Closer Egyptian-Russian Relations Causing a Headache in Washington

Egypt’s intended purchase of advanced Russian fighter jets is raising alarm bells in Washington and has prompted US officials to threaten Cairo with sanctions under legislation passed in 2017. Despite friendly relations between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US administration does not want countries like Egypt, which has long been in the US military orbit, to become dependent on Russian arms that could upend interoperability with US forces and enable Russia to extend its influence even more deeply and widely in the Middle East. An additional underlying concern for US policy-makers may be that the sophisticated Russian fighter jets in question could possibly erode Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, an important aspect of the US-Israeli relationship at which Arab states have long bristled.

From Egypt’s perspective, the turn to Russia for sophisticated military hardware is necessary to hedge its bets. Even though Cairo has long been a recipient of $1.3 billion in US military assistance annually, and its armed forces have received US military training since the late 1970s, it has seen this assistance suspended for certain periods of time since 2013 because of Washington’s concerns over Egypt’s poor human rights record and controversial foreign military connections, such as those with North Korea. Russian military items, by contrast, come with no human rights strings attached. Moreover, the strengthening of Egyptian-Russian relations also helps Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi—who is facing rising domestic anger over the economy—to show the Egyptian populace that he is not in the US pocket.

Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan whose government is under US scrutiny for receiving an advanced Russian missile system, the S-400, Sisi is probably counting on his personal friendship with Trump to avoid US sanctions. However, this could be wishful thinking because Congress is becoming increasingly assertive on foreign policy and could compel Trump to implement, and not just threaten, sanctions. Washington’s focus on Egypt should not be relegated to the military sphere, however; it should pay equal attention to compel Sisi to lessen political repression and improve the lot of millions of Egyptian citizens struggling to make ends meet.

An Old Relationship Restored?

From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, the former Soviet Union was Egypt’s principal arms supplier. But President Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981) was distrustful of the Soviets and engineered an Egyptian reorientation toward the United States during the Cold War. Following the signing of the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, Egypt became the recipient of significant US largesse: $1.3 billion annually in US military assistance (from which Egypt would have to purchase US arms) as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in US economic assistance. This policy continued under Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of Egyptian military officers, including Sisi when he was a relatively young officer, came to the United States for military training and the two countries held joint military exercises on a regular basis. Egypt’s armed forces became primarily American-equipped while their military doctrines largely resembled those of American forces.

[Egypt’s] heavy reliance on US arms began to shift after Sisi became president, following his military coup in 2013 against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This heavy reliance on US arms began to shift after Sisi became president, following his military coup in 2013 against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military regime implemented draconian measures against its opponents, beginning with the killing of at least 800 Brotherhood activists and supporters in August of that year. President Barack Obama condemned these harsh policies, delayed the delivery of some F-16 fighter jets to Egypt that August, and suspended the delivery of more armaments, including Apache helicopters and munitions, two months later. Sisi complained to The Washington Post at the time that “this is not a way to treat a patriotic military.” He also encouraged Egypt’s state-run media to embark on a hyper-nationalistic campaign that propagated the message that the United States was out to “weaken” Egypt.

Even before becoming president in 2014, Sisi had sought to cultivate military relations with Russia. Bankrolled by billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, Egypt under Sisi’s direction in November 2013 started to negotiate with Russia to buy a variant of MIG-29 fighter jets designed especially for the Egyptian Air Force, a deal that has been concluded. Egypt also purchased 46 Russian attack helicopters for its air force and several Russian helicopters for its French Mistral helicopter carriers.

US Anxiety over Advanced Su-35 Fighter Jets

Although these earlier purchases created some concern in Washington, it was the Egyptian-Russian agreement in early 2019 for the purchase of 20 highly-sophisticated Su-35 fighter jets worth $2 billion that has caused the most headache in US policy circles, and not just because of new legislation. In April 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before Congress that were Egypt to receive these jets, Washington would impose sanctions on Cairo under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) statute. Passed by Congress in 2017, this act aims to curtail the influence of Russia (along with Iran and North Korea) around the world by sanctioning countries that purchase military weapons from them. At the time, Pompeo expressed some optimism that Egypt “will decide to not move forward with that acquisition.”

There is a blanket ban by the Pentagon on F-35 sales to the Middle East to any country besides Israel, presumably to maintain the latter’s qualitative military edge in the region.

The Su-35 is designed for air superiority and can carry eight tons of bombs and missiles. It is also highly maneuverable. Egypt reportedly started to negotiate with Russia for this aircraft after Washington was noncommittal on the advanced US F-35 aircraft. There is a blanket ban by the Pentagon on F-35 sales to the Middle East to any country besides Israel, presumably to maintain the latter’s qualitative military edge in the region. This was frustrating to Egypt because Trump, after meeting with Sisi in 2018, had reportedly given him a commitment to sell 20 F-35s to Cairo—possibly unaware of the Pentagon’s ban. This is not atypical of Trump, who likes transactional foreign policy even when it runs counter to existing US policy, of which he is often uninformed. Hence Sisi, unable to realize Trump’s commitment, sought from Russia an alternate advanced fighter.

According to a leaked document reported in the Wall Street Journal in mid-November, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a joint letter to the Egyptian defense minister urging him to cancel the Su-35 deal. The letter emphasized that Egypt risked sanctions under CAATSA and warned that major new arms deals with Russia “would—at a minimum—complicate future U.S. defense transactions with and security assistance to Egypt.”

