Egypt’s announcement earlier this month that it would be signing the final agreement for an industrial zone near the Suez Canal with Russia before the end of this year, was just the latest in a series of headlines that have highlighted increased cooperation between the two states. Moscow and Cairo have strengthened diplomatic ties, bilateral economic aid and arms deals; a strategy that is mutually beneficial to both countries over the past few years.
However, things seem to be a little different across the Atlantic where relations with Egypt’s closest ally appear shaky. The US’ statement in August that it would be cutting military aid to Egypt, allegedly over human rights concerns, was surprising given that Cairo has been excluded from any aid cuts since the signing of the Camp David accords. Despite the suspended sums being minor in comparison to what Egypt usually receives, for many, such a move was indicative of a changed approach from the US.
Meanwhile, high hopes for strengthened ties between the US and Russia after the election of Donald Trump have dwindled, as accusations of Moscow’s interference in the American election persist amid a now official congressional inquiry.
As Egypt wrestles with its economy at home, and military and diplomatic conflicts on all of its borders and beyond, its relations with the historically opposed superpowers of the world remain crucial. But as tensions between the US and Russia, termed last week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as being at “an all-time low”, are unlikely to be resolved soon, where do Egypt’s true loyalties lie?
The alliance of convenience
Egypt’s relations with Russia have warmed significantly since the ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. The same year that Morsi was arrested and subsequently imprisoned, then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi visited Russia to express hope that the two nations could enjoy a similar level of friendship to what they enjoyed during the Soviet era. Since then, the now President Al-Sisi has met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions and the pair have spoken over the phone on common geopolitical interests, particularly both countries’ commitment to tackling terrorism.
Trade has also significantly increased, with Egyptian exports to Russia up by 26 per cent in the first half of 2017, a three year high. The creation of mutual industrial zones has brought Russian investment into the country; essential for Egypt’s recovery as it attempts to implement economic reform at the instruction of the IMF and World Bank. Russian tourism to Egypt is also projected to facilitate greater growth when the expected resumption of direct flights between the two countries comes into effect.
Militarily, Russia has also been reclaiming its historic role prior to the 1979 Camp David Accords, as a supplier of arms to Egypt, with deals signed last year worth up to some $3 billion. Russia is set to provide Egypt with 15 combat helicopters by the end of this year, with Cairo expressing further interest in purchasing 50 Tigr armoured vehicles from Moscow. Joint military exercises have also been launched since last year; the US had cancelled such ventures in 2011, only resuming the exercises last month.
For Moscow, stronger relations with Egypt present numerous advantages, primarily in regards to the ongoing Russian campaign in Syria. As Putin looks to extend his influence in the region and ensure the leadership of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad endures, Egypt has facilitated negotiations on “de-escalation zones” by being able to communicate with different opposition groups and Moscow. Russia also seeks greater involvement in the rest of North Africa, toying with competing government factions of military commander Khalifa Haftar and the UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj, as well as pursuing an interest in the ongoing fight against Daesh militants.
The long-term relationship
Egypt’s relationship with the US was frosty under former President Barack Obama. Despite supporting Al-Sisi in his ascension to power, the US disapproved of the extensive and obvious human rights violations the military government perpetrated against its political opponents. America made its displeasure evident in suspending $1.3bn in annual financial aid after the coup in 2013, a move that was viewed less than favourably by Egypt.
After the aid was reinstated in 2015 and since the election of Donald Trump, tensions seemed to ease, as the current president set out to undo many of his predecessor’s policies. Yet in another surprising turn of events, the US announced in August that it would be cutting its military funding to Egypt, again citing its human rights record.
For many this seemed indicative of a drastic change in attitude from the Trump administration; Egypt had been a stalwart recipient of aid, receiving sums second only to Israel in magnitude. The fact that the US would be willing to cut such aid for the sake of human rights seemed praiseworthy at face value. But it was not long before the real reasons for the aid cuts emerged after the US State Department hinted that Egypt’s relations with North Korea were the source of contention. Such a motivation seemed to be confirmed earlier this month when the US intercepted shipments between Egypt and North Korea, a deal that Egyptian officials claimed they were ignorant of.
Rather than attempting to hold Egypt accountable, the Trump administration’s latest actions are evidence of a return to traditionalist US policy in regards to the Middle East.
Whilst Obama was not keen to uphold national security arrangements at the expense of democracy promotion in the region, Trump identified countering terrorism as the unifying factor with Arab states during his visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Such a message was met gleefully on the part Al-Sisi, who took the statement as permission to enact whatever domestic regulations would be necessary against his opposition at home, without expecting much retaliation from the US. However, such an allowance would only be tolerated by Washington as long as Egypt’s foreign policy remained well and truly tied to America’s preferences.
As the Trump administration took a harsher position towards North Korea, it became necessary to use the shield of Egypt’s appalling human rights record to send a signal to Cairo on what the repercussions of continued ties to a nation on the brink of war with the US would be. And Egypt has obliged, cutting all ties with North Korea, and a week later, Trump told reporters as he began a meeting with Al-Sisi that he would “certainly consider” reinstating the halted aid. Even before Egypt distanced itself from North Korea, the US had taken the contradictory step of resuming military exercises with Egypt for the first time since 2009.
Thus, what increasingly looks to be Washington’s temporary suspension of aid, merely serves as a timely reminder that Egypt’s foreign policy must always ultimately be in line with US interests.
The eagle remains
Whilst Russia seeks to increase its presence in the Middle East, it is undeniable that the US remains the key player and the most important of allies. In regards to Egypt in particular, their relationship goes beyond that of simply economic and security partners, but is rather defined by a long term association built upon shared political and ideological aims, be it maintaining the security of Israel or quashing dissent in a hotspot of political Islam.
Nevertheless, some years of uncertainty have led Egypt to tread carefully. While it would never look to replace the US as its main ally, it hedges its bets by looking to diversify its trade and security partners, such that were relations to turn shaky, it could sustain itself until the tension eased.
Russia is also aware of this, and whilst it does not seek to dominate the region as a whole, it seeks to reap its own advantages from the situation. It contents itself with primarily directing its influences towards countering terrorism; perhaps the only issue on which the US will welcome its cooperation.
For now, such a scenario currently seems acceptable to everyone. Only time will tell if this will remain the case as the Russia-US saga continues to play out on the world stage.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.