Creating new perspectives since 2009

Moscow on Egypt: balance and ambiguity

January 28, 2014 at 2:28 am

The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the beginning of July that it will take a “balanced” position on the isolation of Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

This has also been articulated clearly in subsequent statements made by several Russian officials. Russia’s position was based on the need to denounce all violence and avoid excluding any parties while Egypt undergoes a national political dialogue in an effort to achieve a modern democracy. Despite rumours to the contrary, President Vladimir Putin has not made any statements about Egypt except to say that the country is on the brink of a civil war. This would suggest that claims that Russia has sent military aid and aircraft in support of Egypt’s military rulers are false.

Russia’s official “balanced” but rather ambiguous position stands ill at ease with the statements of other Russians, such as Alexei Boshkov, the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Russian Duma (lower parliamentary chamber). According to Boshkov, “What is going on in Egypt is a blatant disregard for the democratic process and the result of dangerous manipulation carried out by outside forces.”

Insisting that it is impossible to have a legitimate democratic process if the military has seized power, Boshkov said that the military has, in fact, gained control of Egypt. “We can not be oblivious to this fact, and there is a violent struggle for power under the banner of democracy. Egypt is not alone in this. This is occurring in many other countries as well. Similar things are occurring in Russia.” It looks as if fears that “Egyptian fever” will spread to his country.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst and deputy in the Russian Parliament, agreed with Boshkov’s opinion that foreign powers are playing a role in what is going on in Egypt. At the same time, the Mufti Council of Russia is torn between support for Russia’s official position on the events in Egypt and its own more conservative opinion on Morsi’s detention. It is interesting to note that various “Islamist” Russian writers have entirely ignored the June 30th protests and have focused all their attention on Morsi’s isolation. For example, in his recent interview in the prominent Russian weekly magazine Kommersant Vlasst, Ernst Sultanov advised the Kremlin to build bridges with the Muslim Brotherhood because, he predicted, it will return to power.

There are also those who believe that Egypt is on a corrective and logical path that was set out by the January 25th Revolution. For example, former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov, who is also a specialist on the Middle East, believes that the root cause of the crisis in Egypt is Morsi’s attempt to “Islamify” Egypt and expand his own executive authority. Primakov noted that the president deviated from Egypt’s secular charter as soon as he took office, which he believes is evident by Morsi’s attempt to expand his executive authority and the country’s deteriorating economic situation. As for the US position on Egypt, Primakov believes that it is not respecting the democratic will of the Egyptian people, which is “clearly manifested” in the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood. By the same token, Mikhail Margelov, the current Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federal Council of Russia, believes that Egypt is on the correct path that was set forth by the Arab Spring and he predicts that many Arab countries will follow Egypt’s example.

Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the Institute for Oriental Studies in Russia, has set out three possible scenarios for Egypt. The first would be the continuation of the status quo, with the Muslim Brotherhood continuing to protest against Morsi’s removal from power and calling for an end to military rule; the economic crisis could be solved by a technocrat civilian government. In Naumkin’s opinion, the second possibility is a civil war in which the Muslim Brotherhood will attempt to remove the military from power by force. Third, he believes that members of the Brotherhood may participate in the upcoming elections.

In my opinion, Moscow’s ambiguous and “balanced” position on the events in Egypt are most likely due to recommendations made by orientalist Russians to the Kremlin during Morsi’s period in office, which sees it as necessary for Russia to adopt a pragmatic approach to dealing with the changes in various Arab countries. These recommendations promoted the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood was a moderate organisation and that Russia must continue to deal with it if it wants to protect its interests in the Middle East.

In an April 20th interview with the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets one day after Putin and Morsi met in Sochi, Naumkin said, “There is currently no real threat to the Islamic authority governing Egypt. I think that the forces in opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood remain rather limited in terms of size and support from the people. They will not be able to undermine the Brotherhood’s authority. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are the most influential forces.”

It is evident that the lack of consensus among the ranks of the Russian elite is keeping Moscow from taking a firm stance on Egypt, which is in stark contrast to its deep involvement in the Syrian crisis.

This article is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared in As Safir Newspaper on 12 August, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.