about both countries’ strained relations with Washington as it was about bilateral ties, which were boosted on several fronts.
Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pledged to strengthen military ties and cooperation against terrorism, and agreed to build Egypt’s first nuclear plant. It was reported that ending the use of the dollar in bilateral trade may have been on the table. Putin described Cairo as a “trusted partner”, and Sisi said Moscow was a “strategic friend”.
The visit was the latest sign of a burgeoning relationship not just between the two countries, but between the two presidents, who both have a military background and share an uncompromising, strongman style of governance. Putin endorsed Sisi’s presidential candidacy, and the latter’s first visit to a non-Arab country since the ouster of his predecessor Mohamed Morsi was to Russia.
This month, Egypt said it would sign a contract to receive 35 shipments of Russian liquefied natural gas until 2020. Bilateral trade reportedly increased by almost 50 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year.
In August, Putin promised to speed up delivery of billions of dollars in arms, and invited Cairo to forge free-trade ties with a Moscow-led customs bloc. In turn, Sisi invited Russia to play a greater role in Egypt’s recently unveiled multibillion dollar New Suez Canal project.
This blossoming relationship, which some compare to the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser turning to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, is a direct result of Cairo’s strained relations with Washington.
There is a misconception that the relationship cooled after Morsi’s ousting in July 2013. The process actually began during the revolution that toppled the widely reviled US ally Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, with Washington being accused of silence and sitting on the fence, and thereafter meddling in Egyptian affairs.
Despite unfounded allegations of US President Barack Obama’s sympathy with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, tensions continued during Morsi’s presidency, with US concern over “Islamist rule”, its impact on Israel and an Egyptian president pursuing a more independent foreign policy. In September 2012, during Morsi’s rule, Obama even said he no longer considered Egypt an ally.
However, bilateral tensions reached their zenith following Morsi’s ouster and the ensuing crackdown on dissent. Washington responded to the killing of protesters by suspending military aid to Cairo.
Although the suspension was only partial and temporary, Egypt’s government strongly condemned it and turned to Russia, which has been happy to fill the US void in the Arab world’s most populous nation, and one of the region’s most geopolitically important countries.
If the US would not provide weapons unconditionally, Cairo would get them from Russia, Washington's long-time competitor for influence in the Middle East.
Just a month after the suspension, and with Egypt’s then-foreign minister describing relations with Washington as in “turmoil”, Moscow’s foreign minister and defence minister met with their Egyptian counterparts in a landmark visit to Cairo to pursue arms sales.
The message was clear; if the US would not provide weapons unconditionally, Cairo would get them from Russia, Washington’s long-time competitor for influence in the Middle East. Defiance against Washington has played well domestically amid opinion polls showing widespread negative views among Egyptians towards the US.
That Russia cannot offer terms as preferential as Washington is countered by Egypt’s arms purchases reportedly being bankrolled by Gulf states, which have already given Cairo some $12bn in aid since Morsi’s ouster. This makes annual US aid of $1.3bn a relative drop in the bucket. Furthermore, Russian sales come with no strings attached.
This has led to a much more muted and conciliatory tone towards Cairo from the US, which used Sisi’s election as president as an opportunity to try to wipe the slate clean in order to shore up its waning influence.
The US is “loath to walk away from the country after investing tens of billions of dollars in a relationship with the Egyptian military for nearly four decades”, wrote Michele Dunne, senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Programme.
Indeed, in December, Congress passed a bill providing up to $1.4bn in mostly military aid to Egypt. Unlike the previous year’s bill, it includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore preconditions on democracy and human rights for national security reasons.
That means that the US is highly likely to resume turning a blind eye to Egypt’s human rights abuses, not that it has ever made a real issue out of it.
“Egypt’s new leaders have systematically reversed the fragile gains of the country’s 2011 uprising, jailing tens of thousands and squeezing the last remaining spaces for freedom of expression and assembly,” Human Rights Watch said last month. Sisi “has presided over a state of impunity that has allowed security forces to get away with mass killings”.
Such criticisms are likely to fall on deaf ears as the US and Russia vie for military, commercial and political influence in Egypt, while Gulf states provide a reliable safety net. Sisi’s strategy may be paying off in terms of deflecting external criticism, but it does nothing to alleviate internal grievances, including a brutal, draconian crackdown on dissent that has intensified and widened to include liberal as well as Islamist opposition.
The combination of iron-fisted rule and a reliance on outside powers gave birth to the Arab Spring. It is ironic, then, that Sisi owes his position to the very revolution whose goals he is betraying.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.