x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

El Sisi heads to Rusisa

The visit by Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi to Russia is his first trip outside the country since he rose to prominence last year

CAIRO // Egypt’s army chief headed to Moscow on Wednesday amid reports of a lucrative arms deal in the making that would significantly expand Russia’s military influence with a key US ally in the Middle East.

The visit by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi is his first outside the country since he rose to prominence last year when unprecedented protests prompted him to remove Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power.

In Moscow, Field Marshal El Sisi was scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s state news agency Mena reported.

According to the state-owned daily Al Ahram, the purpose of the field marshal’s visit was to conclude a US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) arms deal funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Gen Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyptian army general who maintains close contact with the military, also said the deal would be finalised in Moscow.

The visit comes nearly three months after Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and defence minister Sergei Shogiu visited Cairo.

Moscow has been trying to expand its influence in Egypt at a time when Egyptian-US relations soured in the aftermath of Mr Morsi’s removal from power and the subsequent crackdown on his Islamist supporters. The United States has been Cairo’s chief foreign backer and benefactor since the 1970s.

Field Marshal El Sisi is widely expected to announce that he will run for president in elections likely due in late April.

The military chief has become hugely popular among a large segment of Egyptians who see him as a saviour of the nation after Mr Morsi’s year-long rule during which he faced allegations that he and his Muslim Brotherhood group were abusing power.

Arabian Gulf countries have thrown their weight behind the Egyptian military and Field Marshal El Sisi’s potential candidacy in what analysts say is an effort to “compensate” for the gradual withdrawal of US support to its longtime ally.

Egypt’s foreign minister Nabil Fahmy who is accompanying el-Sissi in the trip to Moscow, had sought to downplay speculation of a major foreign policy shift during the Russian delegation’s visit three months ago.

At the time, Mr Fahmy said the visit was only an “activation” of existing ties and a sign of cooperation between the two countries “in multiple fields”. In November, Russia’s Interfax news agency said that Egypt has shown interest in purchasing Russian air defence missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons.

Mustafa Al Ani, head of the UAE-based think tank Security and Defence Studies at the Gulf Research Centre said the purchase would showcase the Gulf’s support for Egypt’s post-coup authorities.

“This is a real investment in helping Egypt’s democratic experience succeed through assistance, military aid and other means,” Mr Al Alani said.

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient — after Israel — of US bilateral foreign assistance, largely as a way to sustain the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. Washington froze a large chunk of about $1.5bnin annual aid, mostly for the military, in October.

Egypt was Moscow’s closest Arab ally for two decades starting in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union supported the late nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s ambitious drive to modernise the Arab nation and create a well-armed military at the height of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since Mr Morsi’s government was toppled, Egypt has seen a wave of militant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and beyond, including in Cairo, and has been hit by bombings and suicide attacks that have targeted police and military, leaving scores dead and wounded.

Yesterday, three policemen were killed by unidentified gunmen in a drive-by shooting on a motorway east of the capital, Cairo.

Associated Press