Egypt’s difficult balancing act between the West and Russia

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Cathrin Schaer
13 hours ago

Ahead of the COP27 summit, Egypt is trying to polish its image. Along with other concerns, a long-running alliance with Russia could be problematic.

Ahead of this month’s international climate conference COP27, the authoritarian Egyptian government has been polishing up its image. Political prisoners have been released and new environmental projects unveiled.

Before COP27 begins, “Egypt wants to present itself as a representative of the Global South, by virtue of its complex identity as an Afro-Arab nation and as a gateway to Africa and the Middle East,” Mohammed Soliman, an expert on Egypt at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, or MEI, wrote in late October.

Cairo is casting itself “as a champion … that all parties can commit to,” he said.

One of those parties is Russia. Egypt has a long history with its ally to the north — during the Cold War, Egypt was the Soviet Union’s principal ally in the Middle East and the country remains an important partner today. After Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi became president of Egypt in 2014 following a military coup, the two counties have become even closer.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit.
Observers say the two ‘strongman’ leaders have a natural affinity.Image: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS/picture alliance

‘In constant contact’

“Russia is an important partner for Egypt in various fields, and relations between the two countries are distinguished,” el-Sissi said in June this year, speaking at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Russia considers Egypt “one of our most important partners in Africa and the Arab world,” Russian President Vladimir Putin returned the compliment in a late September speech, as he welcomed a new Egyptian ambassador to his country. “We are in constant contact with President el-Sissi,” he added.

Putin and el-Sissi have much in common. Moscow criticized popular pro-democracy protests during the so-called Arab Spring. These toppled former Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, before the country eventually returned to an authoritarian, military-led rule under el-Sissi, after a period of political instability. Given el-Sissi’s dire human rights record, he likely feels the same as Putin about political protest. And unlike the US and European Union, Russia’s friendship is not contingent on improving human rights in Egypt, nor correcting Egypt’s troubled economic course.

Activists holding up sign reading 'Free Alaa'
Egypt’s most prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah remains in prison and on hunger strike. His sisters are among those fighting for his release.Image: Kin Cheung/AP/picture alliance

“Irked by criticism from the US and European leaders … el-Sissi has sought to diversify Egypt’s global partnerships by cementing ties with his Russian counterpart — an autocrat unconcerned with democracy and human rights,” Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin pointed out in an editorial for US think tank, the Atlantic Council, earlier this year.

 What does the friendship really mean?

In more concrete terms, that personal and foreign policy “chemistry” between Putin and el-Sissi has resulted in increased trade, military and foreign policy ties between their countries since 2014.

Egypt and Russia have always traded with one another and are important economic partners. Egypt imports most of its wheat from Russia and Russian tourists make up around 40% of all visitors to Egypt. Tourism is an important part of the latter’s earnings, bringing in billions of dollars and making up about 12% of the country’s total income.

In 2021, trade between Russia and Egypt totaled around $5 billion (€5.05 billion). In 2013, it was around $3 billion.

In 2018, the two countries signed a strategic cooperation treaty to bolster trade between them, as well as promote other forms of cooperation. Several large projects followed, including Russia building and financing Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, the upgrading of Egypt’s railways, as well as a special free trade zone for Russia inside Egypt.

In this photo illustration, the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom logo seen displayed on a smartphone.
Russia’s Rosatom is helping build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant in Dabaa, with costs estimated around $26 billion (€26.25 billion)Image: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/ZUMA/picture alliance

However, as analysts have pointed out, given that Russia’s resources are increasingly focused on fighting the war in Ukraine, it is unclear how quickly what el-Sissi calls “mega-projects” will progress.

Russia has also consistently been one of the main, if not the biggest, suppliers of arms to Egypt. Egypt, which has the largest military in Africa, also buys a lot of weaponry from the US and the EU. However, often Americans and Europeans have put conditions on weapons sales, something that Russia has not done.

Russia and Egypt also have some foreign policy parallels. They both support Libyan leader Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan conflict and Russia’s role in Syria, and as a result its positioning in the eastern Mediterranean, makes it important to Egypt.

Balancing act

Despite all that, Egypt has been extremely careful not to favor Russia and to maintain a careful balance between allies and supporters.

For example, Egyptian authorities were quick to deny that they had sent observers to Ukraine in September — something Russian news agency, TASS, had reported — to monitor Russia’s sham referendums in occupied Ukraine.

In another case, there were plans for Russian visitors to Egypt to be able to use their Mir cards — Russia’s homegrown version of a credit card – there.

A ship sails on the Suez Canal in Ismailia Province, Egypt.
A special industrial and free trade zone for Russia, near the Suez Canal, is to be built over the next 13 years.Image: Sui Xiankai/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

As the Economist magazine’s intelligence unit reported last month, “linking up with Mir would be seized upon by Russia as new evidence that important countries in the developing world resent being pressured by the US to adopt an anti-Russian position on the Ukraine issue.”

However Egyptian media reports indicate this plan now seems to be on hold, due to fear of the US’s Ukraine-related sanctions on any financial institutions handling the Russian transactions.

An analysis of this year’s Egyptian trade patterns by international business consultancy, Dezan Shira and Associates, shows just how balanced Egypt’s relationships have been. There is “an equidistant trade policy,” the consultancy concluded. With Egypt “quite literally at the crossroads between Europe and Asia … just under a quarter of trade can be attributed to both continents.”

Egypt also balanced trade in the other direction, dividing it neatly between the US and eastern European countries, the consultancy noted.

Pedestrians on the platform of the El Malek El Saleh station on the Cairo metro waiting in the ladies-only section
Russian companies are to help modernize Egypt’s railway, with 1,300 new train carriages and $900 million (€909 milion) worth of railway track.Image: Alexander Farnsworth/picture alliance

Simply put, both countries benefit equally from their relationship, MEI expert Soliman told DW. But while Russia may be important, it is certainly not Egypt’s most significant ally, he added.

“Egypt and the Gulf are strong allies with some tactical differences,” the Cairo-born analyst said, noting that countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were pouring billions into Egypt in investments and loans, to help prop up the economy. “And the EU and Egypt are also important partners in energy, immigration and trade. But, he argued, “Cairo’s top strategic choice [for an ally] remains the US for the time being — especially after Russian missteps in Ukraine.”

Russia feels similarly about Egypt, an analysis for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy by Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer at Oxford University, confirms. “Egypt is one amongst a wide array of partners Moscow transacts with in the pursuit of diplomatic and economic gains,” Bechev wrote.

“For months now, Cairo has been able to chart its own course,” the MEI’s Soliman continued. “Voting in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukraine regions, while maintaining a hotline to Moscow. Or working with the EU on energy security while maintaining its friendly relations with Moscow.”

And Egypt isn’t the only country that sees it like this, Soliman told DW. “[Countries in] the West should understand that this is not a bipolar world, but a multipolar, multi-civilizational one,” he argued. “The West should not commit the mistake of looking into the world’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a binary, or forcing countries to choose one side over the other.”

Edited by: Nicole Goebel

Deutsche Welle

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