Egypt key to Russia’s resurgence in Middle East
The reinforcement of ties between Egypt and Russia opens a wide landscape for Russia to strengthen its positions in the region
Sisi won the presidential election in Egypt with remarkable results that demonstrate a high level of national confidence in the former general. While head of the Egyptian army, he played a key role in ousting the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi in July 2013, following mass protests against the Islamist president and his government. Widely criticized by the West, he has gained incredible popularity and support in Egyptian society even amid his brutal reprisals against the Brotherhood.
Al-Sisi and Abdel Nasser
After making his appearance on the Egyptian political scene as well as in the global arena, al-Sisi has been compared more often than not with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many experts and journalists debate the possibility and reasonability of such a comparison, while al-Sisi, now president elect, has avowed himself that he wishes he were Nasser.
Putting aside all the arguments on whether the comparison is possible, it should be noted that the two have enough in common: won power due to a military coup, fought the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrate patriotism, nationalism, charisma, Western-skepticism and are leadership-driven.
Moreover, and forming the framework of al-Sisi’s election, the current international tensions between Russia and the West and broad geopolitical games are reminiscent of the Cold War era. Even the apparent convergence with Russia seems to be a rebirth of the bilateral ties between Egypt and the Soviet Union during Nasser’s rule.
Despite the similarities, the key differences are evident. Russia will never be the former Soviet Union again, the bipolar world and old-styled Cold War between rival blocs are over, today’s international system is much more complicated and, for sure, Egypt itself is not the same Egypt it once was. And al-Sisi is much weaker then Nasser was.
Al-Sisi and Putin
But, for sure, some echoes from history (ties between the former Soviet Union and Nasser’s Egypt were strong) will determine the character of relations between the Russia of Putin and the Egypt of al-Sisi but not only that. The two leaders have much in common: both are very charismatic, have backgrounds in the field of intelligence, skeptic of the West, and are nationalists and patriots who insist on the principles of sovereignty and independent policy-making at the foreign and domestic levels.
At the same time the modern Egypt is seeking diversification of its foreign policy and is interested in the development of stable relations at all levels that can help ensure it enjoys a balanced position on the world stage as well as internal prosperity and development.
But the skeptical position of Western leaders, a good illustration of which is that on al-Sisi’s inauguration there will mostly be low-level representation on their part – such a short-sighted policy that undermines the meaning of al-Sisi’s role for Egypt and for the region – can finally bring to the fore the titling in Egyptian foreign policy toward Russia and other major non-Western players.
But it’s useless to deny that Egypt depends on aid from the West, notably from the United States. Therefore, it is still more likely that al-Sisi will try to find a way to balance the different players, especially during a long and complex period during the country’s recovery. And for sure the West will try to find approaches to the new leader for Egyptian help in resolving major regional problems from terrorism to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, experts, diplomats and politicians from both sides are waiting for a breakthrough in bilateral relations between two countries.
The key vectors of cooperation that will strike the keynote for the future development of bilateral ties between Cairo and Moscow are military cooperation, which began with a $3 billion arms deal and the decision to conduct joint military exercises in 2015, as well as in energy with a small but nonetheless significant deal on natural gas (seven shipments) from Russia to Egypt in 2015.
The latter cooperation could probably go much further as Russia is considering expanding its natural gas interests in North Africa and the Middle East.
Russian officials stress that Egypt is seen as one of Moscow’s key partners in the region and in the Arab world in general.
The reinforcement of ties between the countries opens a wide landscape for Russia to strengthen its positions in the region, especially taking into account how al-Sisi is strongly backed by powerful and rich allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. To be in such a powerful camp is to be on the right side of history in the current development of the Middle East region.
Excluded from the Middle East after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is seeking ways to restore its positions in a strategically important region. The strengthening of ties between Russia and Egypt is just one of the steps on the way. Previous ones included Russia’s strong stance on Syria and the disarmament of the Arab state’s chemical weapons stockpile as well as the success in Iranian nuclear talks.
It should be noted that even during Russia’s presidency at the U.N. Security Council in June much attention will be also devoted to the Middle Eastern problems.
The successful cooperation with Egypt will become Russia’s new key step in regaining positions in the Middle East on the basis of cooperation, equal partnership, mutual trust, respect – principals that are becoming more and more attractive to regional players and only a rare power such as Russia can offer.
Maria Dubovikova is a co-founder of IMESClub (International Middle Eastern Studies Club), IMESClub Executive Director and member of the Club Council, author of several scientific articles and participant of several high level international conferences. She is a permanent member of the Think-tank under the American University in Moscow. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia) (honors diploma), she had been working for three months as a trainee at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. Now she is a PhD Candidate at MGIMO (Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia). Her research field is Russian foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, the policy of France and the US towards the Mediterranean, theory of international relations, humanitarian interventions and etc. Fluently speaks and writes in French and English. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme