Sisi and Putin: Reshuffling the global deck of cards?
Sisi and his allies are reshuffling the deck of cards in on-going global geopolitical poker game
This week Egyptian President Sisi arrived to Russia for a one-day state visit. It could be an ordinary official state visit, one of the numerous routine diplomatic gestures that change nothing and are a symbolic gesture. Yet that was not the case at all.
He came to Russia after his first trip to Saudi Arabia-Egypt’s key backer and supporter. His visit to Russia is the first trip outside the Arab World and the first official visit since he was sworn in as the Egyptian president on June 8. It is also his second trip to Russia this year after his visit in February in his capacity as Egyptian Defence Minister and the most likely presidential candidate to win the elections. It is therefore clear that the new chapter in the relations between the two countries is about to be started.
The crisis between Russia and the West has strengthened the cooperative trend and laid new grounds for more intense cooperation and relations development between the two countries. Sisi’s February visit to Moscow was focused on military cooperation and Moscow was asked to supply Egypt with high-tech fighter jets, assault helicopters and anti-tank missile systems. During that visit, a $2 billion arms deal was signed between Russia and Egypt; and it was funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The deal was a follow up to the November 2013 visit to Cairo by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who had proposed it then. The military cooperation intensification came against a backdrop of cooling U.S.-Egypt relations following Mursi’s ousting and the Muslim Brotherhood downfall when the U.S. started to slowly freeze bilateral ties and changed its rhetoric towards Egypt. Washington cancelled a joint military drill in Sinai and suspended the transfer of some promised military hardware to Cairo.
Sisi’s recent visit had a totally new agenda, greatly influenced by the current global developments.
Following the sanctions and its «smart response», Russia is intensively looking for substitutes to its European and U.S. export. Egypt appears to be a good partner to give Russia a necessary leverage. Egypt is planning to increase the already existing cooperation between the two countries in the agricultural sector. This is good for Russia, as it is strengthen its food security, and for Egypt because it shores its still very fragile economy. Furthermore, Russia remains the key grain supplier to Egypt, providing 40% of the country’s grain consumption. Russia will not have any problems fulfilling grain supply obligations as it reaps a record grain harvest this year. The foreign trade between the two countries, already standing at approximately $3 billion, is expected to double this year.
Sisi and his allies are reshuffling the deck of cards in on-going global geopolitical poker gameMaria Dubovikova
Western powers can withstand just that, but what is mentioned is just a part of the whole story. Russia and Egypt have reached an agreement to establish cooperation between the Custom Union [of Russia, Belorussia and Kazakhstan] on one hand, and Egypt, on the other hand, with a solid perspective towards a free trade zone creation. Another issue the two presidents agreed on is to create a Russian industrial zone as a part of a New Suez Canal project launched this month.
Russia traditionally has had rather good relations with Egypt, but the current trend is a real great step forward. The Soviet past heritage is not the only factor at play here. The good memories of the Soviet-Egyptian past form the background but the true backbone is built by the current international climate as it pushes the two countries towards each other. Russia and Egypt have found themselves now on the same side of history. They have coinciding visions and approaches to the numerous difficult issues on the regional and global agendas. The existing differences benefit the relations even more, taking for example Russia’s connections with Hamas, which it still has not recognized as a terrorist organization. This makes it an indispensable partner in the Arab-Israeli conflict regulation. The spread of terroristic threats, including that of ISIS, disturbs both Russia and Egypt as well as its key backers, laying the backgrounds for a possible broader coalition to counter terrorism.
Winds of change
The domestic pressure on the Obama administration by Republicans, who call on him to stop all aid to the Egyptian government, makes the U.S. a rather unreliable partner, especially taking into account the growing misunderstanding between the two sides. Russia has felt the wind of change and seized the right moment to give a helping hand to Egypt. It has much more to offer the country on very favourable conditions than any of its Western partners. And so the EU attempts to make Egypt, as well as Turkey and countries in Latin America, join sanctions against Russia seem to be completely in vain.
However the U.S. still needs Egypt for Middle East peace talks and as a strategically important country for its regional stance. Egypt knows this. This is the moment when Washington cannot operate without Cairo, while Cairo is quite able to go on without Washington.
This was demonstrated by Sisi, who rejected the invitation from Obama to the U.S - Africa summit that was held in Washington earlier this month. However, it should be stressed that without U.S. participation, the Middle East can hardly combat ISIS, so the U.S. is still a much needed player. Nevertheless, Egypt made it clear that it is not going to stand with a begging bowl waiting for U.S. assistance or agree to change its policy and sacrifice its national interests. Such strong position and policy making combined with a weak economy is impossible without a tangible support from key players. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter what defines Egypt’s current position. What is important is the way it changes the playground.
Sisi and his allies are reshuffling the deck of cards in on-going global geopolitical poker game. Its early days to look for the winners, but at this historical moment, it seems that the Western cards are mostly losing ones. But who knows which cards all parties are still keeping close to their chests?
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