An Egyptian-Russian Rapprochement?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The foreign ministers of Egypt and Russia met in Cairo last week for what many considered to be a historic meeting. The warming of ties between the two countries comes after relations between the United States and Egypt chilled over the new military-backed regime’s ousting of former president Mohammad Morsi and its subsequent handling of pro-Morsi protests.  The United States has expressed this displeasure by reducing military aid to Egypt. The new rapprochement between Moscow and Cairo, which is taking place against the background of a larger conversation taking place in Egypt about the nation’s future, has elicited cautious praise from Egypt’s neighbors, although not everyone is happy about it.

Reporting on the Russian foreign minister’s visit to Cairo, the Daily News Egypt’s Mostafa Salem noted that “A meeting was held between Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov on Thursday in Cairo, where bilateral military relations and economic cooperation were discussed. Fahmy stated that Russia is ‘not a substitute for any other state,’… [and] described the visit as ‘historic’ and ‘the first of its kind’….The U.S. state department announced on 9 October that it would halt the delivery of large-scale military systems and cash assistance to Egypt’s government, pending ‘credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections’. The decision comes as part of ‘recalibrating’ U.S. aid to Egypt.”

As indicated by his comments, Egypt’s own foreign minister Nabil Fahmy is aware that Egypt’s new leaders must handle their pivot toward Russia with care, without snubbing or entirely alienating a powerful ally such as the United States. But judging from comments and editorials from the regional newspapers, there is generally an agreement that such a pivot can be beneficial for Egypt. For example, the Saudi Gazette editorial asserts “The rapprochement between Egypt and Russia is part of a significant shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East….The emergence today of a strong and assertive Russia on the world scene could change what has been a strategic imbalance in the Middle East. Moscow’s comeback should be welcomed, not because Egypt wants to fight American interests, but because it will help protect its own national interests in questions crucial to its independence, territorial integrity and prosperity….Egypt should be guided by the Indian model which successfully maintained its strategic relations with Russia and, in the meantime, kept a strategic partnership with the U.S.”

For Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, this rebalancing of Egypt’s foreign relations makes sense considering Egypt’s role as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement  and in a world “that is no longer uni-polar but is in itself transforming…. Ever since the popular revolution of early 2011 with the aspirations of millions of Egyptians to put Egypt on a new path, questions have been raised concerning what impact would that have on the foreign policy of the country, particularly towards both the United States and Russia….The choices should not be made with a Cold War mindset, but in the context of how best to serve and protect our national interests and enable us to deal effectively with the myriad of domestic and regional challenges facing us…. Egypt, in charting new paths in its foreign relations with the super and major powers of today’s world should be inspired by the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement. This would be befitting a country that was a founding member of NAM and one of its leading advocates for many years in the past.”

But some commentators caution that Egypt must tread carefully so as not to alienate the United States. At least, that is the sentiment expressed by the Gulf News editorial, which urges the Egyptian government to be mindful of “America’s strategic role…. The new Egyptian government is taking steps to reduce Egypt’s strategic dependence on the U.S. Ever since Camp David in 1978, Egypt has received very large amount of military and civil aid from the U.S. and as a consequence, its presidents have been firm supporters of almost anything that came out of the White House….If a new relationship develops, it will offer Russia a much more stable Arab ally than the troubled Syrian government. In the heat of the moment, Egypt may welcome moving out of the direct American sphere, but in the long term, it will need to maintain all its relationships very carefully.”

Others are more concerned about the implications of this realignment and see it as further evidence of U.S. decline and neglect. In a recent editorial, the Jerusalem Post sees in the recent visit yet another failure of an American administration that doesn’t seem to be minding its interests in the region:  “Just as the red carpet was being rolled out in Cairo in honor of the visiting Russian foreign and defense ministers, Egypt’s headliners were busy declaring that nothing had altered in their country’s geopolitical orientation….The very fact that high-level and high-profile Russian visits are taking place for the first time in a very long time, replete with pomp and circumstance, attests quite loudly that things are hardly quite what they were….The Russian reappearance in this region is entirely made-in-America and it was hardly unavoidable. This serious-cum-superfluous complication in already too problematical an arena constitutes yet another spectacular US foreign policy flop, arising from a fundamental failure to fathom the Middle East’s intricacies.”

One must not forget, however, that the current changes and shifts in alliances are not taking place in a vacuum, and that there is a domestic dimension to these ongoing realignments of interests, which has much to do with the kind of state the Egyptians are trying to build. In a recent op-ed for Al Ahram, Ayman Abdel-Wahab argues in favor of a state that puts citizenship at its heart: “What kind of state do we want to build? This question has grown increasingly urgent in light of events since 30 June. Do we want a modern democratic state structured to reflect and put into effect a value system founded on the rule of law and the respect of the principles and fundamental rights of citizenship? Or do we want to continue with the tradition of the incomplete state in which the rule of law is marginalized, institutionalization is weak and there is an inability — and perhaps lack of willingness — to realize the principle of public participation in policy design and decision-making processes?…It is impossible to conceive of a democracy without the effective actualization of the principle of citizenship, which rests on a cultural system that espouses rational dialogue, mutual acceptance and tolerance.”

Pointing out the shortage of qualified government officials at all levels of society, Egypt Independent’s Ahmed Al-Muslemany calls for the training of a new cadre of leaders to replace the old ones: “Egypt needs an elite to serve as presidents, governors, ministers and chairmen. We need 30 ministers, 60 deputies and 120 assistants. We need leaders of 183 centers, 216 cities, 76 precincts, 1179 local councils, 4641 villages and 26,757 hamlets….With a simple calculation, Egypt needs one million people eligible for management and leadership to shortlist 10 percent from and then chose a third. Let us start building the ‘civilizational’ Egypt whose features have been overshadowed by the ‘political’ Egypt. Let us present those who ‘know’ and ‘work’ and get rid of the unskilled.”

Whether they can build this new Egypt, points out Hala Elkholy in a commentary for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, depends on whether the Egyptians can learn to draw on a different kind of inspiration and model than they have until now: “So far, it has been the frustration, the anger, the misery, and the constant fear that has been the major drive to revolt and bring down the ruling power. To build, Egyptians must conjure up quite a different drive. The fuel required for the building phase will have to be driven by the forces of love, justice, compassion, beauty and hope. Making the difficult shift is not only necessary but actually beginning….The way forward will have to become a solid partnership between responsible, accountable and transparent governing bodies, and a population that is socially responsible, highly productive, and creatively enterprising….It will be however, up to the smaller groups of enlightened and privileged Egyptians to lead the way, set the course and lend a hand to more of their fellow Egyptians.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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