Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Cosying up

Ahmed Eleiba on the messages Egypt wants this week’s joint naval exercises with Russia to convey

Al-Ahram Weekly

Throughout this week Cairo and Moscow have been staging joint naval exercises in Alexandria. The Friendship Bridge 2015 manoeuvres are the first of their kind between the two countries for four decades. Military experts in both countries agree that they reflect the closeness that has evolved between Egypt and Russia over the last two years.

The Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that the aim of the manoeuvres is to strengthen and develop military cooperation between the Egyptian and Russian naval forces for the sake of regional security and stability.

Egyptian military spokesman Mohamed Samir says the Friendship Bridge 2015 programme covers planning and managing joint naval combat activities with the aim of unifying combat concepts, and the transmission and exchange of training expertise. The exercises have involved sophisticated weaponry and equipment.

Russia has contributed a Moskva guided missile cruiser carrying a Ka-27 helicopter, a Samum hoverborne guided missile corvette, the large landing ship Alexander Chabalan, the Ivan Popov naval transport ship and a Navy Tug MB-3. Vessels from the Egyptian fleet include the Taba and Damietta frigates, the Shalatin fuel tanker, the April 25 and 18 June missile boats, and two F-16 fighter planes.

 “The manoeuvres show the extent to which Egyptian-Russian relations have revived during the past two years,” says General Chief of Staff Hisham Al-Halabi, advisor to the National Defence College at the Higher Nasser Military Academy. “Military manoeuvres between states are the highest level of military cooperation between them. They are evidence of agreement on region wide strategy.”

 “With these manoeuvres Egypt is announcing its determination to establish a better balance in its international relations, rather than pursue relations with a single party as happened under Hosni Mubarak,” says military expert General Talaat Musallam. The “single party he referred to was an allusion to the US.

Before manoeuvres began Russian naval force conducted exercises to familiarise themselves with the area in which they would be taking place.  This compounds the benefits of the manoeuvres. Cairo was able to observe first-hand developments in Russian naval systems while Russia gained practical experience in operating in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. The Russian fleet’s Mediterranean experience had hitherto been restricted to the waters off the Syrian port of Tartus. It was keen to expand its presence and partner with a central regional power — Egypt.

“Libya is a focus of growing concern for both Cairo and Moscow,” says General Al-Halabi. While Friendship Bridge 2015 is unlikely to provide a substitute for the Bright Star manoeuvres with the US “it may still serve as a bridge for building relations with other countries of the region,” he argues.

Nourhan Al-Sheikh, an expert on Egyptian-Russian relations, says Cairo is keen to be in a position to assess Russian weapons systems which “rival, if not occasionally surpass, their American counterparts.” She cites as an example the S-300 system which Russia will supply Egypt.

Al-Halabi agrees. “The quality of arms employed in the manoeuvres confirms that Russia has gained superiority in weapons systems during the past decade.”

Al-Halabi believes questions over which — Russian or American — arms systems are best for Egypt are redundant. “It might be difficult to reconcile the two differing systems but this does not mean diversification is wrong. On the contrary, it is a sign of good health. As the saying goes, ‘Don’t put your eggs in one basket.’ The manoeuvres are the first of their kind between the two countries, to be sure. But Egypt engages in manoeuvres with many countries. This should be enough to convince international parties that what Egypt seeks is balance, not orientation to one or another party. We hold manoeuvres with many countries in the Mediterranean.”

Musallam poses a more contentious question. What, he asks, is the common target of the manoeuvres?

“We need to look closely,” he says. “There is an Egyptian-Russian alliance to combat terrorism. There is an Egyptian orientation toward cooperating militarily with Russia. But there remain messages that are not so much addressed, directed to a common enemy with identifiable features.”

Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov describes the manoeuvres as “a good opportunity to exchange expertise and conventions between our two fleets”.

“Chiefs of staff, ship crews and aircraft pilots will be working together to accomplish a single plan involving a joint response to the kinds of challenges and threats that could emerge at sea.”

Moscow, no less than Cairo, is keen to use the manoeuvres to convey political messages. Though there are echoes of the Egyptian-Russian alliance that blossomed during the Cold War, the most pressing message Russia seems to be sending is directed Arab states in the Gulf and elsewhere. Put bluntly, it is that Egypt has opened the doors for another world power to play a role on the regional stage.

Israel, for one, is keeping a close eye on Friendship Bridge 2015. The Times of Israel analysed the joint exercise thus:  “The joint naval manoeuvres being staged by Egypt and Russia off the coast of Alexandria are intended to challenge Western pressures on both countries and strengthen security relations between them.” On Monday the same paper reported that “President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s foreign policy is the reason why Egyptian-Russian manoeuvres have resumed after a 40-year hiatus.”

 “Of course Israel is concerned by the manoeuvres even if it has not declared a clear position,” says Sobhi Asliya, Director of the Israeli Studies Programme at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The Mediterranean is very important to Israel. Russia is now moving between Tartus and Alexandria. Moscow is upping its profile in the Mediterranean at a time when relations between Russia and Israel are strained. Israel is also keeping a close eye on developments in Egypt though it has yet to betray any anxiety it may feel. Perhaps it is too busy voicing its concerns to Washington since it is certain to blame the White House for recent developments.”

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