x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Putin endorses El Sisi’s ‘run for president’ of Egypt

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El Sisi came to Moscow for talks aimed at securing Russian assistance — stagnant since the late Soviet era — which could replace subsiding support from Cairo’s more recent ally Washington.

MOSCOW // Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday wished Egypt’s military chief victory in the nation’s presidential vote, even though he has yet to announce his bid.

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El Sisi came to Moscow for talks aimed at securing Russian assistance — stagnant since the late Soviet era — which could replace subsiding support from Cairo’s more recent ally Washington.

Mr Putin’s backing of the field marshal also signalled Moscow’s desire to expand its ties with Egypt.

The Russian leader’s public endorsement is unlikely to cause a stir in Egypt, where an announcement by the field marshal that he is running in the election is a matter of when, not if.

“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Mr Putin said. “That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.”

Field Marshal El Sisi did not mention his presidential ambitions in brief opening remarks, but emphasised his focus on ensuring security, saying that the country’s military is capable of providing it.

The 59-year-old army chief rose to prominence after leading the overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi last year after unprecedented protests against his Islamist government.

He is popular among a large segment of Egyptians and is widely expected to announce a candidacy for presidential elections that are likely due in late April.

Mr Putin is known to have been less than warm toward Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

“Putin and El Sisi have a lot in common, both coming from an intelligence background, both having waged a war on terrorism ... and both sharing a negative view of the Brotherhood,” said Abdullah El Sinawi, a prominent Cairo-based analyst known to be close to the military.

Mr El Sinawi said the field marshal wanted to send a signal to Washington, while Mr Putin was eager to acquire a new ally in the Middle East. “Putin wants to have a foot in Egypt instead of an expected loss on the Syrian side,” he said. “Egypt needs an international entrusted ally that would balance relations with America. Egypt will be open to other centres of power without breaking the relations with the US.”

Last month, the US Congress approved a spending bill that would restore US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) in aid to Egypt, but only on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.

Without naming the United States, the Kremlin used Field Marshal El Sisi’s visit to criticise what it regards as US interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia’s ties with the US have been badly strained by disputes ranging from Syria’s civil war, to missile defence plans in Europe, to Moscow’s human rights record.

Earlier in the day, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said after meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmy, that Russia and Egypt agreed to “speed up the preparation of documents that would give an additional impulse to our military and military-technical cooperation”.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, who met separately with Field Marshal El Sisi, said the need to strengthen military cooperation between Russia and Egypt stems from “common challenges and threats”, but mainly terrorism.

Mr Shoigu said he and Egypt’s army chief discussed possibilities for joint military exercises and training Egyptian officers in Russian military academies. “We also discussed the ways of expanding cooperation between our air forces and navies,” Mr Shoigu said.

Neither Mr Lavrov nor Mr Shoigu mentioned any specifics related to weapons sales, but Russian media reported last fall that Egypt was interested in acquiring Russian air defence missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and other weapons.

The visit comes nearly three months after Lavrov and Shoigu visited Cairo, the fact that Fahmy said reflects both countries’ interest in expanding their cooperation.

“Naturally, we discussed bilateral relations, and there is an interest in developing economic ties through a bilateral committee next month that will have specific proposals working toward the interest of both nations,” Mr Fahmy said.

* Associated Press