Egypt's message to the US: We've got Russia

Russian officials are in Cairo today, reportedly to negotiate an arms deal. The US suspended some of its annual military aid to Egypt last month.

Amr Nabil/AP
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov speaks to his counter part Nabil Fahmy, foreground, during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. Egypt’s foreign minister said on Thursday that Russia was too important to be a substitute for the United States as Cairo’s foreign ally and backer.

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Once-cool relations between Russia and Egypt are quickly warming as Russian officials visit Cairo today to reportedly negotiate an arms deal worth up to $2 billion.

The visit – which Egyptian paper Al-Wafd hailed as “historic” – is the highest-level meeting between Russian and Egyptian officials in years, reports the BBC, and it comes shortly after President Barack Obama cut reduced aid to the Egyptian government following a July military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

The Russian visit sends “a strong political message that stresses the desire” of Russia “to bolster relations and cooperate with Egypt in all fields,” Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty told Bloomberg by phone today.

Egypt is seeking MiG-29 fighter planes, air-defense systems, and anti-tank missiles, Ruslan Pukhov, a member of the Russian Defense Ministry’s advisory board and head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, told Bloomberg.

Concurrent with the meetings, the Russian military is sending their flagship cruiser Varyag on a six-day visit to Alexandria. It will be the first Russian warship to visit Egypt since 1992. 

Both Russian and Egyptian officials stressed that their meeting wasn’t meant to “replace” other countries, according to the Egyptian paper Ahram:

[Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov described the meeting as "very fruitful" and said collaboration between Cairo and Moscow had a long history going back to the 1950s.

He denied, however, that Russia was striving to replace "any country" - a reference to the US -  as Egypt's key strategic partner.

[Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil] Fahmy confirmed that Egypt is not looking for a "substitute for anyone."

Yasser El-Shimy, an Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Reuters that the visit is meant to send a message to Washington:

"It's meant to send a message to say Egypt has options, and that if the United States wishes to maintain its strategic alliance with Egypt, it will have to drop the conditions it attaches to the military aid.”

The US sends $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt annually, but announced on Oct. 9 that it would suspend shipment of tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and $260 million in cash until Egypt demonstrated improvements in democracy and human rights.

The question of whether the US will resume aid lingers over the potential Russian deal, as Reuters notes:

Washington has said it would consider resuming some of the suspended aid depending on Egypt's progress in following the interim government's plans to hold elections - a plan the government says it is committed to seeing through.

Seeking to mend fences with Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy during a Nov. 3 visit to Cairo.

A Western diplomat in Cairo said the prospect of the United States resuming aid early next year was one factor diminishing the chances of a major new defense deal with Moscow.

Another unanswered question is how Egypt would pay for the new arms. A key source of funding is likely the Gulf, Bloomberg reports:

Egyptian officials are seeking financing from an unidentified Persian Gulf country to buy as much as $4 billion of Russian arms, Palestinian newspaper Dunia al-Watan reported Nov. 6, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged at least $12 billion to Egypt’s new government.

...

“The only issue is Egypt’s ability to pay,” Igor Korotchenko, [a] member of the Defense Ministry’s advisory board, said by phone from Moscow. “Russia is prepared to supply a wide range of arms to meet Egypt’s requirements.”

Russia and Egypt had close ties until a few years before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, which opened the door to substantial US aid over the next three decades.

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