Putin in Egypt as the United States Retreats

Egyptian-Russian relations may be getting a little too close for comfort for the United States. The December 11 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Egypt and recent agreements on Russia’s air basing rights there and building of a major Egyptian nuclear power plant indicate that the two countries have come a long way since the late-Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, ordered the removal of Soviet military advisors in the early 1970s and reoriented Cairo’s policy toward Washington. From the perspective of the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, this warming of relations toward Moscow sends a signal to Washington that the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship cannot be taken for granted and that Egypt is in no one’s pocket.

However, Sisi’s embrace of Russia is not without controversy. Putin’s policy in Syria—supporting the discredited regime of Bashar al-Assad—is not popular with Sunni Muslim masses (including most Egyptians), and access to Egypt’s air bases for Russian military aircraft harks back to previous periods in Egyptian history when Egyptian sovereignty was seen as compromised. Moreover, it is unclear whether this warming to Russia is popular with the Egyptian officer corps, whose current cadre has received training in the United States, has developed a western orientation, and is familiar most with US military hardware and weapons systems.

Playing the Arms Game

Since coming to power following his military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, Sisi has traveled twice to Russia and twice received Putin in Egypt. It was widely believed that Sisi initially wanted to show the Obama Administration––which, the autumn of 2013, had suspended a significant portion of the annual $1.3 billion in US military assistance to Egypt in reaction to the regime’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood––that he could go elsewhere for armaments. Indeed, with Gulf Arab money, Sisi was able to buy $3.5 billion of military hardware from Russia at that time. This tactic, a repetition of the Cold War practices by Egypt and other Third World countries of playing off one major power against another, was not unusual. Indeed, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser notably turned to the Soviet bloc in 1955, in the so-called Czech arms deal, after the Eisenhower Administration refused his request for American weapons in 1955.

That the Obama Administration eventually rescinded its military aid suspension to Egypt in late March of 2015 may have given Sisi the impression that such political maneuvering can pay off. It is perhaps not coincidental that when the Trump Administration put on hold $195 million in military aid and cut $96 million in economic aid to Egypt in August 2017—largely in response to US congressional pressure and legislation over human rights issues as well as Egypt’s purported military ties to North Korea––Sisi turned to Moscow once again to show his pique at Washington, notwithstanding his good personal rapport with President Donald Trump. Putin reportedly agreed to provide the Egyptian military with more assistance in its anti-terrorism fight to boost its capabilities, though the details of such aid were not revealed. What is attractive from Sisi’s perspective is that military purchases and assistance from Russia come with no human rights strings attached, in contrast to US military assistance, which Congress uses to disparage Egypt’s human rights record.

Political and Economic Benefits

Sisi’s overtures toward Moscow are also geared to showing the Egyptian public that Egypt is back on the world stage and that it is not subservient to the United States. This is especially appealing when Egyptian attitudes toward Washington have again hit a low point (as they have in the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds) over Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Sisi’s attempt to dissuade Trump from going ahead with the decision failed and consequently his government denounced it, as did Egypt’s top Muslim and Christian religious leaders.

By appearing to snub Washington with the Russian card, Sisi is also demonstrating to the Egyptian people, who have a great sense of national pride, that he is not afraid of openly disagreeing with the United States. Because of price rises in Egypt, Sisi’s popularity among Egyptians has been in decline over the past couple of years. Hence, to side with the Egyptian people against Washington (and the overtures to Russia are seen as a part of this policy) may score some points with Egypt’s populace, especially with the educated but economically stressed middle class.

Sisi’s Russia policy is also geared toward bringing economic benefits to Egypt. During Putin’s visit, Egyptian and Russian officials signed an agreement to build a major $21 billion nuclear power plant west of Cairo, with Russia providing a loan to cover 85 percent of the construction costs. The power plant, important for developing the energy needs of Egypt’s growing population of over 97 million people, is expected to generate 4,800 megawatts of electricity when completed in 2028-2029. Egypt and Russia also signed agreements concerning reciprocal economic investments, with Russia pledging to invest in a new economic zone by the Suez Canal which Egypt hopes to develop.

Of more immediate benefit is the return of Russian tourists to Egypt, whose numbers have fallen precipitously since the terrorist downing of a Russian Metrojet over the Sinai Peninsula in late October 2015. Prior to this incident, about 3 million Russian tourists visited Egypt annually. During Putin’s recent visit, Egyptians were initially disappointed that he did not state that Russia was ready to resume direct tourist flights to Egypt, indicating he was still receiving reports from Russia’s security agencies; this prompted Cairo’s newspapers to ask when Russian flights would be resumed.

Nonetheless, a few days after Putin’s visit, on December 15, Egypt’s minister of civil aviation flew to Moscow and signed a protocol with Russia’s transportation minister for the resumption of direct Russian flights to Egypt, beginning in February 2018. This is a significant development because not only will it bring Russian tourists back to Egypt in large numbers but it will also signal other European countries to do the same. Although Egypt’s tourism revenue has increased this year compared to the disastrous year of 2016, it is still far below the level reached in 2010—about $12.5 billion.

The Egyptian-Russian Relationship Is Still Controversial

Juxtaposed against these benefits is the potential for a backlash in Egypt, however. First, growing military ties to Russia pose something of a risk for Sisi. In late November 2017, Egypt and Russia signed a draft agreement to allow Russian military aircraft access to Egyptian military air bases. From Putin’s perspective, this agreement serves to build on Russia’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, as the agreement is in addition to the Russian air force presence at a base near Latakia, Syria that was established a few years ago. Coming on the heels of Russian-Egyptian military exercises that were held in Egypt early that month, such policies send the signal that Russia is back in the Middle East in a major way (the last time Russia had access to Egyptian military bases was in the early 1970s during the Cold War).

