Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Russian sphinx and the Egyptian tsar

The recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Cairo could inaugurate a new period in Egyptian foreign policy, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Egypt from 9-10 February, during which he held discussions with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi that ranged from reviewing bilateral relations to an overview of a host of regional questions including the situation in Syria and combatting terrorism in this part of the world.

The two countries signed three agreements during the visit, one of which stands out as a first for Egypt. This is the memorandum of understanding concerning the construction of the first Egyptian nuclear plant at Dabaa on the Mediterranean Sea. Once finished, this will become the High Dam of the first half of the 21st century.

In a joint press conference between the two presidents, Putin said that the Russian government would train Egyptian experts and prepare technical and scientific studies on the nuclear plant. The two governments would work out the final details and reach an agreement to start building this monumental project, he said, helping to modernise the Egyptian economy and introduce the country to civil nuclear power.

The latter has been a no-go area for the last 40 years as a result of Western ideas of the balance of power between the Arab countries and Israel. It is now high time to break out of this undeclared limitation on Egypt’s capacities to harness nuclear energy for the future prosperity of the Egyptian people.

The two other agreements relate to joint investments and cooperation in the field of gas and energy. A Russian delegation will negotiate with Egyptian officials the quantities and the terms of payment of gas shipments to be made by Russia to Egypt before next summer, in an effort by the Egyptian government to overcome the acute shortages suffered last summer that caused power outages and social discontent. The Egyptian-Russian deal in this context will help the government overcome one of the most serious challenges it faces this year.

According to the Russian ambassador to Cairo speaking at a press conference held after Putin’s departure, Russia will be represented by a high-level delegation at the upcoming economic conference scheduled to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh from 13 - 15 March.

From the Egyptian perspective, this conference is crucial for the future growth of the economy and hence the political stability of Egypt. Worldwide participation in the conference will be an important vote of confidence not only for the Egyptian economy, but also for the political roadmap announced on 3 July, 2013. The last leg of this roadmap, namely the parliamentary elections, will be held next month.

In his joint press conference with the Egyptian president, Putin went to great lengths to assure Egyptians that Russia stood by their side without wishing to interfere in their domestic affairs and wanting to respect the political choices they have made.

This was a position that was warmly welcomed by the Egyptian people, who could not help but compare it with the Western decision to impose sanctions on Egypt after the 30 June Revolution. The Russian president said that Egypt would find a trusted friend and partner in Russia, a highly significant phrase if put in larger strategic and historical perspective.

Putin’s visit to Cairo was not the first time, he had visited Egypt as he had already come to the country in 2005, but it reminded Egyptians of the heyday of Egyptian-Soviet relations in the 1950s and 60s of the last century. In the span of less than 15 years of close relations with the former Soviet Union, Egypt built the Aswan High Dam, an ambitious and advanced public-sector project, and a strong modern army, both with no strings attached.

The storming of the Suez Canal on 6 October, 1973, also could not have taken place without the huge military assistance of the Soviet Union after the 1967 June War. It comes as no surprise, then, that a majority of Egyptians have been looking forward to the conclusion of a major arms deal with Russia as a prelude to the resumption of expanded bilateral cooperation in the military field with the country.

The modernisation of the Helwan steel mills, the jewel in the crown of Egyptian industry in the great age of industrialisation in the second half of the 20th century, was also a topic of discussion at the Egyptian-Russian summit this month. There was talk of the modernisation of what is left of the Egyptian public sector, which would be a great step forward for the economy of Egypt.

Western reactions to Putin’s visit did not come as a surprise. The US State Department saw the visit as an exercise carried out by two sovereign countries, which it was, whereas the Western media stressed the fact that the Russian president had given his Egyptian counterpart a Kalashnikov automatic weapon. One Western newspaper called Putin the “Russian sphinx” and Al-Sisi the “Egyptian tsar.”

Some commentators in Egypt and the Arab world talked of the past, present and future of Egyptian-Russian relations. Others doubted whether a new close relationship between Egypt and Russia could be modelled along the lines of that which had existed during the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

In the analysis that accompanied the visit some writers could not help but think of the Cold War and the confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union. However, not only has the international system undergone profound changes since then, but the regional system has as well.

It is no longer a choice between two opposite camps, but a quest for a viable Egyptian foreign policy in a changing world and one that has been moving, albeit slowly, from unipolarism to a multipolar international system. In this context, India comes to mind. Like Egypt, India maintained very close relations with the former Soviet Union, and after its fall kept close to Moscow while also having no problem developing Indian-American relations.  US President Barack Obama has paid two official visits to India during his six years in the White House, and his predecessor signed an agreement with India on nuclear energy in 2005.

Although the world has dramatically changed over the last two decades, and there is no room to align with one or another superpower, Egypt still has to secure its strategic interests as well as its independence from foreign dictates, whether explicit or implicit. The American sanctions against the delivery of military assistance to Egypt after the 30 June Revolution went against this basic principle. The Egyptian army cannot and will not accept being at the mercy of one source of armaments, however important that source may be.

 An independent and sovereign Egypt has to secure its national interests in the face of pressures, threats and policies of coercion. In this context, Putin’s visit should be seen as a golden opportunity for Egypt to seek a more diversified foreign policy. The age of a single superpower in the history of Egyptian foreign policy is nearing its end.

The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.

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