Cairo's strategic maneuver between Washington and Moscow
By Dr. Moshe Albo | January, 2022
The Egyptian strategy is managing to maneuver between the United States and Russia despite the growing tension between the great powers in the global arena. Closer security and political ties with Israel alongside a lead role in the mediation on the Palestinian issue serve as a strategic asset that is being leveraged by the Egyptian regime to fortify its status in Washington. Cairo is also deepening its strategic relations with Russia as the latter is increasing its influence in Egypt, primarily by means of the civil nuclear project.
Egyptian-Russian relations following the July 2013 Revolution
El-Sisi first visited Moscow in his capacity as the Egyptian President in August 2014. The visit had symbolized the Egyptian regime's desire to lessen its strategic dependency on the United States in view of the policy led by the latter during and following the ousting of President Mubarak, and the need to diversify its security-military and political sources of support. Moscow, for its part, has identified an opportunity to strengthen its strategic ties with Egypt, while driving a wedge between Cairo and Washington. Relations between the two countries have since tightened, whereas the crisis between Washington and Cairo following the ousting of President Morsi has intensified.
Putin's reciprocal visit in February 2015 had set the warm tone of the relations between the two leaders, as well as the depth of the strategic collaboration between the two countries. During it, the parties decided to establish 4 civil nuclear power plants in el-Dabaa (east of Alexandria). The agreement was signed in November 2015 and is estimated to cost 28.75 billion U.S. Dollars. Russia has loaned 85% of the cost of setup at comfortable terms. By playing a key role in Egypt's civil nuclear project, Moscow aims to deepen the strategic collaboration between the two countries, while leveraging this endeavor to establish its clout over Egyptian state and security leadership, as well as promoting long-term interests in Egypt.
Subsequently, Egypt has signed extensive arms deals with Moscow, including S300 air defense batteries, Mig 29 squadrons, and assault helicopters. The two countries have also started to engage in joint military training ("Defenders of Friendship"), and, in November 2017, a contract was signed enabling mutual use of military bases and air space (the contract is supposed to be renewed every 5 years).
Furthermore, in October 2018, Egypt signed a strategic partnership agreement with Russia to strengthen the economic and security ties between the two countries. As part of this agreement, a Russian industrial zone (RIZ) will be built near the Suez Canal on 5.25 million square meters at a cost of 7 billion U.S. Dollars, and include 4 Russian docks in the canal. By enhancing the partnership, Egypt aimed to give its economy a push, diversify and encourage foreign investing, as well as create an alternative for U.S. support; whereas Russia sought to project regional clout and open commercial routes through the canal to Africa, particularly Libya, while entrenching its long-term presence on a strategic route of global importance – the Suez Canal.
Cracks in the alliance or a bump in the road?
This past year has been characterized by a warmer strategic partnership between Russia and Egypt, alongside a public dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The Russian Ambassador made an appearance on Egyptian media outlets to address poignant criticism against Moscow after the Russian delegate to the Security Council was quoted as saying that the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt must be resolved by means of diplomacy, and that use of force should be avoided at all cost. Egyptian criticism further increased when news of an arms deal Russia had signed with Ethiopia (12 July) reached Cairo, despite Moscow's denial of any connection between the timing of this transaction and the growing tension between Cairo and Addis Ababa.
Russian Ambassador to Egypt Georgy Borisenko's response on Egyptian media was diplomatic but unapologetic: Russia is pursuing the promotion of a balanced policy among its allies in the region, and will even be prepared to mediate in the resolution of this conflict; Russia is striving to develop its military-security partnership with Egypt, but is also "concerned" about Egypt's participation in the Black Sea naval exercise last June with the United States and Ukraine; there are those who seek to incite and dent the strategic ties between Russia and Egypt, and the two countries must not play into their hands.
In a nutshell, the message Russia was conveying was: The rules that Cairo is playing by in its relations with the great powers do not place it in the position to criticize Moscow's policy in Ethiopia. The Russian and Egyptian shared interests have not changed, and Moscow is interested in further enhancing them, while reducing American influence in Egypt; however, it has no intention of subsequently foregoing any other interest it seeks to promote in Africa. Ultimately, friction between the two countries is restricted, and has not affected ties at the strategic level, despite Egypt's disappointment with Russian policy on one of its key national security issues.
