Egypt Playing Russian, American Cards

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Alireza Rezakhah
Expert on Middle East Issues

“I know that you, Mr. defense minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt…. It's a very responsible decision.... I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people.” These were the words used by the Russian President Vladimir Putin in his meeting with the Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the latter’s recent visit to Moscow. Of course, el-Sisi, for his part, did not fall short of words of praise for the Russian president. During his meeting with Putin, he openly said that he was infatuated with Putin’s personality. The infatuation of el-Sisi and what Putin wished for Egypt, apparently stirred a lot of concern within the United States government. In a sharp reaction to the meeting between el-Sisi and Putin and the statements they made, US Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said, “We don’t endorse a candidate and I do not think it is, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt. It’s up to the Egyptian people to decide.”

These developments came as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not officially announced his decision to run in the forthcoming Egyptian presidential election yet. The general course of the United States diplomatic interactions with the military-backed Egyptian government following last year’s coup [which toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-backed former president, Mohamed Morsi] also indicates that Washington has no concerns about possible election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as new Egyptian president and even considers it an auspicious development. Of course, Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Egyptian Popular Current and a co-leader of the National Salvation Front has compared el-Sisi with [the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel] Nasser and, in addition, Nasser’s son has clearly supported el-Sisi’s presidential bid. However, the White House is well aware that despite the support lent to el-Sisi by Egypt’s Nasserite currents and his differences with the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sisi will never become a new Gamal Abdel Nasser for the North African country.

El-Sisi does by no means dream of disturbing the existing political order in the Middle East, or coming to loggerheads with Israel. On the contrary, he is basking in the serious support of the kings and emirs of the Persian Gulf littoral countries. A good example to the point was a recent celebration held to mark the anniversary of the October War (also known as the Suez Crisis of 1956). None of the true representatives of Arab revolutions in the region were invited to the event, which was instead held in the presence of the defense ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. These were the same persons whose political ancestors were seriously at odds with Nasser and his cause. Meanwhile, Israel appears to have no concerns about el-Sisi. The New York Times has already published reports about close ties between el-Sisi and Israel as a result of which, the former Israeli defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has explicitly noted that Israel supports Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decision to run for Egypt president. Considering the above facts, the question is why the United States is concerned about possible closeness between Moscow and Cairo? What is el-Sisi seeking to achieve through closer ties with Russia? This article tries to give answers to these two questions.

It is no secret that the Americans are seriously concerned about possible closeness between Cairo and Moscow because such closeness will be directly related to possible distance between Cairo and Washington. The Middle East region, which has become turbulent as a result of popular uprisings since 2011, has not regained its previous calm yet. As a result, regional countries are trying to form new coalitions in order to maintain their security. This comes at a time that the fall of [the former Egyptian dictator, Hosni] Mubarak and [the former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine] Bin Ali has already dealt a severe blow to credit and position of the United States by proving Washington unable of protecting its close allies. These developments have added fuel to Russians’ ambitions in the Middle East region.

Of course, for Moscow, Cairo is much more valuable than just an important ally. The defense strategy of Russia is heavily dependent on the country’s nuclear submarines, which are good means allowing the Kremlin to go around the missile defense system established by the Western countries. This is why Syria and its Mediterranean port city of Tartus are so important to Moscow. Cairo can prove to be a better substitute for Damascus, or even alongside Damascus. However, despite the above facts, many analysts believe that chances for Egypt drifting away from the United States are not high. They argue that by trying to getting closer to Moscow, Cairo is actually endeavoring to find a counterbalance for pressures that are exerted on it by Washington. Of course, Egyptian politicians had already warned the White House about the possibility of such a change in direction. The warning came when the United States decided to cut part of its weapons sales to Egypt, which included delivery of a number of F-16 fighter jets, delivery of some advanced military equipment to Egypt, and payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Cairo. At that time, Nabil Fahmy [an Egyptian politician who has served in the interim government of Egypt as minister of foreign affairs since 2013] said in case the United States cut its aid to Cairo, Egypt would look beyond Washington and consider all options in order to meet its security needs. At the same time, he pointed out that it was not Egypt’s goal to substitute Russia for any other country.

Apart from reducing the United States pressure on Egypt, el-Sisi’s Moscow visit, which took place in the run-up to Egypt’s forthcoming presidential election, will have another benefit for him. By initiating détente with Moscow, el-Sisi will be able to make people believe that he is following suit with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy by convincing them that he is trying to reestablish Egypt’s close relations with Russia while trying to distance from the United States. Distancing from the White House and getting closer to Kremlin will also convey another message to the Egyptian people: Egypt is likely to adopt a new policy on Palestine which would be independent of the United States’ policy in this regard. Since the Egyptian public opinion is imbued with intense hatred for the United States, this can further bolster el-Sisi’s standing in the upcoming presidential campaign. On the whole, these developments can serve to remedy the crisis of legitimacy that el-Sisi will otherwise have to deal with during the presidential election.

Key Words: Egypt, Russia, US, Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Persian Gulf Littoral Countries, Middle East, Rezakhah

Source: Khorasan Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: Milli Gazete

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