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On December 9, 2021, Russia and Egypt launched a joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Alexandria. The Russian navy deployed the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, a mainstay of its Mediterranean Squadron, part of the Black Sea Fleet, along with a patrol ship and a rescue boat. Egypt contributed a frigate, two corvettes, and a support vessel. Coming in the wake of a new cooperation protocol signed by the two countries’ defense ministers back in August, the drill highlights Moscow and Egypt’s ever closer relations. Indeed, since the 2013 military takeover and rise to power of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ties have burgeoned, spanning diplomacy, security and defense, and the economy.
For Russia, Egypt remains a key player in the Middle East and North Africa. Starting from the mid-2000s, Moscow has gradually made a comeback to the region after a decades-long hiatus. Russia’s intervention in Syria from the autumn of 2015 onwards—securing the Assad regime—elevated its role as a powerbroker in local politics. Thanks to the war, Russians have not only expanded their political and diplomatic footprint, but also established and strengthened ties with all major power blocs and players, including Iran, Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, and Israel. Russia has displayed flexibility in navigating power rivalries in the region. For instance, it has connections to both Iran and its adversaries/competitors. It talks to both Israeli and the Palestinian authorities, to Turkey and to Kurdish militants in Syria, and to both Algeria, a long-standing partner, and its competitor Morocco.
Egypt is squarely on Russia’s list of regional priorities. Building a partnership with Cairo has been a comparatively easy endeavor. In contrast to Iran or Turkey, Egypt lies far away from the post-Soviet space and therefore has no conflictual interests with Moscow. And unlike Saudi Arabia, it has not been implicated in the spread of Salafism in Muslim-populated areas of the Russian Federation. Russian diplomacy has shown flexibility and built bridges to all of the above powers, setting aside conflicts and focusing on overlapping interests. Engaging the Egyptian regime has completed the puzzle. In addition to the strategic and commercial benefits it has offered Moscow, Egypt also acts as a bridge between Russia and Saudi Arabia, a prominent backer of al-Sisi but also a sponsor of anti-Assad militias in Syria.
Egypt likewise looks at Russia as a desirable partner—part of it is ideological convergence. Back in the early 2010s, the Kremlin was highly critical of the Arab Spring, warning against the threat it posed to domestic and regional stability. It furthermore raised alarm about the rise of “radicalized political Islam” a challenge it confronted in the Northern Caucasus as well as in its Central Asian backyard. This is very much in tune with the narrative of the Sisi regime. Even though Moscow engaged with Muhammad Morsi, welcoming him on a state visit in April 2013, his ouster in al-Sisi found much greater support in Russia than in the West after the takeover in July the same year. In September 2014, Egypt and Russia sealed a $3.5 bn deal for the purchase of MiG-29M2 fighter jets, Ka-52 helicopters and Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems. At the time, the Obama administration had frozen some transfers of equipment to Cairo while the EU had imposed an arms embargo. Russia therefore not only helped al-Sisi in resisting outside pressure, but also sided with his effort to bring Egypt back into Middle Eastern power politics. In the aftermath, the Russian defense industrial complex found a lucrative market. In 2018, for instance, Egypt started procuring 31 Su-35 fighter jets, a transaction worth $2 bn. Together with France, Russia became a key partner for Cairo as it diversified relations away from the U.S. to the extent that al-Sisi brushed aside the threat of the U.S. triggering the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against Egypt.
Russia and Egypt have found themselves on the same side in the conflict in Libya. They both threw their weight behind Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the House of Representatives based in the east of the fragmented country. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, headed by the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, spearheaded the offensive against Tripoli in late 2019 to early 2020. Since the latter’s failure, both Egypt and Russia have distanced themselves from Haftar and engaged with the Government of National Unity formed as a result of UN-led dialogue. With Russia carving out a sphere of influence, Libya will remain a focal point in diplomatic cooperation between Cairo and Moscow.
Last but not least, Russia and Egypt are bound together by robust economic ties. By the early 2010s, Red Sea resorts of Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh attracted around 3 million tourists annually from the Russian Federation—about a third of all foreign tourists visiting Egypt. Numbers went down after a Russian charter flight was downed by a terrorist attack in 2015 and, more recently, due to COVID-19. Yet tourist figures are slowly and steadily climbing back.
Egypt has also emerged as a top destination for Russia’s booming wheat exports. About one-third of wheat coming to Egypt (which desperately relies on wheat imports to offset shortages) originates from the Russian Federation. Finally, Russian state-owned company Rosatom is involved in the project to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant at El Dabaa, under a contract signed in December 2017 in the presence of Vladimir Putin and al-Sisi.
It is tempting to see the current phase as a replay of the special relationship Egypt and the Soviet Union enjoyed at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, Egypt was Moscow’s principal ally in the Middle East. The Soviets provided weapons, economic assistance, and technical expertise to the Arab country. Until 1972 when President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisors, Egypt was critical to the Soviet military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean rivaling the U.S.
Yet, as ever, the analogy with the Cold War could be misleading. Neither Egypt nor Russia sees the relationship as of vital strategic significance. Cairo’s main allies and sources of financial support are the Gulf monarchies. Despite frictions and the U.S. desire to extricate itself from the Middle East, America remains high on Egypt’s diplomatic agenda. Russia, for its part, is no replica of the Soviet Union. Outside Syria, its footprint in the region remains relatively light. It has no wish to replace the U.S. as hegemonic power in the Middle East and North Africa, a role that entails a great deal of responsibilities and costs. Egypt is one amongst a wide array of partners Moscow transacts with in the pursuit of diplomatic and economic gains. The relationship is not institutionalized, but rather contingent on the good personal chemistry of the two “strongman” leaders.
Going forward cooperation between Moscow and Cairo is expected to remain strong across the board. But there won’t be long-term commitment by either party. Russia and Egypt will remain friends but this will not lead to a formal alliance. On the contrary, al-Sisi will continue to balance between Russia and Western powers such as the US and France. In the new Middle East, defined by a reduced American presence, this comes as a natural choice. As other players in the region, Egypt will balance between various power centers in order to extract political and diplomatic advantages and ensure internal regime stability.
Dimitar Bechev is a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford, as well as a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe.