Last week Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi visited Russia after his trip to Saudi Arabia. Other than its busy agenda the symbolic dimension of the visit was also discussed by the observers of Egyptian politics. In fact, Russia was the first non-Arab country that Sissi visited after the elections in Egypt. It was also Sissi's first destination after the military coup that he led in summer 2013. Both of these visits in the last seven months raised some serious questions in terms of the future direction of the foreign policy of Egypt. Obviously, when it was facing some criticism from the governments of Western countries and having difficulty acquiring arms, the Egyptian government was tilting toward Russia and was seeking "no strings attached" military and economic assistance from it. However, this attempt by the Egyptian government to try to use the power rivalry between great powers in order to gain an advantage of the situation is not a new phenomenon. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser also made similar moves during the Cold War and tried to make Egypt's position regarding the Cold War an issue for competition between the super powers.
The main question here is whether the increasing ties between these two countries result in a significant shift in the geopolitics of the region or is it just a conjectural marriage of convenience for both countries. Since the military coup last summer there has been consistent attempt in Cairo and Moscow to improve economic and military ties. The visit by the Russian foreign and defense ministers to Cairo in November 2013 was followed by an official visit by Sissi to Moscow in early 2014, in which the main agenda was the Egyptian demand for weapons and defense related goods. The two countries were said to negotiate a $2 billion (TL 4.33 billion) weapons deal. Many observers interpreted these meetings as an attempt by the Egyptian government to react to the criticism from and delay of the delivery of U.S. military aid to Egypt.
However, if it was just a reaction to the U.S. it could be expected that after a change in the U.S. position toward Egypt, the Egyptian government would revise its policy toward Russia. But it did not happen. Although the U.S. started to deliver arms and military aid to Egypt before the elections and although Sissi had received high-level American guests, including Secretary of State John Kerry, he decided to pay his first non-Arab country visit to Russia again. In this second meeting, which took place last week, the agenda was more diverse than the previous meeting. Although weapons sales to Egypt were discussed, the economic dimension of discussion was also significant - especially after Western sanctions on Russia due to their involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, Egypt is being seen as an alternative market for the Russian government.
On top of that, during the second meeting there were also some topics of discussion that may have a more significant impact to the politics of the region. It was reported that two countries launched the discussion of three topics: a possible free trade area between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia), a Russian industrial city on the Suez Canal and supporting the Egyptian nuclear energy program. Although the discussions of these issues are at very early stages, they are important issues that need to be taken into account.
From this picture it seems that it is a partnership of convenience that may, in the long run, transform into a more institutional and strategic relationship if the existing conditions persist. First, what brought these two countries closer in such a critical period of geopolitics is the reaction that they have received from Western governments in the last year. President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government received a harsh reaction from the Western world after their role in the Ukrainian crisis whereas Sissi got a relatively mild censure after the military intervention that overthrew the first democratically elected government in Egypt and the following iron fist policies. However, it is not clear how sustainable such a conjectural relation will be in the rapidly changing political atmosphere in the region. The Ukrainian crisis and the deterioration of Russian-Western relations can provide an infrastructure for such a situation, but this is definitely not a Cold War environment and another possible "reset" in the near future may end the crisis between the West and Russia, which would destroy this dimension of the relations.
Second, the increasing ties between Cairo and Moscow, in part, represent a search for cooperation among the more authoritarian regimes in world politics. Feeling themselves under pressure from democratizing forces of society and criticism of their human rights records from the international community, some authoritarian regimes are trying to form different types of partnerships to resist the demands of society and the reactions of the international public. But again, such a condition may not be sustainable given the fluid domestic political situation in Arab Spring countries. A possible restart of street demonstrations in Egypt could destabilize the partnership between Russia and Egypt. Finally, a potential disagreement between Russia and Egypt on a crisis in the Middle East may also put the relationship into distress. This could also devolve their relationship back to its previous position.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.