Just as the red carpet was being rolled out in Cairo in honor of the visiting Russian foreign and defense ministers, Egypt’s headliners were busy declaring that nothing had altered in their country’s geopolitical orientation. According to them, all is as it was – they still are officially allies of the US, still cooperate with its intelligence agencies and would still welcome American economic largesse.
But the very fact that the Egyptian leadership felt bound to articulate and accentuate a business-as-usual message indicates that its business agenda is anything but usual. The very fact that high-level and high-profile Russian visits are taking place for the first time in a very long time, replete with pomp and circumstance, attests quite loudly that things are hardly quite what they were.
It’s not difficult to pinpoint the triggers for change. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime was greeted with undisguised American displeasure and was followed by Washington’s decision to suspend much of the $1.3bil earmarked for military aid to Egypt. The US not only withheld cash subsidies but also indefinitely deferred the delivery of large-scale military systems.
Egyptian government spokesmen described this as “wrongheaded” and vowed that Cairo would “not surrender to American pressure.” Secretary of state John Kerry sought to punctuate the American moves with the assurance that this wasn’t “a withdrawal from our relationship.”
Yet he was as unconvincing as the current official Egyptian assurances that the Russian ministerial visits signify no policy-departure on Cairo’s part.
The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the world’s single superpower with the largest Arab state. The Russian ministerial visits were preceded by a visit to Egypt by the chief of Russian intelligence and by Russian naval vessels.
More importantly, the visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu involve a major sale to Egypt of sophisticated Russian military hardware – clearly a counter move to the American halting of weapons supplies.
The Egyptians are essentially saying that they can shop elsewhere and not have to shell out cash. According to reliable reports, another exasperated American ally, Saudi Arabia, is footing the bill for this transaction to the tune of $4bil. Additionally, the Russians might likely be compensated by gaining access for their navy to port facilities on the Mediterranean.
Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling both Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.
Egypt’s latest rulers might be realistic enough not to expect the same now and likewise today’s Kremlin likely doesn’t expect to wield quite the same clout as in yesteryear, but the direction is unmistakable.
Russia is eager for a toehold in Egypt again and Egypt has every reason to play along to spite president Barack Obama and Kerry, both of whom are resented for what are regarded in Cairo as Muslim Brotherhood sympathies.
Obama and Kerry may proclaim ad infinitum that they were only supporting democratic rule in Egypt but this won’t wash. For one thing the deposed Mohamed Morsi violated his country’s constitution and limited the authority of the courts in clear contravention of democratic precepts. But, far more tellingly, Muslim Brotherhood adherents denounce the Obama Administration with vituperation that markedly exceeds that of their political antagonists.
Obama and Kerry figured this out a tad tardily and on his recent stopover in Cairo, Kerry even sought to talk his Egyptian interlocutors out of the Russian deal by offering to restore full military aid. Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, however, made it clear that Egypt intends to take whatever it can get from both sides.
If anything, the Russian reappearance in this region is entirely made-in-America and it was hardly unavoidable.
This serious-cum-superfluous complication in already too problematical an arena constitutes yet another spectacular US foreign policy flop, arising from a fundamental failure to fathom the Mideast’s confounding intricacies.