Russian-Egyptian strategic security collaboration deepens
In a conversation held between President el-Sisi and President Putin (25 December), the two leaders emphasized the importance of deepening bilateral ties, primarily the nuclear project in el-Dabaa, which should become operational in 2028, as well as the need to set the wheels of the Suez Canal RIZs – in Port Said and Ain Sokhna - in motion during 2022.
This new development was reflected in Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly's remarks at the Egyptian-Russian Nuclear Energy Forum: “Russia has always been a reliable partner to Egypt. When the Soviet Union was there, Russia helped Egypt build its first nuclear reactor in Anshas in the 1960s… It seems that history repeats itself as Egypt’s political leadership decided to choose Russia again to take charge of building the country’s new national project — Dabaa nuclear plant”. Madbouly underscored the two countries' strategic relations and long history that enable the advancement of projects of national security importance.
Grigory Sonsnin, Director General of the Dabaa Project, indicated that the four nuclear reactors that will be built on site will be advanced (third generation), and help to improve the standards of living in Egypt. He further noted that the Dabaa Project will be as historical as the High Dam, which Russia helped Egypt build during President Abdel-Nasser's presidency.
Anchoring Washington's commitment – The strategic U.S.-Egyptian dialogue
Operation Guardian of the Wall has demonstrated Egypt's strategic importance as a mediator in the Gaza Strip, and its contribution to robust regional stability. President Biden, who spoke to el-Sisi for the first time during the said operation, has discarded his views on "Trump's favorite dictator", effectively promoting pragmatic policies that are serving the old-new U.S. strategy in the region. This strategy does not aspire to spearhead democratization in the Arab world, regime changes, or aggressive military campaigns, but pursues the strengthening of regional alliances as well as American influence by diplomatic and economic means. This policy has already led to closer ties with the Egyptian regime this past year, as well as the containment of widespread criticism by both Congress and Senate against the infringement of human rights by the Egyptian government.
The strategic dialogue held last November at foreign minister level focused on establishing a strategic partnership between the two countries in areas such as economic and commercial affairs, education, culture, defense, and more. The United States had expressed its appreciation of Egypt's leadership in mediating solutions between Israel and the Gaza Strip, reaffirmed its steadfast commitment to Egypt's water security, and backed the Egyptian position on the need to remove all foreign forces from Libya, as well as promote a free democratic process there.
The United States had further expressed its commitment to broaden military and security collaborations between the two countries (over the last 12 months, 5 joint naval exercises have been carried out, as well as a strategic aerial exercise – Bright Star – compared to just two comprehensive training exercises held with the Russian Army), as well as provide support for counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State in both Sinai and mainland Egypt.
Egypt has managed to successfully maneuver between Washington and Moscow, while leveraging the great power rivalry to promote its own national security interests. American support is a strategic asset that Egypt is actively preserving by highlighting its valuableness for regional stability, as well as its stronger ties with Israel. Washington, for its part, recognizes Egypt's geostrategic importance, and seeks to maintain its status as the Egyptian regime's main source of support. Thus, the White House is attempting to minimize any disagreement with the Egyptian government, despite poignant domestic criticism against human right violation in Egypt, which has even led to the freezing of 130 million USD of annual funding.
At the same time, Egypt is also deepening its strategic ties with Russia via several civil as well as military-security projects. Moscow is seeking to broaden its influence in Egypt by promoting long-tern strategic projects and large-scale arms sales, while driving a wedge between Cairo and Washington.
To date, Egypt has wisely avoided any conflict of interests, managing its multiple strategic relations concurrently and with no friction. For instance, Cairo has pulled out of the Su-35 procurement transaction following the U.S. State Department's public threat to impose sanctions on it. At this stage, Egypt is refraining from implementing this arms deal to avoid winding up in crisis with the White House, and has, instead, purchased 30 French Rafale fighter jets.
Israel should leverage its ties with both Egypt and the U.S. to promote its own interests in the Gaza Strip in terms of the regularization and MIA and POW deal, while tightening security-military partnerships in view of evolving shared regional threats (Iran and the Islamic State).
Israel and Egypt have shared interests in the Gaza Strip (weakening Hamas and establishing stability), Middle East (curbing Turkey), and Red Sea (preventing Iranian expansion). Furthermore, it is in Israel's best interest to help the United States preserve its status as Egypt's main source of support and influence. Reduced American clout in Egypt could have long-term implications that would crack Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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