Russia Returns to Egypt as U.S. Backs Away

American suspension of aid to Cairo leaves opening for Moscow to resume patron's role.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The divide between Washington and Cairo and the suspension of American aid to Egypt have brought an old-new player back into the arena – Russia.

Last Thursday an Egyptian public diplomacy delegation visited Moscow to express its gratitude to Russia, Al Arabiya reported. The reason behind this visit is to show our gratitude for the cautious and objective positioning of Russia," said Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Writers' Union of Egypt.

It is not clear why the Writers' Union head led a diplomatic mission or why a dozen intellectuals and politicians needed to "update" Russia on the situation in Egypt. But it seems that the visit's timing was not accidental. The "popular delegation," as it was called in the Egyptian media, landed in Moscow a few days after the American administration announced the suspension of $250 million worth of military aid and the transfer of planes and tanks to Egypt.

On the Egyptian group's return, the media reported that Egypt intended to buy MiG-29 planes and other Russian military equipment. Some reports said Saudi Arabia will finance the main part of the $15 billion dollar deal.

On Monday this week a high-ranking delegation of Egyptian Intelligence officials visited Moscow, apparently to advance the deal. A day later the Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that the head of Russia's military intelligence agency had arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials. Also, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were reportedly planning a summit meeting in the next few days.

As far as Cairo is concerned, these developments will at best persuade the United States to change its attitude toward the military regime. At worst, it will give Russia a strategic foothold in Egypt.

The Egyptians' anger with the United States didn't begin with the aid suspension. President Hosni Mubarak's supporters saw the Obama administration as a traitor who abandoned its ally and supported the rebellion against him.

The backing Washington gave the Muslim Brotherhood, led by since-deposed President Mohammed Morsi, deepened the fears of liberal activists and movements, who saw it as a plot to subject Egypt to American patronage and force Morsi to stick to the peace agreement with Israel. The rage peaked after the army took over in July and ousted Morsi from the presidency. The American administration, facing an impossible dilemma, compromised: It didn't call the goings on in Cairo a "coup," but didn't recognize them as a democratic move either.

For Moscow, this is an opportunity to get its foot in a door that has been closed to it since President Anwar Sadat kicked the Russians out of Egypt in the early '70s. Russia also wants an alternative naval base in the Mediterranean, as the one in Syria may be in danger if Assad's regime falls.

But Cairo is aware that such a strategic swerve is not without problems. Russia has made it clear it will not replace the American economic assistance to Egypt, and the Egyptian army will find it difficult to operate Russian weapons systems, a learning process that takes years.

So despite the public support, the Russian-Egyptian love affair will not sever Egypt's ties with the United States. Sissi, as president, would need the alliance not only for the financial aid, but especially to maintain Egypt's partnership in strategic moves.

The step toward Russia was meant to demonstrate Egypt's anger, and may even help Obama back Egypt in Congress. He can argue that the United States may lose another ally, after losing Iraq and getting the cold shoulder from Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian security forces and civilians detain a supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 6, 2013.Credit: AP

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