Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Staking out common ground

Russian foreign policy expert Mohamed Farrag tells Dina Ezzat that the war against Islamic State in Libya is the first test of the growing Egyptian-Russian cooperation

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Russian news agency Novosti announced on Saturday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had discussed developments in Libya with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri.

According to informed diplomatic sources, the two focussed on attempts by the UN Security Council to forge greater international cooperation in the war against Islamic State (IS) and other Islamist groups in Libya, and on security and intelligence cooperation between Cairo and Moscow.

“Russian influence in Libya — once a cornerstone of Russian strategic interests in North Africa — was eliminated following the 2011 NATO operation to eliminate Qadaffi. Russia has every reason to want to have a say in the fate of Libya,” says Mohamed Farrag, professor of political science at Cairo University and an expert on Russia’s international relations.

“A sophisticated satellite intelligence gathering operation makes Russia well placed to provide Egypt with information on IS strongholds and possible targets for further retaliatory strikes,” he said.

Cairo launched air strikes across its western border following the beheading of 21 Egyptian citizens in Libya early this month.

Libya, notes Farrag, is “a failed state bordering Egypt” and, as Cairo and Moscow draw closer, “Russia may want to furnish Egypt with military help in the war against IS and other radical groups in Libya.”

Moscow voiced its support for political transition in Egypt following the removal of Mohamed Morsi, at a time when much of the international community was sceptical about the political direction Egypt was taking.

Moscow has long opposed the Islamist groups that emerged in a number of former Soviet republics following the collapse of the USSR.

Libya, says Farrag, is likely to become the testing ground for the enhanced cooperation between Cairo and Moscow, agreed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Cairo. “And there are other zones for possible Egyptian-Russian cooperation — Syria, perhaps, and also Iraq.”

Russia and Egypt are both concerned about the growing influence of militant Islamist groups in Syria. It is an open secret that, contrary to the overwhelming political wisdom in many world capitals, both Cairo and Moscow want to see the inclusion of the Assad regime — accused by the Syrian opposition of killing more than 200,000 people — in any settlement.

The issue for Russia, says Farrag, is the survival of one of Moscow’s last remaining Arab allies, while Egypt is increasingly alarmed by the unravelling of a state close to its troubled eastern border.

Syria was high on the agenda when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Putin met in Cairo. Both men stressed the importance of finding a formula that brings stability to the strife-torn state.

There is much room for intelligence and security cooperation between Cairo and Moscow to halt the influx of Islamists to Syria, argues Farrag. The spread of both militants and arms across the Middle East is causing Egypt serious headaches in Sinai and in areas of strategic interests on the shores of both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

But, according to Farrag, joint cooperation to combat terror is not the only goal of enhanced bilateral relations between Cairo and Moscow.

Direct military cooperation is also a priority for Egypt. Talks on the Egyptian purchase of more advanced Russian military equipment, and the supply of spare parts for equipment already in Egypt’s arsenal, are ongoing.

“Russia is keen to build its military influence through the armament deals, though it is likely to take a bit more time before any conclusive purchase agreements are made. Until then we at least have secured systematic supplies of spare parts for the old Soviet arms that make up 40 per cent of Egypt’s military arsenal,” says Farrag.

Energy cooperation is also high on Egypt’s agenda. During Putin’s visit a memorandum of understanding covering Russian help to build Egypt’s first nuclear power station was signed.

“Egypt is facing serious energy problems and needs to pursue alternative energy choices. Russia wants a direct input in the construction of a nuclear power plant because this would bring a long-term technological relationship. Such cooperation would be hard to interrupt.”

Russia, he adds, could also help upgrade generators at the High Dam, built in the 1960s at the high point of Egyptian-Soviet cooperation, and refurbish other ailing power plants in Egypt.

During Putin’s visit agreement was reached over Russian supplies of natural gas, which Egypt desperately needs to fuel power plants.

The flurry of exchange visits in the gas and electricity sectors is “a clear sign of Russian commitment to live up to its promises of support,” says Farrag.

The growing Egyptian-Russian rapport might not be to the liking of some Western powers. Washington has a different view of the possible political scenarios that could play out in the Middle East and “will not like to see Egypt [a US strong ally for the last four decades] considering alternative diplomatic alliances.”

Farrag continued, “It will take time to rebuild the ties we had with Moscow in the 1950s and 1960s. We are living in a different world today and have other strategic interests that cannot be compromised. What is clear, though, is that Cairo is committed to strengthening relations with Moscow and that wish is reciprocated.”

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