America, a sideline spectator for a change

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Putin’s recent visit to Cairo means Egypt and Russia have put the US in the unfamiliar role of bystander.

During his televised speech addressing the nation, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on Sunday made it a point to assert the necessity of fostering relationships, both regionally and internationally, to ensure Egypt’s development and maintain its position as a global actor. As the president said, building relations with all countries is for Egypt’s sake.

Among the countries Al-Sisi singled out for special mention was Russia, and for good reason.Wherever Russian President Vladimir Putin went on his recent two-day visit to Egypt, there was pomp. Welcome banners festooned the streets where Putin’s portrait and the Russian tricolour were predominantly displayed. Putin was given a 21-gun salute as he was driven through the driveway of the presidential palace, flanked by soldiers on horseback in full military uniform. He and Al-Sisi took in two exerts of Swan Lake and Aida at the Cairo Opera House, then were snapped enjoying a quaint meal for two.

Putin described Cairo as a “trusted partner” and Al-Sisi said Moscow was a “strategic friend”. It was an opportune time for this parallel praising, as the two countries found comfort in this alliance in the face of less affectionate relations with the US. Putin is facing Western isolation and sanctions over his support for pro-Russian separatists in neighbouring Ukraine. Egypt and the US, meanwhile, are not totally in sync after Mohamed Morsi was kicked out of the presidential palace in 2013.

Thus, Putin’s visit was as much about the strained relationship both countries have with Washington as it was about bilateral ties. Due to the former, the latter has become exceptionally warm.

This blossoming Cairo-Moscow axis is being compared to that of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. But after the Soviets were kicked out by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s, Egypt became the trusted partner in the Middle East of the US, which since 1979 has subsidised its army to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. A momentary curtailment of US largesse, in response to what Washington perceives as Cairo’s curtailing of human rights, rekindled some tactical warmth in Cairo’s relationship with Moscow.

Washington seems to have got the message, restoring the military stipend to Egypt. Indeed, in December, Congress passed a bill providing up to $1.4 billion in mostly military aid to Egypt. Unlike the previous year’s bill, it includes a waiver allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to ignore preconditions on what is termed ‘democracy and human rights’ for national security reasons.

Yet the bump with the US was enough to open a Middle East door for Russia. Although the suspension was only partial and temporary, Egypt’s government strongly condemned it and turned to Russia, which was only too happy to fill the US void in the Arab world’s most populous nation, and one of the region’s most geopolitically important countries. The message was clear: if the US would not provide weapons unconditionally, Cairo would get them from Russia, Washington’s long-time competitor for influence in the Middle East.

Defiance against Washington has played well domestically amid opinion polls showing widespread negative views among Egyptians towards the US. Russia felt the wind of change and seized the right moment to give a helping hand to Egypt.

Russia has more to offer Egypt – on very favourable conditions – than any of its Western partners. In Egypt, Putin focused on economic cooperation, saying there was an 80 percent increase in trade between the two countries last year. The plan is to increase the already existing cooperation between the two countries in the agricultural sector. This is good for Russia, since it strengthens its food security, and for Egypt because it shores up its still fragile economy. Furthermore, Russia remains the key grain supplier to Egypt, providing 40 percent of the country’s grain consumption. Russia will not have any problems fulfilling grain supply obligations after it reaped a record grain harvest last year.

Foreign trade between the two countries, already standing at approximately $3 billion, is expected to double this year. This month, Egypt said it would sign a contract to receive 35 shipments of Russian liquefied natural gas until 2020. The Russian leader also acclaimed the fact that Egypt is one of the major consumers of Russian wheat, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the consumed grains in the country. Egyptian officials guaranteed that Egypt would boost its exports of agricultural produce by 30 percent to Russia.

The two leaders also discussed the possibility of eliminating the US dollar in bilateral trade between both nations. In an attempt to exclude the American dollar between Egyptian and Russian trade of goods, the settlement of accounts will be in respective national currencies. Putin says the use of national currencies between Russia and a number of states, including China, has proved time and again its worth for both sides. At least the use of national currencies – the rouble and the Egyptian pound — in the settlement of accounts will help create more favourable conditions for Russian vacationers who annually spend their holidays in Egypt — just in time as the tourist season in Egypt is close to beginning.

The signing of a memorandum of understanding to build a nuclear power plant in Dabaa in what would be Egypt’s first such facility, was one of the visit’s highlights. Russia is to contribute to the construction of the plant, and training its staff while conducting scientific research. This is not just about the construction of a nuclear power plant but the creation of an entire atomic energy sector in Egypt.

The sale of weaponry was not discussed out loud but Putin’s gift to Al-Sisi, an AK-47, also known as a Kalashnikov rifle, foreshadows a possible billion-dollar Russian deal to supply Egypt with weapons. Russia was the first country to sell weapons to Cairo after the 1952 Revolution, and remained Egypt’s main supplier of weapons until the 1973 war and the parting of ways. The hiccup with Washington does not mean Egypt is talking about a shift in its arms procurement strategy, but rather about weapons diversification. Why buy from just Walmart when you have all of Macy’s?

With the aforementioned agreements in order, Al-Sisi and Putin are also set to strike more deals within the forthcoming months, with plans to possibly create a free trade zone specifically for Russia — which will be named the Russian Industrial Zone — at the new Suez Canal.

On the diplomatic score, it was almost prophetic that both sides agreed on the importance of standing together to fight terrorism, for just a few days later Moscow was offering Cairo political and military assistance in the wake of the butchering of 21 Egyptians by Islamic State in Libya.

People might have looked at Putin’s visit as ordinary, one of the numerous routine diplomatic gestures that change nothing and mean little. That was not the case at all. The visit was the latest sign of a burgeoning of a major geo-political relationship, not just between the two countries, but between the two presidents who clearly hit it off, maybe because both have a military background. Putin endorsed Al-Sisi’s presidential candidacy, while Al-Sisi’s first visit to a non-Arab country since Morsi’s ouster was to Russia. Last week’s visit was Putin’s first to Egypt in a decade and in so doing, he became the first leader of a major power to visit Egypt since Al-Sisi became president in 2014.

In his address to the nation, Al-Sisi referred to the strategic relations that bind Egypt and the United States. Egypt’s ties with the US should not be minimised, nor can they be. However, Putin’s visit should also demonstrate to the wider international audience that the foreign policies of Egypt and Russia will not be dictated by outsiders and that neither country is entirely beholden to the West, and that would include the US.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.