President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is expected to return to Cairo today following a three-day visit to Russia.
Al-Sisi arrived in Moscow on Monday, and talks with his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, offered the opportunity for a fresh exchange of views on a host of bilateral issues including plans for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear reactor.
Addressing the Russian Federal Council (RFC) on Tuesday President Al-Sisi said he was hopeful the nuclear reactor “would materialise in the coming years”.
Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi, who accompanied the president, said attracting greater Russian investment and upscaling the volume of Russian tourism to Egypt following this year’s resumption of direct flights from Russia to Cairo were also high on Al-Sisi’s agenda.
But as far as the talks Al-Sisi and Putin were scheduled to hold, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, are concerned, informed diplomats say ongoing discussions between the two sides on regional conflicts would get the lion’s share of attention.
“The visit is important in terms of underlining both leaders’ commitment to regular consultations and the exchange of high-profile visits,” said one diplomat.
“Al-Sisi has always eyed Russia as a key ally in his vision for Egypt and the region. And when it comes to cooperation with Moscow what is of most interest to Cairo is to promote regional stability based on strong national states — be they countries which have passed through periods of protest and regime change, countries that are still challenged by internal conflicts or states which have not gone through these upheavals.”
A Russian source who spoke to the Weekly about Moscow and Cairo’s shared political interests summed it up pithily as “stability, strong leaders and cooperation”.
Egypt and Russia have been particularly keen to cement cooperation on two regional files — Libya, where Egypt is directly involved and an influential player, and Syria, where its influence is much less.
“There has always been agreement that when it comes to Libya,” says a former diplomat who attended high-level consultations between officials from Cairo and Moscow, “Islamists of all shades, if they can’t be cut out completely, they need to be very marginal. And on Syria Egypt and Russia agree there can be no regime change under the sway of protests or militant opposition groups.”
An Egyptian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said there is a shared understanding that in Libya Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya, must be a leading, if not the leading, figure in any future political dispensation. When it comes to Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad should remain in office pending the elimination of all militant groups and the establishment of a plausible political succession, even if that is later rather than sooner.
“The West may not like Haftar and would like to see Al-Assad leaving sooner rather than later but we think otherwise. We believe these two leaders could serve the cause of stability in their countries. Russia happens to agree with us on this and we are working closely to ensure a greater political input for both men,” said the diplomat.
UN sources say that during talks in Cairo earlier this week with Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy to Libya, Egyptian officials made no bones about the need for the UN mission to secure a leading role for Haftar. Cairo has also been clear about the urgent need to establish the composition of a political coalition representing civil and unarmed opposition groups to negotiate with the Assad regime on future power-sharing in Syria, well away from any radical militant groups, especially those close to Turkey and Qatar.
The same UN sources say there is a clear resemblance between the arguments they hear from Cairo on both Libya and Syria and those voiced by Moscow.
“Both Cairo and Moscow want Haftar to be head of a unified national army and they want the army to oversee the political structure, not the other way round. And they want the arms embargo imposed on Libya to be removed to allow supplies of weapons to Haftar’s army,” said one UN source.
In his address to the RFC on Tuesday, Al-Sisi said the UN sponsored political process for Syria needs to be stepped up so a new constitution can be drafted as a first step towards the resumption of political negotiations to end the crisis in “a way that protects the unity and safeguards state institutions”.
On Libya, Al-Sisi said Cairo’s vision is based on the full implementation of the holistic political approach proposed by the UN last year but which has not yet moved forward, complemented by ongoing work to unify the Libyan military so it can serve its role in protecting Libya and combating terror threats.
Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says Egyptian-Russian cooperation over Syria and Libya goes beyond any narrow definition of joint interests to encompass stability across the Middle East.
“It is also about opening up economic avenues for the eventual reconstruction of both countries, in terms of infrastructure and in terms of armaments,” says Akl.
Obviously, for Egypt it is a direct security issue, given the more than 1,000km western border Egypt shares with Libya and Cairo’s ongoing war with militant groups in Sinai. Egypt is naturally concerned about preventing an influx to the peninsula of any militants displaced from Sinai.
For Russia, argues Akl, “it is a matter of expanding its strategic presence across the Middle East” in countries that Moscow traditionally considered part of its sphere of influence in a region that has a considerable Western presence.
“You can argue that Egypt needs Russia on the bilateral front to help with mega projects, including massive infrastructure developments, but you can also argue that Russia needs Egypt, a stable Middle East country that has mostly good relations across the region and close ties with the West, to help promote Moscow’s own vision of a stable Middle East and North Africa that could offer lucrative business opportunities to Russia.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Agreeing on regional stability