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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Russia and Egypt grow closer as Kremlin asserts regional influence 

Unlike Washington, Moscow offers Cairo policy of non-interference

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi shake hands during a signing ceremony following their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Reuters 
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi shake hands during a signing ceremony following their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Reuters 

A growing rapprochement between Egypt and Russia is seeing a return to a Cold War era in which Cairo was Moscow’s closest and most strategic Arab ally.

But as decades of mistrust come to an end and a firm alliance begins to take shape, the new dynamic has few similarities to what the world witnessed in the 50s and 60s, when Egypt relied heavily on the Soviet Union to arm and develop while it engaged in an existential fight against Israel.

It was a time of global polarisation that left most non-aligned Third World nations like Egypt little choice but to join either the Soviet or US-led camp.

As power dynamics shift and Washington reduces its military involvement in the Middle East, Moscow's growing role in the region — and particularly in Syria — adds geopolitical significance to the union.

For Egypt, the alliance reflects President Abdel Fattah El Sisi's drive to win back the country's role as a regional powerhouse and benefit from Moscow’s own growing standing.

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So far Russia has used its influence in Syria to allow Egypt to mediate a series of regional ceasefires between government forces and their opponents there — a move that has given Cairo a small foothold in a country whose future could determine the fate of the region.

Syria has also come to represent a place where their shared beliefs take shape, including a zero-tolerance policy toward militant Islam and a shared conviction that a hasty departure by President Bashar Al Assad would plunge Syria into a vicious cycle of bloodshed and fragment the country.

Egypt’s old alliance with the Soviet Union began to unravel in 1972 when the late president Anwar Sadat ordered the expulsion of thousands of Soviet military advisers and began to inch closer to the United States.

A US-sponsored peace treaty signed in 1979 sealed the new alliance with the US and Egypt soon became one of Washington’s closest Arab allies.

Egypt’s relations with the US went through a rocky phase under Barack Obama’s administration following the 2011 uprising that toppled US ally Hosni Mubarak and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood the following year.

With Mr Obama gone and Donald Trump now in the White House, the two nations are close again, but with a key difference — Egypt is just as close to Russia and their bond is likely to grow stronger.

Unlike the US, Russia is not offering Egypt the nearly $2 billion in annual military and economic aid that Washington has been handing out since the 1970s. Moscow's embassy is nowhere near as large as that of the Americans, with hundreds of diplomats and administrators stationed in a high-rise that sits on vast grounds with surrounding streets closed off to traffic and sealed by concrete blast barriers — something that has long been viewed by many Egyptians as a distasteful symbol of US influence.

More importantly, Egypt sees in Russia a reliable and consistent ally that is indifferent or unwilling to follow the West’s example and criticise its human rights record, seen by Cairo as unwarranted meddling in its domestic affairs.

Cairo and Moscow's closeness is best seen in President El Sisi’s four visits to Russia since taking office in 2014, with the latest one wrapping up last week.

The three-day visit ended with Mr El Sisi and President Vladimir Putin signing a partnership and strategic co-operation treaty that, in the words of the Egyptian leader, should "open a new chapter in the history of our co-operation."

Mr Putin himself has been to Egypt twice since 2014.

In December he signed a deal with President El Sisi for a Russian company to build the Arab nation’s first nuclear power station in Dabaa, west of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

Egypt has meanwhile been spending lavishly on Russians arms, buying fighter jets and helicopter gunships, among other hardware. The Russian and Egyptian military have held a series of war games, with the latest one this month involving commandos.

The Egyptian and Russian leaders have also been looking into setting up a Russian industrial park alongside the Suez Canal, with Russian companies expected to invest up to $7bn in building industrial plants in the area, according to Mr Putin. Bilateral trade rose by 62 per cent last year, reaching $6.7bn, and is expected to record further growth this year.

But the key question of air travel between the two countries remains unsolved, much to the dismay of the Egyptians who view a resumption of direct Russian flights to their Red Sea resorts as essential to the revival of Egypt’s vital tourism industry.

Mr El Sisi directly urged Russia last week to resume flights, suspended by Moscow after a bomb planted by ISIS downed a Russian passenger airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015, killing all 224 people on board and straining ties between the two countries.

The crash took place shortly after the aircraft took off from Sharm El Sheikh, a Red Sea resort popular with Russian tourists, dealing a severe blow to a tourism industry already battered by the turmoil and violence of the years that followed the 2011 uprising.