Sisi in Russia: Moscow's Egyptian gambit

Abdel Fattah Sisi with Vladimir Putin Field Marshal Sisi (l) met with Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow

There is undoubted symbolism in Moscow being the first foreign port of call for the Egyptian military chief Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi since he ousted the Islamist administration of President Mohammed Morsi last July. Symbolism and some substance too.

The Egyptian Army chief has received a clear political endorsement from the Russian President Vladimir Putin in his bid for Egypt's presidency. (A bid that everyone expects but that he has not yet announced!).

Russia and Egypt are talking about stepping up defence cooperation and there could be big arms contracts too. Russian press reports speak of a potential $2bn deal to supply Egypt with advanced aircraft, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles; all to be largely paid for by Saudi Arabia and the UAE - Egypt's allies in the Gulf.

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Russia is back - its diplomacy driven by a desire to bolster its long-time ally, the embattled President Basher al-Assad in Syria, but equally motivated by a sense of opportunity”

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So, on one reading, Egypt appears to be at a strategic cross-roads; frustrated with Washington, now tilting back towards Moscow, bringing with it memories of the close ties that existed between Cairo and the Soviet Union prior to the 1970s. For some two decades Egypt was one of Moscow's closest military allies in the region. Russia supplied the overwhelming bulk of its key military equipment: armour, artillery, combat jets and surface-to-air missiles.

But Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1973 war set in train a sequence of events that produced a peace deal with Israel; a deal that was buttressed with large quantities of US military aid. Very quickly Egypt joined the ranks of Washington's most important allies in the region. Egyptian officers were now trained in US military academies and their troops operated US equipment. From 1987 to the present the US has given Egypt some $1.3bn of military aid every year.

The Soviet Union's subsequent collapse seemed to put paid to Moscow's major interest in the Middle East and it largely ceased to be a player in the Mediterranean.

(L-R) Field Marshal Sisi, Sergei Lavrov, Sergei Shoigu, 13 Feb Field Marshal Sisi - with Russia's foreign and defence ministers - has yet to formally announce his presidency bid
No superpower

Today though, a little over 25 years later, Russia is back; its diplomacy driven by a desire to bolster its long-time ally, the embattled President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but equally motivated by a sense of opportunity. The popular uprisings so loosely dubbed "the Arab Spring" have thrown Western policy towards the region into crisis and especially so in Egypt.

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US military support is written in to the DNA of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, a triangular relationship that has considerable weight independent of the broader climate between Cairo and Washington”

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The Obama administration struggled to cope with the changes, ultimately cutting adrift its ally - President Hosni Mubarak - and backing what it hoped would be a moderate Islamist experiment in popular rule. Washington then hesitated again when this government was overthrown by the Egyptian armed forces, with Field Marshal Sisi at their head. The Obama administration refused to condemn this take-over as a military coup, though it did freeze a significant quantity of US aid. Relations between Cairo and Washington are bumpy to say the least.

Russia has always seen the Western interpretation of the Arab uprisings as naive, fearing instability and a rising tide of Islamism. It clearly has no qualms about backing Egypt's military strong man.

Lubricating this relationship with some weaponry, for which by all accounts it will actually get paid, makes for good business as well.

But while Russia may be back as a player in the Middle East it would perhaps be wrong to see this as a return to the world of some 30 years ago. The US, for all its problems in the region, remains a key player. Russia probably cannot afford to match the largesse dished out as US military aid, and those paying for Egypt's new hardware - especially the Saudis - would not want a complete breach between Cairo and Washington.

US military support is written in to the DNA of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, a triangular relationship that has considerable weight independent of the broader climate between Cairo and Washington.

Russia too is not the Soviet Union. It is no superpower and has less to offer Cairo. But this Moscow visit enables the man who may soon be Egypt's elected leader to make a point; to show that Washington is not the only game in town and that up to a point Cairo has choices and friends elsewhere.

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