Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Boosting Egyptian-Russian relations

Does culture, rather than politics, continue to define Egyptian-Russian relations, asks Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

On the fourth floor of the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC) in Dokki, little Mariam and Saba, two six-year-old girls, are happily turning around the dancing floor to the music of Swan Lake and the instruction of Catherina in a room that bears the name of the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova who was born before the end of the 19th century and died in 1931.

The mothers of Maya and Saba, and those of some 20 other little girls aged from three to seven, come twice a week with their girls for the ballet class, which is offered at four levels for girls as young as three and as old as 23.

“I think that classical ballet is the thing that many people think of, or at least it is one thing that many people cannot help but think of, when they think of Russia,” said Catharina. Herself from Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union, Catharina is often referred to by administrative workers at the RCC as the “Russian ballet trainer.”

Marina, the piano instructor who comes from Georgia and who is giving classes on the third floor of the RCC to a host of Egyptian girls and boys – “more girls than boys, it seems to me” – is also perceived as “the Russian piano instructor”.

 “I think that many people in Egypt would know Georgia and would recognise that Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, but it is true that they still think of Russia and the Soviet Union as one thing, which is probably true in a sense because the past is always part of the present. This is the case for relations between people and maybe for relations between countries, too,” Marina said.

According to Sherif Gad, deputy director of the RCC, a good part of the affinity that many Egyptians still show towards Russia has to do with the long history of Egyptian-Soviet relations.

 “When you ask the average citizen about Egypt and Russia, many think almost immediately and maybe even exclusively of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Nikita Khrushchev and of the days of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. This is the legacy that lives on anyway,” Gad said.

He argued that since its establishment in the heyday of the Cairo-Moscow rapport in the mid-1950s, the RCC was generally, “except for a few moments of interruption” during the years of acute political tension between the two capitals in the second half of the 1970s, the destination of a keen audience whose interest was “predominantly cultural”.

“Our library has traditionally attracted many people with an interest in literature, given that some of the greatest literary classics in the world are the works of Russian authors and that they are available in Russian and Arabic,” Gad explained.

With the beginning of the new millennium and the hype about Russian tourism to Egypt, the RCC once again catered to a new audience of young men and women who wished to learn Russian to cater for what was a promising job market.

Amina Hatem, a tour guide who had worked in French and English for at least 25 years, decided in the late 1990s to take up Russian classes, working with a French-Russian teacher who lived and worked in Egypt to target a share of a growing market.

Unfortunately, because of the political and security problems of the past few years in Egypt and the Russian economic hiccups, Hatem did not have a chance to benefit from her newly acquired skills. But she argued that the basic level of Russian she had acquired has helped her, given that the drop of Russian tourists in Egypt has been less than of tourists coming from other countries.

BOOSTING TIES: Officials on both sides have been discussing ways to increase Russian tourism in Egypt. It was a key issue on the agenda of the recent high-level talks that marked a growing interest between Cairo and Moscow and intended to give a firm boost to bilateral ties.

Official statements on both sides indicate that finding a way to allow Russian tourists to pay their travel fees in their local currency and allow Egypt to use these sums to purchase commodities from Russia, essentially wheat, has been examined closely since the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Egypt early in the year.

A source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “there are so many things that we have been discussing with Russia, especially on the economic front, but progress is rather slow – essentially due to Russian hesitation to move forward on the economic front with Egypt independently from the disagreements on regional politics.”

Cairo and Moscow have not been seeing eye-to-eye on the resolution to the Syrian crisis, for example, with Cairo willing to integrate elements from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in a new system, and maybe the Syrian president himself, but not the entire regime and its political ruling parameters as Moscow wants.

A more contentious front has been the developments in Yemen where Moscow, according to foreign diplomatic sources in Cairo, was not successful in an attempt to dissuade Egypt from any direct participation in the Saudi-led air strikes on the country.

Shortly after the beginning of Operation Decisive Storm, Moscow asked Cairo to suspend “for now” a joint economic cooperation committee that was scheduled to convene last month. No new date was finalised, although the prospect for the convocation of this committee and other elements of bilateral cooperation, especially military cooperation, was the subject of the show of good intentions during the meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Putin in Moscow earlier in the week. The Egyptian president had gone to Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory over the Nazis in World War II.

“Let’s face it, the excessive hype that was transmitted in the media, or I should say created by some parts of the Egyptian media, regarding the visit of the Russian president to Egypt this winter was exaggerated. We are both at exactly the same point of keen interest, but we are not at the point of altering our strategic ties from the US to Russia, nor should we be,” the Foreign Ministry source said.

He added that “we want to pick up the pieces of foreign relations that were unduly weakened during the last years of the rule of [ousted former president Hosni] Mubarak, and Russia is certainly an important target in this process that has also included Africa and the Asian countries.”

According to commentator Abdallah Al-Sinnawi’s recent article on Egyptian-Russian relations, the era of Mubarak and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was one of the weakest points in Cairo-Moscow ties, though it was not as poor as the falling out that occurred when late president Anwar Al-Sadat decided in the 1970s to scrap the strategic Egyptian-Soviet pact in favour of a new alliance with the US.

But Al-Sinnawi argued that the damage that neglect had left on Egyptian-Russian relations would require much work to repair nevertheless. And according to Russian sources in Moscow, “building confidence” is a crucial part of the process of reconstructing Egyptian-Russian relations.

“To be honest, Moscow still needs assurances that Egypt is really up for a serious and sustainable bilateral relationship that would be conducive to the interests of both sides, rather than just being a place for Egypt to seek easy deals on energy and wheat supplies, or, for that matter tourism,” said one political advisor to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

On the Egyptian side, said the source at the Foreign Ministry, Egypt “needs to be confident about the commitment of Russia to be on the side of Egypt in a sustainable and deep fashion.” He added that “when we discuss and almost agree with Russia on a military deal and then find hesitation, we have to think about the level of commitment that Moscow is showing towards us.”

