The visit by a top Russian delegation to Egypt on Thursday has signalled a possible major shift in Cairo’s foreign policy, consolidating ties with old allies and reducing reliance on the United States.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with their counterparts in Cairo for the first time in decades.
The visit, which comes a month after Washington suspended part of its annual military aid to Egypt, aims to boost economic, political and security ties between Russia and Egypt.
“We look forward to cooperation with Russia in multiple fields, because of Russia’s significance in the international arena,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told reporters after meeting with Lavrov.
Fahmy added that “Russia’s weight is too heavy to be a substitute for anyone,” in reference to the United States, the Associated Press reported.
Fahmy had said a day before that the visit of the Russian delegation “is an important political message that reflects care, appreciation and respect for Egypt and its history.”
Egypt’s new rulers are displeased with the lack of strong support from U.S. President Barak Obama and his European allies for the military-backed ouster of President Mohammad Mursi.
The United States and European countries have criticized the deadly crackdown on protesters, and have called for the release of political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency.
The Obama administration even suspended the delivery of some large-scale military systems, as well as $260 million to Egypt’s military-backed leaders.
Political observers said the U.S. move is what prompted Egypt’s rapprochement with Russia, but it is unlikely that Cairo will drift too far away from the United States.
“Egypt is undergoing a period of political change, and accordingly, has the right to seek balance in its foreign relations,” Mohamed Gomaa, a political analyst at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al Arabiya News.
“Egypt’s foreign affairs are being restructured, but relations with Russia shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for ties with the United States,” Gomaa said.
“The current Egyptian decision-makers have no intention to drift away from the U.S. at this period,” he added.
Gehad Auda, a professor of political science at Helwan University and the British University in Cairo, said rapprochement between Russia and Egypt is subject to the consent of the United States.
“International relations in the Middle East are subject to agreement between world powers,” Auda said. “Thus, Egypt-Russia relations won’t conflict with U.S. interests in the region.”
Unlike the Cold War era, nowadays Russian and American interests are capable of co-existing, he added.
Egypt enjoyed strong relations with the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1970s, under Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat.
Under Nasser, the Soviet Union provided Egypt with weapons, and supported infrastructure projects such as the Aswan high dam. Egypt waged the 1973 war against Israel using Russian weapons.
When Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt was rewarded with an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military and economic aid, bringing Cairo closer to Washington than Moscow.
Gomaa said such Cold War tactics of allying with one major power against another will not succeed today, and Egypt should not think of doing so.
Cairo can depend on Russia as a complementary source of military hardware, he added. Unlike the United States, however, Russia is interested in selling weapons to the Egyptian army, not donating them.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a high-ranking official in the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport as saying arms deliveries would depend on Cairo’s ability to pay for them.
Since Mursi’s ouster in July, Egypt’s economy has survived on international aid, mainly from the wealthy Arab Gulf states.
Ongoing unrest has dealt a major blow to the country’s various economic sectors and drained the state budget, making any major spending on the army unlikely.