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Moscow – Cairo: was there a breakthrough?

03.12.2013 17:43

Igor Pankratenko

The visit in Egypt of Russian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu has generated a lot of versions of some 'renaissance' of relations between Moscow and Cairo. On returning to the days of the sixties and the period of 'the USSR's best Egyptian friend', Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In outward appearance, the situation is similar: the then turn for the USSR of 'free officers' headed by Nasser was also called a cooling of relations between Egypt and the U.S.. Americans refused to supply weapons to Cairo and abandoned financing plans of the Aswan dam construction ? and Soviet weapons went to Egypt through Czechoslovakia, and our builders left for the distant Aswan.

And today too, near the roadblocks the Egyptian army has bristled with to the threats of Moslem Brotherhood one can see Vladimir Putin's portraits, and in coffeehouses of Cairo one is wondering about whenever the Russian president will visit the country.

The Egyptian side's position, if one takes seriously official statements by Cairo journalists and politicians, is a boundless dialogue, grandiose economic cooperation and even the army re-equipment with the Russian machinery. But this is if one has the imprudence to believe in what Cairo is trying to convince Moscow.

A remarkable episode occurred on the eve of Lavrov's and Shoigu's arrival during a visit to Moscow of 'walkers from Cairo' ? a people's delegation of the members of the Egyptian public. One member of the delegation, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi said in an interview that in Moscow the walkers were asked a direct question: "Isn't Egypt's turn to Russia a result of cooling in relations between Cairo and Washington?" "No, in any case," the Cairo walkers sincerely assured. This is a unanimous decision of the people who literally has been hungry for Russian-Egyptian friendship.

Moscow did not believe the members of the Egyptian public. And there were more than enough reasons for that.

We're not even talking about the fact that for a period of 'dancing with Cairo' lasting from this April, from the meeting between Vladimir Putin and now ex-president Mohammed Mursi, both director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and the GRU deputy chief have managed to visit Egypt. Both of them made a very pessimistic forecast about the possibilities of expanding cooperation with Cairo. Moreover, they expressed incredulity at the statements by Egyptian politicians about the possibility of some 'pro-Russian course'. Equally convincing for Moscow was also the analysis of the existing realities of economic and military-technical partnership.

That is why the joint visit to Egypt of Foreign and Defense Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu to meet with their Egyptian counterparts in the two plus two format was not originally planned in Moscow as a break of some blockade. Because there is no blockade in relations with Egypt, and the prospects for expansion of bilateral relations are very modest.

It is noteworthy that as soon as things came to specific arrangements, the Egyptian leadership sharply reduced the enormity of projects proposed by the Russian side and even limited the convergence dialogue. The Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy began the meeting with Sergei Lavrov by stating that "Russia is not a replacement of any other state for Egypt."

As for the economy, the following episode was quite significant there. "Although military cooperation is a key issue in the meeting, a number of other issues were discussed, such as economic cooperation between our countries," said Fahmy at the final press conference. And immediately explained that he was under 'economic cooperation' he understands: "We welcome the increase in the number of Russian tourists in Egypt."

Such 'modesty' in the economic sphere is quite understandable. Egypt's main trading partners are the EU countries accounting for 35.4 percent of the foreign trade turnover of Egypt, and the Arabian East accounts for 18.1 percent and the U.S. 7.3 percent. Russia's share here is 2.6 percent; therefore Cairo's plans of economic cooperation with us are not of special interest.

In addition, today's state of Egypt's economy is such that its more or less acceptable functioning depends solely on foreign borrowings.

Russia can not give money to Egypt in the required volume for it can not compete with Saudi Arabia in this issue. Hence the quite understandable apathy of Egyptian officials to any economic initiatives.

As an aside: the largest item of foreign currency inflow into the country are money transfers by Egyptians working abroad - in 2012 they amounted to U.S.$ 18 billion. Russia for Egyptian guest workers is unattractive, so Cairo is not particularly interested to speak on expanding cooperation with us, even on such trifles. So the only possible economic breakthrough has already taken place in September, when it was agreed that Russia undertook to supply wheat to Egypt at a fixed price within three years. In the great scheme of things, it means that in the coming years the Egyptian military have neutralized the threat of bread riots.

Equally modest look the realities of military-technical cooperation too. But the point here is not in the volumes. In the period from 2000 to 2003, Russian experts have carried out the modernization of 50 Egyptian Pechora air defense systems under a contract valued at $150 million. Two years later, contracts were signed for the supply to Cairo of anti-aircraft missile systems - four Top-M1, Buk-M1-2, the famous Shilka and a batch of portable Igla man-portable air-defense systems. In 2008, a contract was concluded for supplying fourteen Mi-17 helicopters to Egypt, the price of which amounted to over $150 million.

