Egypt’s Sisi sees new Russia defense cooperation


Egypt’s top general hailed a new era of defense cooperation with Russia on Thursday during a visit by Russian officials, signaling Egyptian efforts to revive ties with an old ally and send a message to Washington after it suspended military aid.

Tension between Cairo and Washington has mounted since the army overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3. Last month, Washington announced it would withhold deliveries of some military and economic aid pending progress on democracy.

Both sides billed as historic the visit to Cairo by Russia’s defense and foreign ministers, though officials said nothing to indicate the conclusion of major agreements during a joint news conference by the foreign ministers.

And playing down speculation of a big shift in Egyptian foreign policy defined by close ties with Washington for more than three decades, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said Russia was not meant to be a “substitute” for anyone.

Egypt and the Soviet Union were close allies until the 1970s, when Cairo moved closer to the United States, which brokered its 1979 peace deal with Israel.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s army chief and defense minister, told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, the visit indicated the continuation of “historic strategic relations via starting a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level”, the state news agency reported.

Shoigu and Sisi talked about strengthening military relations between the countries, the agency said.
“It’s meant to send a message to say Egypt has options, and that if the United States wishes to maintain its strategic alliance with Egypt, it will have to drop the conditions it attaches to the military aid,” said Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Washington has said it would consider resuming some of the suspended aid depending on Egypt’s progress in following the interim government’s plans to hold elections – a plan the government says it is committed to seeing through.

Seeking to mend fences with Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy during a November 3 visit to Cairo.

A Western diplomat in Cairo said the prospect of the United States resuming aid early next year was one factor diminishing the chances of a major new defense deal with Moscow.

Analysts have also questioned how the heavily indebted Egyptian state would pay for new armaments, saying it would likely require more financial support from Gulf allies that have pledged $12 billion in support to Cairo since Mursi’s downfall.

There is also a question mark over how Russian armaments could be integrated with Egypt’s U.S.-built weapon systems.

Egypt receives around $1.3 billion in military aid from the United States each year.

But on October 9, Washington announced it would withhold deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters and missiles as well as $260 million in cash aid from the military-installed government pending progress towards democracy and human rights.

Sisi deposed Mursi on July 3 following mass protests against his Muslim Brotherhood-backed rule. The general has emerged as a popular figure among many Egyptians pleased to see the end of Mursi’s administration. Many analysts believe he would likely win a presidential election due next year were he to run.

State TV used the Russians’ visit to evoke comparisons with Egyptian foreign policy under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the popular army colonel who led Egypt after the army overthrew the monarchy in 1952.

Nasser forged close ties with the Soviet Union in the 1950s that continued until the 1970s. The main state TV station broadcast archive footage of Nasser’s meetings with Soviet officials.

Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, said Cairo was looking to “reactivate” an old relationship with Russia. Egypt and Russia would reconvene a joint governmental committee aimed at promoting economic cooperation, the ministers said.
“We are ready to help Egypt in all the fields where it seeks cooperation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

He also said Russia stood ready to help Egypt modernize projects built with Soviet help in the Nasser era.