Russian President Vladimir Putin received a right royal welcome during his recent landmark two-day visit to Cairo. Streets and bridges were decked out with posters reading ‘welcome’ in Arabic, English and Russian. The leaders of Russia and Egypt have very different personalities but have developed a cordial relationship rooted in mutual interests, benefits and strategic concerns.
The Western media have broadly characterised Putin and Abdul Fattah Al Sissi as hard men, cut from the similar cloth, and stressed the symbolism of the Russian president’s gift to his Egyptian counterpart—a Kalashnikov rifle. In reality, the two men have little in common on a personal level but have rather come together on a ‘needs must’ basis.
Whereas Putin usually comes across as devoid of emotion, Al Sissi has been seen with his eyes tearing up. And while it’s true there have been security crackdowns under his watch, they’ve mostly been dictated by circumstances rather than the Egyptian leader’s natural authoritarian inclinations.
The US and its allies are doing their utmost to hold Putin’s feet to the fire over Moscow’s alleged intervention in eastern Ukraine, which is hurting the Russian economy and undermining the country’s place within the international arena. And from Cairo’s perspective, the West has colluded in stabbing Egypt in the back ever since the June 30, 2013, revolution that signaled the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip, although the Egyptian president has gone out of his way to highlight his intention of forging partnerships with all friendly nations.
In spite of his words of reassurance, the Arab world’s most populated country does appear to be tilting towards Russia and for similar reasons that propelled President Jamal Abdul Nasser to join hands with the former Soviet Union. In short, the US, which is still courting the Brotherhood, cannot be trusted. As Benny Avni writing in the New York Post, under the heading ‘Losing Egypt—Putin exploits Obama’s slaps at US ally,’ gets it right: “We need someone like [Al] Sissi on that side of the world to call it as it is [in respect to terrorism]. Yet he constantly gets the back of our hand. Say what you will about Putin. He knows an opening when he sees one. To continue his fight against extremists, [Al] Sissi needs military hardware, money and diplomatic backing. Washington managed to convince the entire Arab world that we’re siding with the Muslim Brotherhood [or with Tehran], rather than [Al] Sissi. So here comes Putin, Kalashnikov in hand.”
It appears the Obama administration has learnt nothing from history. When Nasser sought to update his military hardware, he asked the US for assistance but was told no weapons would be forthcoming without American military supervision in country to ensure they would only be used for defensive purposes. Britain and the US did promise to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam but later withdrew that pledge, thus opening a window for the Soviet Union to step in bearing a $1.12 billion (Dh4.11 billion) low-interest loan. Putin, keen to expand Russia’s regional influence, is offering much more.
Most crucially, Cairo and Moscow have announced their cooperation in building Egypt’s first functioning nuclear power plant. Egyptians have been suffering from regular electricity cuts over recent years and the government is working hard to diversify its energy sources.
The plant, housing two $4 billion pressurised water reactors, is slated to be constructed in Dabaa—the site of a small research reactor built during Nasser’s era on the northern Mediterranean coast. It is anticipated that it will supply up to 50 per cent of the country’s electricity requirements. Former presidents Anwar Al Sadat and Hosni Mubarak held nuclear ambitions but were deterred by the spectre of US disapproval. By contrast, President Al Sissi is a leader who puts Egypt’s requirements first and will not be swayed by the grumbles of foreign governments. While it’s not difficult to imagine that the White House is miffed by the Egyptian-Russian rapprochement, State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, has announced that the US will not oppose the deal. “We support peaceful nuclear power programmes as long as obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Egypt is a signatory, and obligations to the IAEA are fully met and the highest international standards regulating security, non-proliferation, export controls and physical security are strictly followed,” she said.
Cooperation in other fields, include Russia’s investment in natural gas, a $3.5 billion weapons deal, which has been on the table for over a year, Egypt’s importation of Russian wheat and the creation of a Russian industrial zone flanking Al Sissi’s pet project—the new parallel Suez Canal.
Tourism was another area discussed by the two leaders. Russian tourists flock to the southern Sinai Peninsula—three million last year—and it is believed that Moscow and Cairo are mulling settling debts in respect to tourism and trade with their respective national currencies instead of the US dollar.
Egypt further stands to benefit from increased exports of fruit and vegetables to Russia—bilateral trade leapt to $4.6 billion in 2014. The two disparate nations have also agreed to work together on counter-terrorism. Washington and Cairo have long been described as natural allies, but who can blame the Egyptian leader for doing what it takes even if that means accepting help from wherever he can get it to secure his country and return it to economic health?
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.