CAIRO -- Whether a proposed Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons as an alternative to a U.S. missile strike actually works or not, Russia already has emerged as a winner among many Egyptians.
For them, the deal is a reminder that there’s a former ally that can solve the region’s problems peacefully without the tarnish of a failed intervention in Iraq, failed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, reviled alliances with fallen regimes or the perception that it has treated the region as its lapdog.
Even before the proposed chemical weapons deal, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, was seeking to build stronger relations with Russia – and move away from the United States. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in his congressional testimony earlier this month that the Arab world is watching what the U.S. does in Syria, it’s what Russia is doing that’s shifting alliances in the region.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy visited Russia this week, in part to thank Russians for their intervention in Syria and to discuss new ways to expand Egyptian-Russian relations. Fahmy said he hoped the Russian deal would eventually lead to ridding the world of chemical and nuclear “without exception or discrimination,” a clear reference to Israel, the United States’ most important Middle East ally and a country suspected of having both chemical and nuclear weapons.
The Egyptian government’s moves to bolster relations with Russia have the backing of a majority of Egyptians, who are angry over the United States’ perceived support for ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, its threats to cut off $1.5 billion in military aid and the instability that U.S. military intervention – and threats of intervention – have had in the region, of which neighboring Libya is the nearest example.
Nearly every day, newspaper columns outline the many ways the United States has failed the region and how Russia, China and India could offer a new economic breakthrough. The United States is weaker, they argue, Russia is more aligned with Egypt and willing to help finance much-needed economic projects.
“Egypt should end the shame of the toxic American and European aid, and declare once and for all that it does not need it. It should focus on financial and economic cooperation with sister Arab countries and with friends with which it has already cooperated unconditionally – Russia, China, India, and others – since political, economic, and national independence are more valuable than any aid,” columnist Ahmad el Sayed el Nagger wrote Aug. 27 in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
Earlier this month, Egyptian President Adly Mansour told state television in his first interview that Russia and China “can offer a lot to Egypt in the next phase, not only politically, but economically.”
He added that he and Foreign Minister Fahmy are “strategically reviewing our foreign relations to differentiate between our real friends and those who should not be classified in that category anymore.”
As the U.S. makes threats to cut off funds, Egyptians are hopeful Russian money will return. Russian investment in 2010 reached $2.1 billion a year, and Russians account for 2.85 million tourists annually, making the nation a key part of reviving Egypt’s moribund economy. On Sept. 10, amid news of a possible deal, Egyptian stocks rose 3.11 percent.