Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Rekindling Russian links

As the Russian president receives the red carpet treatment in Egypt, Dina Ezzat asks what is next for Egyptian-Russian relations

Al-Ahram Weekly

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly before and after Valdimir Putin’s visit to Cairo, Egyptian and Russian diplomats stressed the same point: it is in the strategic interest of both countries to pursue closer cooperation, but that such cooperation will take time to develop.

Following two rounds of talks, the first a one-on-one session, the second involving officials from both sides, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Putin signed memoranda of understanding that allow for greater economic cooperation and cooperation over energy supplies.

The memoranda signal the commitment of both sides to work together more closely, but also suggest work still needs to be done before a final deal is sealed.

 “The political will is there. Any scepticism sensed by the Russians about Egypt’s commitment to resuming strategic cooperation is fading away,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

In a joint appearance in the garden of Al-Kobba Palace Al-Sisi and Putin spoke of planned cooperation on many fronts, including the economy, energy, education and tourism. Russian help to construct a nuclear power plant elicited enthusiasm from both presidents.

Putin said the assistance Russia will provide Egypt will cover not just the construction of the power plant but the training of technicians to operate it.

 “Energy is clearly an important issue for Egypt and we are committed to help,” said one Russian diplomat.

Though no dates have been set, sources say construction could begin late this year or early 2016. Russia has also promised wider energy cooperation, including rehabilitation of obsolete Egyptian power plants.

Egypt suffers from an acute energy shortage. Power cuts were a feature of summer 2014 and continued well into the winter. There is a desperate need to upgrade existing power plants and to build new ones.

At their joint press conference, Al-Sisi and Putin also spoke of establishing both a free trade and Russian industrial zone in Egypt. Putin said Russia is keen to expand its investments in Egypt in the transport infrastructure, car industry and petrochemical sectors.

 “The volume of Russian investment in Egypt has been limited and the trade balance favours Russia. The situation could improve if Russia opened its market to Egyptian agrarian exports,” said an Egyptian official.

Minister of Trade Mounir Fahkri Abdel-Nour held talks with Russian officials and the business community in a drive to promote Egyptian exports. According to one of his assistants, the talks identified “firm areas for cooperation in the near future.”

Al-Sisi and Putin concluded an agreement for Russia to export wheat to Egypt. A source at the Ministry of Supply said that shipments “should be arriving by the summer.”

Trade might have been the number-one item on the agenda of the two presidents but it was closely followed by military cooperation. Egyptian sources offered a slightly more positive account than their Russian counterparts of planned Russian military exports to Egypt.

Al-Sisi met Putin in Moscow, first as minister of defence and later as president, in 2013 and 2014, but the large military deal discussed during both of Al-Sisi’s visits has yet to be finalised.

 “We are not turning our back to the requests of our Egyptian friends. We will provide them with arms and with equipment necessary for the war on terrorist groups, especially in Sinai,” said the Russian diplomat.

Al-Sisi and Putin both underlined the importance of cooperation in combating terrorism. This, say sources on both sides, essentially means greater intelligence sharing, particularly when it comes to large groups like Islamic State (IS).

As the two head of states were discussing the war on terror a series of bombs hit Alexandria, wounding ten.

The two leaders also discussed regional developments, with Syria taking up the lion’s share of discussions. Both Egypt and Russia are keen to find an end to a conflict that threatens to see Syria unravel.

In his press statement Putin said he had briefed his Egyptian host on the details of the Moscow-hosted talks between elements of the Syrian opposition and representatives of the Assad regime. Al-Sisi, in turn, informed his guest of the outcome of the Cairo Conference, talks hosted by Egypt in an attempt to forge the basis for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

 “We agreed to coordinate our efforts. The problem is that though we work with the intention of somehow accommodating the Assad regime in a final political deal we don’t go as far as our Russian friends do in trying to rescue Al-Assad,” said a concerned Egyptian diplomat.

 “Egypt considers Russia a strategic asset in its pursuit of balanced foreign relations,” Al-Sisi said in his press statement on Tuesday afternoon, just hours before Putin’s departure.

But Egyptian officials have repeatedly stressed that closer rapport with Russia will not be at the expense of Egypt’s “other international relations” — a reference to relations with the US.

 “Egypt and the US are strategic partners and they will remain so because it is in the interest of both countries to maintain the partnership. Russia could, and will become an important partner, but for obvious economic reasons it cannot replace the US — that is out of the question,” said a senior government official.

The next few months, say Egyptian and Russian sources, should witness the beginning of an improvement in bilateral ties between the two countries, including in the field of tourism. Russians have long been a mainstay of Egypt’s tourist industry.

Amer Mohamed, head of the Russian Department at Ain Shams’ Al-Alsun Faculty, says the increased number of students seeking to join the Russian department in recent years is a reflection of the growing importance of Russians within the Egyptian tourist market.

In the wake of Putin’s visit, and the expansion of Egyptian-Russian relations, Mohamed now expects “even higher demand” for places in his department.

Sherif Gad, director of the Russian Cultural Centre in Cairo, also reports higher demand for the Russian language courses.

Egyptian and Russian diplomats, however, do not anticipate a return to the level of bilateral relations that characterized the 1950s and 1960s, when the Soviet Union assisted with construction of the High Dam and the building of more 100 industrial complexes.

 “We cannot turn the clock back but we can certainly work towards a future of solid cooperation,” Russian historian Vladimir Belyakov told the Weekly.

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