From an Egyptian nationalist perspective, however, access to basing rights could be controversial because it dredges up a time when Egypt was under foreign domination. In the immediate post-World War II era, there was widespread agitation against British military bases in Egypt. Although the British relinquished most of their bases in Egypt in 1946, it took another decade—and the coming to power of the nationalist military officer, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, along with a military resistance campaign—for the British to finally leave their remaining large base in Egypt along the Suez Canal. Even so, the British were so incensed about “losing” the Suez Canal after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in the summer of 1956 that they invaded Egypt, along with the French and Israelis, a few months later.

Every Egyptian school child is taught about that war, called the “tripartite aggression,”

that propelled Nasser into a nationalist and pan-Arab hero and served as a death knell for European imperialism. Therefore, to allow the Russian air force access to Egyptian sovereign bases is a risky endeavor for Sisi, as it runs up against this nationalist narrative. For this reason, perhaps, neither Sisi nor Putin spoke about the military base access agreement publicly during their December 11 meeting in Cairo.

Second, while there was appreciation for the Soviet military role in Egypt after Cairo’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war against the Israelis, after a time the Soviet military presence in Egypt (which included thousands of military advisors along with some of their families) proved to be unpopular with the Egyptian people. This Soviet military presence in the late 1960s also served to tarnish Nasser’s nationalist credentials. It was difficult to explain why the hero of the 1956 war, who kicked foreign military forces out of Egypt (albeit with some major diplomatic help from the United States at the time) was now welcoming a new foreign military force in the country a little more than a decade later. Although the Soviets were then considered Egypt’s friends, whereas the British, French, and Israelis were considered Egypt’s enemies, the issue still touched a raw nerve. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, understood this sentiment quite well, and announced to public acclaim in 1972 that he was expelling the more than 15,000 Soviet military advisors in the country. Hence, Sisi needs to tread carefully on this issue and will probably want the Russian air force personnel, when they do visit Egypt, to stay away from direct contact with Egyptians.

Third, and as mentioned earlier, while Sisi does score points with the Egyptian public for playing the Russian card against Washington, his embrace of Putin can also be problematic because of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Although most Egyptians would not want Syria to fall into the hands of radical Islamist forces, neither do they believe that Assad and his regime, which has carried out many atrocities against the civilian population, should be supported militarily as the Russians continue to do. One poll revealed that only 14 percent of Egyptians believed that Assad “can continue to govern.”

Further, and considering the sectarian dimension of the Syrian war, where most of the opposition and victims are Sunni Muslims, being friendly with Assad’s backer, Russia, can have its downside in Egypt. Even though the Sisi regime continues to have relations with Assad, it has said that Syria’s future should be determined by the will of the Syrian people—a position different from that of Putin, who, along with Iran, supports Assad unconditionally.

Fourth, a wild card in this renewed Egyptian-Russian relationship is the view of the Egyptian officer corps. Because of the opaqueness of the Egyptian military, it is difficult to ascertain how officers see these growing ties. What is known is that the older generation of officers who studied in Russia (then part of the Soviet Union), which included former President Hosni Mubarak and former defense minister and leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, are nearly all retired or have passed away. The next generation, which includes Sisi and those younger than he, has studied in the United States at such institutions as the US Army War College. Such schooling usually gives foreign officers a pro-US orientation; therefore, one can conjecture that at least some of them may not be enthralled by this turn to Russia, especially as most of them have trained on US military equipment. Nonetheless, some officers may believe that Sisi’s play toward Russia is designed to persuade Washington to restore the suspended US military aid. Regardless, it is likely that Sisi is directing military intelligence to keep a close eye on the officer corps to make sure any disgruntlement in the ranks does not lead to a coup.

Implications for the United States

Sisi probably understands that his overtures toward Russia, especially in the military realm, can only go so far. After all, Egypt is heavily dependent on US military equipment, and to completely reorient itself toward Russia would be a major and costly undertaking. Moreover, even though Sisi is upset with the United States for suspending some US military aid, he probably believes that President Trump is still his friend—even though much of the US political establishment, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and senior members of the US Congress, are critical of Sisi’s domestic policies like the draconian NGO law that was passed earlier this year, the arrests of journalists, and the crackdown on civil society activists. Given that Sisi still wants good relations with Washington, US policymakers probably see Sisi’s Russian overtures as a play to which they do not want to give credence, at least publicly. Consequently, neither the White House nor the State Department commented on Putin’s trip to Cairo and the signed agreements.

However, the bigger picture here, which some Trump Administration officials do not seem to appreciate, is that US influence in the Middle East is diminishing and the Russian role is expanding, largely due to some misguided US policies like the recent decision on Jerusalem. Gamesmanship aside, Sisi’s new friendship with Russia is also a reflection of this trend. He may feel that the combination of continued largesse from some Gulf Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, plus a policy of playing off Russia against the United States, make a winning combination for him because he can extract largesse from them all.

But this play to Russia can backfire in Congress, which may decide that more, not less, punitive measures on Egypt are called for. That would be unfortunate for the Sisi government, as Egypt needs significant help, especially in the economic and counterterrorism fields, which the United States can provide. On the other hand, giving Sisi a blank check does not help the Egyptian people, some of whom face arbitrary arrests if they voice even mild criticism of the government. The challenge for US policymakers is to thread this needle and keep Egypt as a US friend and not have it become an ally of Russia. If the latter does transpire, the human rights situation in Egypt would be even more problematic than it is today, as Putin may not have an interest in seeing it impact his bilateral ties with Cairo.