Always a partner in the East
Doaa El-Bey reviews President Mubarak's latest trip to Russia
Cairo has tried to adopt a balanced approach in its international relations; maintaining good relations with Western as well as Eastern European states, and staying connected with countries in the Far East as well as former republics of the Soviet Union. This week, President Hosni Mubarak began a three-day visit to Russia on Monday which yielded important results.
Mubarak signed a nuclear power deal, discussed Middle East issues and bilateral relations with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and started talks with incoming president-elect Dmitri Medvedev. The nuclear agreement gives Moscow the chance to participate in building the first of four nuclear power stations that Egypt plans.
Altogether, Mubarak's visit came at a critical time since Egypt is preparing to launch a nuclear energy programme, while the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis is deadlocked, the situation in Gaza is deteriorating, and Russia is readying to usher in new leadership.
Given that Russia was the key player in the former Soviet Union and is interested in playing a role in the peace process, Egypt is keen on consulting regularly with Moscow on the issue. According to Raouf Saad, Egypt's ambassador to Moscow between 2002 and 2006, Russia is a strong country which has the will and interest to push the peace process, but is keen to do so within the framework of international legitimacy not unilaterally. "That is why it is trying to act within the international Quartet, in which the UN or the representative of international legitimacy is a party," Saad explained.
During the presidential visit, Russia tried to seek Mubarak's support for its plan to host a peace meeting in Moscow to include all the players in the region. It is supposed to be a follow-up on the Annapolis meeting which took place in November 2007. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov toured the Middle East last week to promote the peace meeting. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin said after meeting Mubarak that Moscow is talking to all the sides involved in the process before confirming plans for the gathering.
But there are factors which Saad highlighted that could impede the Russian role, namely that Russia is not as big or as influential as the Soviet Union used to be. Today, Moscow is adopting a pragmatic approach since it knows that the US has the power and influence which make it more capable of dealing with Israel. Also, there are diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel, a factor which was not true in the past; and finally, Russian immigrants who tend to take a hardline approach from peace with the Palestinians have influence over policy. "If it wasn't for these factors, Russia could have had more leverage in the region," Saad argued.
Mubarak's visit paved the way for nuclear cooperation for peaceful purposes between the two states. They signed a deal on Tuesday that would allow Moscow to tender for Egypt the first civilian nuclear power station. The deal opened the way for Russia, one of the global leaders in providing nuclear energy assistance, to bid in an international tender for a $1.5 to 1.8 billion reactor project on Egypt's Mediterranean coast.
Last year, Egypt had announced that it will revive its civilian nuclear programme. Analysts estimated that a nuclear power plant could be built within 10 years if foreign investment is secured.
Mubarak's trip is also likely to bolster bilateral economic ties and expand cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, energy and tourism. Cooperation in the fields of trade and tourism witnessed a boom in recent years, with the volume of trade rising from less than $400 million in 2002 to 1.6 billion in 2006 and $2 billion last year. Talks in Moscow aimed to increase trade to $3 billion in the next five years. Meanwhile, the number of Russian tourists visiting Egypt did not exceed 400,000 in 2002, but reached 1.5 million in 2007.
The boom in cooperation is the result of serious efforts and continuous talks between the two sides -- in fact, Mubarak has met with Putin five times. The first visit was in 2001 when Mubarak visited Russia: "It was the first visit since Putin came to power and served to deliver a strong message of support to him in a transitional period when Russia was moving from the Soviet regime to a more open regime," stated Saad.
Mubarak's second visit came in 2004, and was followed by Putin coming to Egypt the next year. The importance of that visit was that it was the first to Egypt since the Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev came in the 1960s, and the first visit by a Russian president to an Arab and African state. Most recently, Mubarak was in Moscow in 2006.
"These visits show direct and continuous consultations between the two states, which is positively reflected on the size of trade and economic relations between Cairo and Moscow," asserted Saad.
Besides his meetings with outgoing President Putin, Mubarak also held talks with president-elect Medvedev who takes office on 7 May. Saad believes that there are clear signs that Russian foreign policy will not change under Medvedev, who is expected to name Putin as his prime minister.