In short, applying the principle of 'many a little makes a mickle', from 2005 to 2011 the volume of Russian arms contracts with Egypt amounted to 2 billion 452 million dollars. Though the sum is not large, but it can not be called small either. Russia ranks second among suppliers of the Egyptian armed forces, although China, with its third place, already starts to breathe down our neck. To put another way, the point is not in the volumes. Objectively speaking, the increase of our share in the Egyptian arms market is only possible if Cairo decides to completely break off relations with the U.S.

By the way, while the 'walkers' persuaded Moscow to make the breakthrough, the Cairo newspapers published an opinion of an "informed high-ranking officer of the Egyptian General Staff". He, of course, on condition of anonymity, told newsmen that "we are familiar with Russian weapons. Within three to five years, our army can master it to the extent required. In the 1970s, when we received weapons from the USSR, it took us only a couple of years to effectively apply it in the 1973 war." After such a declaration the desire for anonymity is quite clear; otherwise the colleagues will make fun. It is a separate issue of how the Egyptians 'mastered' the Soviet weapons then, but two questions certainly arise. Firstly, with what will the army fight against terrorists in the period of their mastering? Secondly, if mastering the weapons for this period is still possible but creating an infrastructure for their service is not.

Statements of some of our experts, who have believed sweet-voiced 'sirens' saying that Russia can supply the Egyptian army weapons to the amount of several billion dollars, have little to do with the actual state of affairs.

The Egyptian military machine is adjusted to the U.S. weapon delivery and Cairo is not going to change the immediate situation.

And here is some sort of moment of truth. Wheat and weapons sales are the first step, but it is highly questionable whether it will be followed by other, more important ones. And the value of this issue has been fixed long time ago - half a billion dollars a year of military and economic aid. Only providing that Moscow undertakes such annual obligations, and invests a lot of money in the Egyptian army re-equipment, which has been for many years worked and trained exclusively with American weapons, it will be possible to speak about a breakthrough.

Do we really need such a 'happiness' and such an ally? What particular urgent problems in the Middle East will the strategic partnership with Egypt allow us to solve? But it is also a fact that Russia simply does not have any tasks at such a price today. Equally important is the fact that Cairo as an ally is more than unreliable, as the incumbent Egyptian leadership brought up in the U.S. secretly hopes: after all, the old allies will have a change of heart, will come to earth and realize that the stable Egypt without democracy is better than democracy performed by Islamists.

Today Cairo needs a dialogue with Moscow only to solve the three tactical tasks.

First, the Russian minister's visit gives extra confidence and legitimacy to the Egyptian Cabinet established after the military coup and the overthrow of the Moslem Brotherhood. Secondly, the Egyptian political elites give signals to the U.S. with all their force that they should immediately remove claims to Cairo or "Russian will come" to this very Cairo. And thirdly, 'dancing with Moscow' is a kind of appeasement for the Egyptian society extremely angry with the pro-American and pro-Israeli orientation of their own ruling circles, and as for anti-American sentiments, the Egyptian street is one of the leaders in the Middle East.

Given all these circumstances, Washington, painfully reacting after Syria to any Moscow's foreign policy steps in the Middle East, when asked about the visit of Russian ministers in Cairo, very pensively noted that it "knew about it before." And anyway, as stated by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, "the United States and Egypt have their own bilateral relationship that anything can not damage."

It's natural that all the above said circumstances were known in Moscow too. A question arises: why did our ministers go there if there are no prospects of 'breakthrough' in bilateral relations? It appears that once again we have played into someone else's hand?

Fortunately, this time there was nothing like that, no 'giveaway draughts' and inflated expectations, the Russian foreign policy often contains.

Yes, by our visit we have made advances to Cairo in so important and painful issues for it as further evidence of its legitimacy. A little earlier, during the G20 summit Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia is concerned about the situation in the Sinai becoming the Islamist radicals' base of operations and ready to support Egypt in efforts to eliminate this threat.

But all this is not at all for the Egyptian side's promises of some mythical contracts for the supply of arms and economic daydreaming of Russia's share in the Egyptian market.

Moscow now needs from Cairo the Egyptian neutrality in the 'Syrian issue' and support for the convening of an international conference on creating in the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

S.Lavrov and S.Shoigu could agree in Cairo both on neutrality and support for the idea of an international conference skillfully profiting by the Egyptian side's interest and not allowing to carry them away by 'Arab tales'. Normal weekdays of 'big game' in the Middle East, where we finally begin to play our own part.