CAIRO -- A two-day visit by a high-level Russian delegation that ended Thursday was an effort, Egyptian officials said, to expand their country’s international relations. But lurking behind the visit was another country: the United States.
The visit marked a new era of defense cooperation, Egyptian and Russians officials said, but neither Russia nor Egypt could escape Egypt’s long-standing relationship with the U.S. or the United States’ relationship with Egypt’s allies in the region.
Many thought Egypt was reaching out to Russia to signal its frustration a month after the U.S. suspended part of its aid to Egypt in response to the military’s ouster in July of the country’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi. For Russia, the strain provided an opportunity to move in on a longtime U.S. ally.
Publicly, Egyptian leaders said shunning the United States wasn’t a motive for receiving the Russians.
“To have the minister of defense and minister of foreign affairs come together in Egypt is an important message that Egypt is a regional power,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Badr Abdel Atty told McClatchy. “This will not come at the expense of the relationship with the United States.”
“We seek to energize a relationship that is already in existence," Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said.
But the optics of the trip suggested an Egypt seeking to break away. The Russian missile cruiser Varyag docked at an Alexandria port in the days leading up to the visit, welcomed by a 21-gun salute as the first Russian ship to dock in Egypt since 1992. For much of Thursday, state news carried images of President Adly Mansour, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Fahmy meeting with Russia’s foreign and defense ministers.
According to the state news agency, el-Sissi, who’s Egypt’s defense minister and army chief, told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that the visit signaled “historic strategic relations that start a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level.”
State television played archival videos of visits between Egyptian and Russian leaders in the 1950s and early 1960s, the height of relations between the nations.
The trip yielded little that was concrete, however. A rumored $2 billion arms sale that would include MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other defense systems, remained unannounced when the trip ended. The idea of such an arrangement had always seemed distant. Cash-strapped Egypt would need countries in the Persian Gulf such as Saudi Arabia to finance such a purchase. Those countries are unlikely to give any money to Russia, given its stance on Syria and Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States.
Moreover, it’s unclear how Russian weapon systems could be integrated into an Egyptian military system built largely on 30 years of military sales with the United States.
Egyptians have long resented what they see as U.S. interference in their affairs, and they’ve shunned leaders who aligned themselves with the United States. With still-unscheduled parliamentary and presidential elections expected next year, suggestions by politicians that they want to move away from the U.S. might be popular with voters.
Images of el-Sissi, the nation’s popular de facto leader, who’s a likely presidential candidate, meeting with Russian officials conjured memories of the late revered President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose successful play of Russia and the United States during the Cold War is still celebrated in Egyptian circles as the height of modern-day Egyptian international relations.
Less discussed during the visit was that Egypt’s move toward Russia began during Morsi’s tumultuous one-year tenure as president. In May, less than two months before he was ousted, Morsi visited Moscow.
Until the 2011 uprising led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the U.S-Egypt relationship was considered the biggest success story of American diplomacy. The United States and Egypt worked closely on counterterrorism, with Egypt offering intelligence and interrogating terrorism suspects. The United States provides $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt and its generals are regular visitors to American war colleges, where they train and work alongside their U.S. counterparts.
U.S. officials privately expressed little concern about the Russian visit, noting that Secretary of State John Kerry had called on Egyptian officials earlier this month. That there was no substantive outcome from the Russia visit only bolstered their confidence.