by Paul Iddon
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power was not warmly welcomed by Washington. The ex-army chief had deposed his predecessor, Mohammad Morsi, in July 2013 leading to a series of bloody crackdowns during that summer. US military aid to Cairo was frozen for almost a year after that coup. Also, after almost two years after the coup Washington decided to lift its freeze on a supply of military hardware in March 2015.
Russia, on the other hand, was more welcoming to Sisi’s ascent to power. Since Sisi became president in May 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited his country and Cairo and Moscow held joint naval exercises together in the Mediterranean Sea off Egypt’s Alexandria coast, the first exercise between the two in about four decades.
Given legal, and of course moral, concerns in Washington over the Sisi regime’s human rights record, Cairo may have reasoned it could not solely rely on it to keep its enormous American-equipped military supplied with weapons. Perhaps consequently Egypt has since purchased two dozen Dassault Rafale jet fighters and two Mistral amphibious assault ship, capable of carrying helicopters and tanks, from France.No such arms deals have been made with the Russians, although there were reports that Cairo is purchasing approximately 50 MiG-29s in a $2 billion deal which, according to the Russian press, is still on track. If fulfilled, this deal would be the largest sale of MiG-29s undertaken by Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union.
When Sisi inaugurated the New Suez Canal project – the addition of another canal built to facilitate two-way shipping traffic – Moscow gifted Cairo a Molniya R-32 missile corvette. The Egyptian Army said, in a statement, that the gesture “comes as continuation of the Russian supporting stance towards Egypt in the recent period, and to the uniformity of vision between the political leadership of both countries regarding the war on terrorism and supporting efforts of security and stability in the Middle East.”
The corvette participated in the inauguration, that also featured a flyover which notably included Egypt’s newly delivered Rafales.
It remains unclear how far Cairo and Moscow’s cordial relationship will evolve over time, or if it will significantly affect Cairo’s long-standing four-decade-old military relationship with Washington. “In general, the relationship between Russia and Egypt is significant more in terms of its symbolic nature on the world stage, rather than in terms of actual arms sales,” Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident senior at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East told Offiziere. “The Egyptian armed forces are generally more intertwined with Western gear and equipment,” he added. “Politically, there is a lot of cooperation between Moscow and Cairo – but not at the expense of losing relationships with Cairo’s more traditional Western allies.”
Even the billions of dollars Cairo spent on equipment from France pales in comparison to the 238 F-16s that make-up the backbone of Egypt’s Air Force, along with the workhorse of the Egyptian Army, the 1’360 M1 Abrams; and of course Egypt’s 45 AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships (all numbers by “Chapter Seven: Middle East and North Africa”, The Military Balance 117 (2017): 372, 374).
“The increasing contacts between Russia and Egypt are driven by mutual desire to diversify relations,” Timur Akhmetov (Facebook – Twitter – LinkedIn), an analyst on Russia’s Middle East foreign policy, told Offiziere. “Egypt seeks new partners, especially in the military cooperation, and tries to minimize its dependence on the Gulf monarchies that sponsor the regime. Nevertheless it is the Western countries that are seen by Cairo as a desirable partner, not Russia or Gulf states.”
Saudi Arabia was a major patron of the Sisi regime. However, Cairo’s unwillingness to toe their line on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future – the Saudis want him gone while Sisi seems to see him as a bulwark against terrorist groups in the region – resulted in Riyadh suddenly severing oil supplies to Cairo indefinitely last November, underscoring how Sisi’s economic and military patrons seek to influence its policy, both foreign and domestic.
“Russia is just making use of Egypt’s attempts to increase number of partners and offers closer political cooperation and military contracts: two major areas where Egypt is left alone by the West,” Akhmetov added. “First of all, Russian is interested in selling of its main article of export, arms, to Egypt, who is waging a war with terrorism. Secondly, Russia has not been much critical of Sisi’s authoritarian practices, signaling that it is ready not to politicize its ties with Egypt. In the short term, Moscow seeks to create a coalition of regional regimes that are more open to the idea that Syria’s Assad should stay in power and political settlement should be implemented on the Russian terms. In the long run Moscow wants to secure its positions in the Middle East by establishing cooperative relations with major players, including Egypt”, Akmetov concluded.