Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

In search of regional consensus

Cairo is determined to upgrade cooperation with Moscow, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for consultations with Russian President Vladmir Putin. The trip comes three weeks before Al-Sisi’s planned visit to New York in September and at a time when Moscow is seeking greater leverage in the Middle East.

The timing of the Al-Sisi-Putin talks is significant. They are being held in the wake of talks the Russian president has already had with the king of Jordan and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, and in advance of a scheduled summit between Putin and the Saudi monarch.

“We are passing through a moment of wide-ranging regional action,” says an Egyptian diplomat. “The future of the region is being discussed, especially the Mashreq and Arab Gulf which are central to Egypt’s strategic interests. Russia is playing, or let us say trying to play, a key role in hammering out these regional arrangements and we are working with all parties, including Moscow.”

Having offered the routine qualification that improved relations with Russia will not come at the expense of ties with other international powers, and certainly not the US, the diplomat acknowledged that there is “growing space for coordination between Moscow and Washington on certain files in the Middle East, especially Syria”.

Cairo has opened channels of communication with what another Egyptian diplomat qualifies as “all parts of the Syrian picture, including the regime of [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad”. It is also in regular contact with key regional and international players.

Egypt shares two main concerns over the management of the situation in Syria with Moscow and with Russia’s closest regional ally, Tehran. Cairo, Moscow and Tehran all believe the premature ouster of Al-Assad is likely to see Syria collapse into a long-term scenario of violence and chaos.

Diplomats say Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri recently told his Western counterparts that Al-Assad should be allowed to remain in office for at least a year following any agreement between Syrian opposition groups so as to avoid “the catastrophic scenario of a takeover” by IS and other radical militant groups.

Egyptian diplomats say there is growing international acceptance of the Egyptian position, not least because UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has been playing down the possibility of any successful mediation and the Obama administration, now nearing the end of its term, is in no position to push hard on Syria. The Obama White House, they argue, will be content to rest on the diplomatic laurels of rapprochement with Cuba and a nuclear deal with Iran.

 “It is unrealistic to expect anything to be finalised in Syria during the remainder of Obama’s time in the White House. The most that can be hoped for is that the concerned parties work to set the parameters of a deal acceptable to the key players,” said a European diplomat.

The Russians and Egyptians, she adds, are working together to convince Saudi Arabia that a gradual exit for Al-Assad is better than the “vindictive scenario, which Ankara and Riyadh seem to be promoting, which will leave Syria in a position with far too many unanswered questions”.

Other Cairo-based Western diplomats say that with increasingly unstable conditions in Lebanon and Iraq it would be irrational to aggressively oust Al-Assad, even though it is becoming very clear that the Syrian regime is losing ground every day.

Jordanian-Egyptian consultations over Syria and this week’s Jordanian-Russian talks reflect deep concern in Amman over what the Jordan’s King Abdullah had reportedly termed the “Mashreq upheaval”.

Al-Sisi is also facing more immediate, cross-border concerns. Already battling an insurgency by militant groups associated with IS in Sinai, there are growing fears a similar scenario could develop along Egypt’s Western border with Libya. Such fears have been fuelled by the fall of Sirte to IS and its implications for Tobruk, which is closer to the Egyptian border. Analysts say there is a very real danger of a second front opening for confrontations between the state and radical militants.

Egyptian officials say that while conditions in the region are bound to be high on the agenda of the Egyptian-Russian summit in Moscow, bilateral concerns — including economic and military cooperation — will also be a priority.

Egypt is keen to push for wider energy cooperation with Russia. According to a source at the Ministry of Electricity, talks are likely to focus on ways to enhance cooperation — “not necessarily with immediate results but with more of long-term goals in mind” — to develop Egypt’s capacity to generate nuclear energy.   

“We are playing a long game. Decisions around nuclear energy need to be thoroughly thought through. Meticulous planning is required, and it will take time to sort out the financing of an ambitious nuclear programme. But yes, this is something we are working on with the Russians,” he said.

Egypt is also seeking to purchase military equipment to consolidate its air defence systems. Negotiations are already advanced and speculation is rife that a deal could be finalised by the end of this year.

Al-Sisi’s top economic priority in Moscow, and also in Beijing which he is due to visit following his visit to the Russian capital, is to push forward with plans to develop the area around the Suez Canal into a mega investment project.

“This is something the president is really obsessing about, in the positive sense of the word. He has a grand scheme in mind and believes, even against the estimates of some of his closest aides and confidents, that it can be pushed forward quickly,” says a leading businessman. Al-Sisi, he adds, is “fully aware” that the world is on the brink of recession and Moscow and Beijing “have no small economic worries of their own” but “he feels he can race against time to get things started”.

Conditions may not be ripe for securing major investments but one thing the businessman and a high-level source at the Ministry of Foreign Trade agree on is that Al-Sisi’s tour, which is also set to include Singapore after Russia and China, will result in easy access for Egyptian exports to Russian and far eastern markets.

 “Export growth has been sluggish,” says a smaller entrepreneur. “We desperately need new trade deals to push exports.”

Yet he, too, sounds a note of caution. It will be difficult, he warns, to expand export markets when the international economy is teetering on the brink of recession.

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