Despite this letter, Sisi is probably counting on his personal ties to Trump to avoid the imposition of US sanctions. Sisi undoubtedly hopes he can have it both ways—a military relationship with both the United States and Russia—and takes as encouragement the fact that Trump has yet to activate CAATSA on Turkey over its purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia because he seems to get along well with Erdoǧan. Interestingly, although CAATSA calls on the US president to impose sanctions, it does not mention a specific time period to do so. But this does not mean that Congress will forget about the issue or that Trump himself will not act.

In August 2017, Trump suspended about $195 million in US military aid to Egypt (despite his friendship with Sisi) because of human rights concerns and reports that Egypt was providing military assistance to North Korea. (It is important to note that suspending this part of US aid was mandated by the Leahy Amendment, which aims to punish recipients of American weapons for human rights violations.) Although the suspended aid was eventually restored, the episode showed that Trump can play hardball with his “favorite dictator,” as he reportedly referred to Sisi recently, if he so chooses.

Relations Beyond Military Purchases

US concerns with Cairo over the Su-35 deal come at a time when there are deepening ties between Egypt and Russia over a host of issues not directly related to arms purchases, making Washington’s pressure campaign over the Russian arms deal all the more difficult.

Egypt and Russia appear to be on the same page with regard to Libya and Syria.

For one, Egypt and Russia appear to be on the same page with regard to Libya and Syria. Both countries are supporting and have provided military assistance to the Libyan strongman, the self-anointed Field Marshal General Khalifa Haftar, against the UN-supported government in Tripoli. On Syria, Sisi supports Russian efforts to shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime because he sees any alternative to the latter as friendly to what he considers dangerous Islamist elements the cooperation with whom should be avoided.

In the economic realm, relations between Cairo and Moscow have also expanded. From 2017 to 2018, trade between them increased by 37 percent. In addition, in April 2019, Sisi approved plans for the construction of a large nuclear power plant west of Alexandria that is to be developed and financed by Russian firms. The plant, when operational, reportedly could account for a substantial amount of Egypt’s power needs. Two months earlier in February 2019, Sisi also approved an agreement to establish a Russian Industrial Zone to operate within the new Suez Canal Economic Zone.

Strategically, Russia hopes to establish some interoperability with Egypt’s military as both countries see threats from Islamist extremists and seek ways to combat them more effectively. Importantly for Sisi, the Russian cooperation comes with no conditions regarding Egypt’s human rights abuses. In October 2018, Egypt hosted the Defenders of Friendship 3 exercises with Russian paratroopers and air force servicemen and, a year later, the Arrow of Friendship-1 air defense military drills.

These exercises occurred despite the holding of US Bright Star military exercises in Egypt in 2017 and 2018 with the Egyptian armed forces, which had been in abeyance for several years. Russia and Egypt also have reportedly reached an agreement on the use of each other’s air space and military bases, though Cairo has been circumspect about this deal in public to avoid stirring nationalist sensibilities at home. Egypt sees these Russian military ties as important for its strategic depth not only in the Middle East and Mediterranean but also in the Horn of Africa. Further, Cairo’s dispute with Ethiopia over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile river flows has not been resolved; perhaps it sees strategic relations with Russia as giving it greater leverage in the dispute.

Sisi sees himself as a leader of the African continent, while Putin is eager to expand Russian influence there, reactivating the old Soviet role that had been prominent during the Cold War.

In the political sphere, in late October 2019 both Sisi and Putin co-chaired the Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi, Russia, which brought together 43 African heads of state. Sisi sees himself as a leader of the African continent, while Putin is eager to expand Russian influence there, reactivating the old Soviet role that had been prominent during the Cold War.

Recommendations for US Policy

With the United States in retreat in the Middle East, it was perhaps inevitable that Putin would want to fill the void and reactivate old ties to countries like Egypt, which once had close relations with the Soviet Union. From Sisi’s perspective, not only does a renewed relationship with Russia have military and economic benefits but it shows Washington that Egypt cannot be taken for granted. It also demonstrates to the Egyptian people that Sisi is not beholden to the United States.

Resolving the Su-35 fighter jet issue, however, is going to be a difficult matter for both Cairo and Washington. Sisi will be reluctant to back down out of reasons of national pride, unless Trump and the Pentagon agree to the sale of F-35s to Cairo—which is doubtful for reasons related to Israel. The money for the sale of the Su-35 fighter jets, however, is unlikely to come from Egypt’s strained coffers but rather from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have reportedly paid for Egypt’s Russian arms purchases since 2014. Here, the United States does have leverage, having done Saudi Arabia many political and military favors over the past few years. The United States has also supported both countries against Iran to a certain extent. A State Department official recently acknowledged that “there are other states … that have approached” Cairo on the risks of proceeding with the Su-35 deal, in addition to the United States.

Not only should such states continue to encourage Cairo to drop the Russian deal, as it could lead to the suspension of all US military and economic aid to Egypt, but they should also advise Sisi that the money slated for the acquisition should be better spent on helping Egypt’s poor and struggling middle classes. In addition, the Trump Administration and Congress should not just focus on Cairo’s pending Russian arms deal but on the arrests of journalists and hundreds of dissidents in Egypt. These have taken place since demonstrations broke out in September, adding to the thousands of political prisoners who are reportedly languishing in Egyptian jails. No amount of sophisticated fighter jets is going to help Cairo’s mounting political and economic problems at home—which are the real danger facing Egypt today.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here