CAIRO — Move over America, an old bedfellow might be returning to Egypt: Russia.
On Thursday, top Russian and Egyptian officials began talks in Cairo, signaling a potential dramatic foreign policy shift following the U.S. decision to partially cut military aid to Egypt. The U.S. move came in response to the ousting of democratically elected, but controversial, Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
But Egypt and Russia are far from strangers. For 20 years, the two countries were the closest of allies. (Ahram Online published a series of photos of famous Egyptian and Russian figures smiling and posing together over the years — everyone from Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev at an Aswan Dam construction celebration to dolled-up Egyptian actress Nadia Lutfi and Soviet actress Larisa Golubkina, laughing together in Moscow.)
But in the early 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ordered 20,000 Soviet military advisers out of Egypt, and amid a U.S. brokered peace deal with Israel, decided to shift Egypt’s foreign policy, with eyes on aligning with the U.S. Since then, the U.S. government has provided around $1.3 billion in military aid every year to Egypt, up until the recent aid cut.
In a press conference on Thursday, Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy was asked by reporters whether Russia would replace the U.S. as Egypt’s main ally. Fahmy simply replied: “Russia’s weight is too heavy to be a substitute for anyone.”
Fahmy is set to meet with his counterpart, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Egypt’s defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the widely respected military leader who led Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power.
The talks between the high-profile leaders reportedly include potential arms deals, amounting to as high as $2 billion, the BBC reports. Following the partial military aid cut from the U.S., Egypt is hoping to acquire military equipment such as fighter jets, anti-tank missiles and air-defense systems, with particular focus on battling the rising insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula (though the U.S. has not severed any aid bolstering counterterrorism efforts in Sinai).
“Russia and Egypt are determined to forge a closer partnership and mutually beneficial cooperation,” Lavrov said in an interview with Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
The now-frosty relationship between the U.S. and Egypt is met with an even more hostile dialogue between the U.S. and Russia as the war in Syria rages on.
On Tuesday, the U.S. and Russia — one of Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s biggest supporters — once again failed to come up with a date for Syrian peace talks, split over whether or not Syria’s ally Iran should be included.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Defense Department signaled it had abandoned previous plans to buy more cargo helicopters for the Afghan Air Force from Russian state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport — the same arms agency selling weaponry to Syria’s Assad regime.
The Russian convoy’s two-day Cairo visit coincides with the end of the now three-month nightly curfew and state of emergency imposed in mid-August when hundreds of pro-Morsi supporters were killed as their sit-ins were violently cleared by security forces. It was the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history, and has yet to be thoroughly investigated by the government. Also taking place during the Russian visit is the sentencing of 12 pro-Morsi supporters to 17 years in prison for taking part in a student protest that turned violent.
Following the ouster of Morsi — slammed for granting himself sweeping powers and spearheading an Islamist agenda — Russia’s foreign ministry urged restraint by security forces. But on Wednesday, Russian foreign minister Lavrov told the newspaper Al-Ahram, “We are quite confident that Egypt will overcome its current crises, and put into consideration the interests of all political, ethnic and religious blocs within society.”
- Top Russian officials in Egypt talks (bbc.co.uk)
- Russian ministers make landmark Cairo visit (dailystar.com.lb)
- Top Russian officials hold talks in Egypt (africareview.com)
- Egypt says improving ties with Russia not a snub to US (theguardian.com)
- FM: Egypt not replacing US with Russia as top ally (sfgate.com)