Russia opens its arms to Cairo as US-Egypt ties fray

A host of Russian officials, including the foreign and defense ministers, have visited Cairo to explore expanding relations as the US cuts aid to Egypt.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy (r.) accompanies his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (c.) following their meeting in Cairo on Thursday. Russian officials are visiting Egypt to explore a major upgrade in relations, including new military sales.

Russia's foreign and defense ministers are in Cairo to discuss a major upgrade in relations and possible arms deals with their Egyptian counterparts, while the giant guided-missile cruiser Varyag is in Alexandria for the first visit by a Russian warship to Egypt in two decades.

According to some reports a high official of Russian military intelligence, the GRU, has also been in Egypt recently to hold consultations with top military and intelligence leaders for the first time in a very long time.

The sudden flurry of activity between Moscow and Cairo has some commentators reminiscing about the early cold war years, when Egypt was the leading Arab client state of the former USSR, which provided it with weaponry, military advice, and diplomatic cover through three wars with neighboring Israel.

But both Russian and Egyptian officials insist that times have changed, and despite strained relations between Cairo and Washington and a widespread sense that Russian foreign policy has been more consistent and friendly toward Egypt's current rulers, Egypt is not seeking to throw out its nearly four-decade-old special relationship with the US and return to Moscow's embrace.

"Independence is having choices. So the objective of this foreign policy is to provide Egypt with choices, more choices. So I'm not going to substitute. I'm going to add," Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy was quoted as saying by the Cairo daily Al-Ahram.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly reminded Mr. Fahmy that Moscow has held a consistent line of skepticism toward the revolutionary enthusiasms of the Arab Spring and in favor of "stability" and evolutionary change.

"We believe that the work that is currently being done there, including the drafting of the new constitution and the holding of a referendum, will help Egyptians move forward and achieve the long-wished results.... Russia remains committed to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries," Mr. Lavrov said.

The Russian line seems likely to be music to the ears of current Egyptian leaders, who were dismayed when the US suddenly abandoned its support for long-time ally, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, amid a huge popular uprising in 2011.

They may be similarly miffed by Washington's cool response to the Egyptian military's return to power in a coup that followed mass demonstrations against the year-old rule of democratically-elected and Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi last July.

In October, citing the Egyptian government's ongoing crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood protests, the US suspended part of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt.

"Russia is returning to the Arab world because the Arab states are asking us to. They want someone to rely on other than the US and Saudi Arabia," says Sergei Markov, a frequent foreign policy adviser to President Vladimir Putin.

"Russia is very concerned about incoherent US policy in the Arab world, which has led the whole Middle East into chaos and war. We are very worried about the threat of civil war breaking out in Egypt. We want to help restore stability. Russia doesn't consider itself to be a competitor with the US in this. It is no longer the cold war, we are not opposed to the US. We want to establish a new relationship, a new role that will help Egypt to recover and be strong again," he adds.

That could involve arms sales for the first time since 1972, when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat kicked some 20,000 Soviet military advisers out and paved the way for Egypt's historic turn toward peace with Israel and partnership with the US later in that decade.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who held talks with Egyptian Defense Minister and military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Thursday about expanding Russo-Egyptian military cooperation, may also be discussing Russian arms sales worth up to $4 billion, including MiG-29 fighter planes, air defense systems, and anti-tank missiles, according to Russian media reports.

Developing relations with Egypt is a "top priority" for Moscow, Lavrov told Al-Ahram.

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