Both Egyptian and Russian sources agree that there are some political contradictions on the regional front. They also see “growing differences” that with the upcoming diplomatic rehabilitation of Iran following the expected signing of the nuclear deal between Tehran and the West may only grow.

“The pact between Iran and Russia is certainly of deep regional consequence, and obviously we don’t agree with the Iranian views on the region nor with its attempts at political and economic hegemony,” the Foreign Ministry source said. He added that the pact that Egypt has with Saudi Arabia – Riyadh has been since the introduction of the new political regime in Egypt the key economic and to an extent political support for Egypt– would also add to Cairo’s sensitivity over the support that Moscow lends to Tehran.

“We have our issues with Tehran, but it is also important to realise that whether we like it or not we are on the verge of a serious political confrontation with Iran due to the fact that the Saudis have decided that a political confrontation with Iran is inevitable,” he added.

Egyptian and Russian sources agree that political differences between Moscow and Cairo are limited in scope but deep in nature. They are, however, not the only handicap frustrating the progress of relations.

“At the end of the day, the Russians were very supportive of the changes on 30 June, and they are very happy to see the current regime in Egypt and know that they can do business with us. The chemistry between President Al-Sisi and Putin is also very good,” argued the source at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo.

One key handicap, at least according to the Egyptian narrative, is the Russian economic crisis. Egypt has allocated a venue in the eastern desert for Russia to start building an industrial zone, for example, but the Russians have not yet started. They are also still hesitant to come forward with ideas to execute a memorandum of understanding on nuclear cooperation, despite Egypt’s hopes to see its first nuclear power plant built in the western desert to help resolve acute energy problems.

Also pending are plans for a free-trade agreement between the two countries that Moscow had promised would be effectively started in the spring. No serious work has yet been done on this front. Plans to activate cooperation between Russia and Egypt in order to upgrade several of the huge factories that were jointly built in the 1960s and the close to 40 per cent of the Russian-based Egyptian military arsenal are still pending as well.

 “Clearly, this is not about politics, or not just about politics. It is essentially about the economy,” the Foreign Ministry source argued.

CULTURAL COOPERATION: According to Mona Khalil, an Egyptian-Russian who is active with both the Egyptian-Russian Business Council and with a Moscow-based publishing house that dedicates itself to the translation of Arabic and especially Egyptian literature into Russian, while business has its pace, cultural cooperation has no reason to wait.

“I am sure we can do a lot to bring both sides together through more intense cultural cooperation,” Khalil argued.

According to Khalil, the volume of joint cultural interest is “huge”. “All you need to do is to follow the sales of the great literary classics translated from Russian into Arabic until today, or to examine the huge success that the novels of Naguib Mahfouz have had in Russian,” she said.

But budgets and the capacity to translate from and to Arabic and Russian, especially the new literary materials, is not very large today, Khalil argued. Under the Soviet Union, the Russian budget for translating great literary works was high. Today, it would take the will of independent bodies and the resources of a business community keen to promote trade cooperation to invest in literary translation.

Samia Tawfik is an established translator who has worked on translating Russian into Arabic. She is firmly convinced that Russian literature, “contemporary and modern and not just the classics,” would be of enormous interest for the Egyptian audience if it were made available in “quality translated versions.”

“The trouble, on both sides really, is that there are not enough high-calibre translators, and this is bound to dissuade readers,” she argued. Having studied Russian at the Ain Shams University’s Al-Alsun Faculty and in Moscow on a scholarship in the early 1970s, Tawfik has recently had a children’s storybook translated from Russian into Arabic. “The Stories of the Pillow” by Natali Kortog was available at the Cairo Book Fair at the beginning of the year.

The stories in this book, Tawfik said, “are more similar to Egyptian children’s stories than Western children’s stories, and I think that making such a book available in cheap copies would help it to sell well and allow more cultural interaction to take place.”

Aksana and Nadejada are two Russian painters who came to Egypt in the winter this year, following the much-welcomed visit of Putin, to display their works that depict life in Moscow and St Petersburg. During their exhibition, hosted by the RCC in Cairo and Alexandria, both painters found they attracted a great deal of attention.

“I often heard the remark that a particular picture that I had drawn before my house in Moscow was very similar to some old quarters in Cairo,” Nadejada said. Both young painters said that they had found considerable interest from the community of young artists in Egypt, and that they were thinking of arranging for some of them to go to Russia and display their work.

They both said they wanted to come back to Hurghada – the favourite Red Sea destination of Russian tourists – to spend time drawing there. The sun and the beaches, said Aksana, were very attractive to the Russian eye, and Russians often miss the warm weather of Egypt.

According to Gad, the exchange of literary, cinema and art exhibitions and festivals during the Soviet period was a source of rich cultural interest on both sides. According to the Russian historian Vladimr Belyakov, the exchange of visits between writers and cultural figures is also much more significant in helping to boost bilateral relations today than official visits.

“The history of the Soviet-Egyptian relations that were based essentially on the great leaders’ cooperation is something from the past, and you cannot bring the past back. However, you can have a good future if you know that things are different today,” Belyakov said.

Today, he argued, it is more movie stars and business figures who reinforce relations between countries than anyone else. “You don’t throw the past out of the window, but you build on what you have with the new tools of modern times,” he said.

Belyakov himself is a frequent visitor to Egypt who has never allowed politics to interfere with cultural relations. This year he was in Cairo for the International Book Fair. He said the interest he had found from the audience in Russian literature, which in a sense coincided with the Putin visit, was a clear sign that the avenues of cooperation between the two countries were very large.

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