“Positive and promising” is the key phrase Egyptian and Russian officials have been offering in assessment of meetings held in the context of a joint visit by Russia’s foreign and defence ministers to Cairo.
Each of the two sides, however, appears to have its own reading of "positive" and "promising." The Russian side, clearly unable to forget past disappointments in the Cairo-Moscow relationship, is talking of “a truly serious intention on the side of Egyptian authorities to have serious engagement with Russia on several fronts and in a progressive way — without confusing this with Egypt’s relations with any other country.”
“We have shown serious willingness for cooperation several times during the last decade, but each time we did not feel that Egyptian officials were serious. We felt they wanted to act as if they had a good relation with Russia, but not to really work to make this a good relation,” said a Russian official who accompanied the senior visiting delegation.
He added that this "Egyptian seriousness" is the reason why Russian "President [Vladimir] Putin decided to send this rare high-level delegation of the ministers of defence and of foreign affairs. The decision was made on this visit after the visit of the head of intelligence last month and we were offered serious assurances that we are talking business here and not just PR.”
The shifting point in Egyptian-Russian rapport that prompted the Kremlin to send this rare high-level delegation was the beginning of intelligence cooperation on mutually targeted militant Islamists. The same Russian source added that the reason the visiting delegation is hopeful is that “our Egyptian friends are talking in detail about possible avenues of cooperation, and a possible legal framework for this cooperation.”
Egyptian officials for their part agree. An Egyptian diplomat said that, “What we heard from the Russians is really very positive. They offered immediate help in certain areas and they also offered prospective help, in longer term projects." He added: “They are also working with us on a possible memorandum of understanding that could be signed during the anticipated visit of Russian President Vladimir Puttin to Egypt this winter on a whole range of issues, especially industrial, scientific and energy cooperation.”
Down to specifics
The Russian delegation discussed with their Egyptian counterparts several key areas. Included was a possible missiles sale deal that the Egyptian side find to be both lucrative and interesting, though discussion is ongoing on the compatibility of the weapons with Egypt's otherwise predominantly American armaments system.
“It could surely be accommodated and the minister [of defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi] is willing to open the door to diversifying the armament options of the army. This is partly due to the recent US decision to suspend a part of US military aid over political differences [between Cairo and Washington]. But in fact it is something that has been on his mind and on the mind of others in and out of the military for a few years now,” said one Egyptian official.
Another area of possible large scale cooperation is Egypt’s planned nuclear reactor. “The decision is that we will pursue the nuclear option for peaceful purposes, especially with the considerable energy challenges that we are facing. We are not yet at the point of offering a tender, but we are not very far from there, and the Russians have a very interesting proposition there,” said the same Egyptian official.
In the identical assessment of Egyptian and Russian official sources, if Cairo and Moscow were to agree that it would be Russia that would help Egypt build its first nuclear reactor, then this would amount to a strong reminder of Egyptian-Soviet cooperation in the 1960s to build the High Dam — also at a moment of tension between Cairo and Washington.
“We don’t want to go too far in the parallels between the 1960s and today. Russia is not the Soviet Union; the Cold War is over; and we don't actually have Gamal Abdel Nasser with us, even though that El-Sisi is bringing us so many reminders. It is a different story and these are different circumstances altogether,” the same Egyptian official said. He added: “It would be also unreal to discard the fact of the interwoven relations we have had with the Americans over the past 40 years. Our relations with the US will remain a priority. We are only expanding our options.”
Expanding options on the Russian-Egyptian front would also, according to the preliminary discussions of the visiting delegation and other interactions, include scientific cooperation (with Egypt examining a Russian offer to take graduates in enginnering, medicine and science for postgraduate studies). It also could include industrial cooperation, with the Russians willing to offer knowhow on the development of modern industrial complexes.
Russian-Egyptian cooperation, according to identical official sources on both sides, could also expand to include some "particularly crucial" files for Cairo as for Moscow. Providing intelligence information about potential Islamist fighters who move from and to Chechnya, a headache for the Kremlin even if largely controlled for now, is being agreed upon. Under examination is the assistance of Russian intelligence to Egyptian authorities to help deal with “Islamist militias in Sinai.”
“We are just talking in the scope of broad lines, but yes we are discussing the matter,” said the same Egyptian official.
Regional, not just bilateral
The objectives of the senior visiting Russian delegation in Egypt are regional, not only bilateral, sources emphasise.
Regional developments have become a focus for the Kremlin of late, especially in relation to the situation in Syria, where both Moscow and Cairo, despite differences on the preferred fate of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, agree that post-Assad Syria should not be "a land for the Islamists."
“We really think that the diversity of the Syrian population should be reflected and we also think that it does not help the cause of stability in the region if we have a strictly radical Islamist regime in Syria. This is also the assessment of our Egyptian friends who have themselves had a hard time with [an] Islamist regime and whose challenges in stabilising the situation in Egypt might seriously increase if Islamists control Syria,” said a Russian diplomatic source.
In the words of an Egyptian counterpart: “Egypt is also asking Russia to use its exceptionaly good relations with the Al-Assad regime to convince him that his time at the helm of the country has expired and that the sooner he is convinced that there needs be a transition of power the more chances he is giving for the civil opposition to have a say in deciding the future of the country along with the Islamists who are the most organised of all the Syrian opposition factions.”
Egypt and Russia have been both talking to the US on the matter, and Moscow has had some success in convincing Washington not to put all its cards on the Islamist Syrian opposition, “despite Qatari pressure there,” said the Russian diplomat. He added: “So yes, the three of us are talking on this matter.”
Meanwhile, the Russian delegation is discussing with its Egyptian interlocutors developments in Iranian-Western talks and was happy to hear, according to the Russian diplomat, that Cairo is again reiterating its categorical rejection of any attack on Iran, or for that matter Syria, “and actually its determination to refrain from helping either should the matter be summoned again — but we think it shouldn’t.”
70 years of bilateral relations
This summer marked the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Cairo and Moscow. Little attention was given to the matter in Egypt as opposed to Russia, that marked the date on 26 August.
“We were having a tough time with developments at home, but this year we could be seeing some development in joint cooperation,” the Egyptian official said.
Across the 70 years, Cairo and Moscow have had their ups and downs. The high point remains cooperation on building the High Dam in the 1960s under Nasser; the lowest point was in the early 1970s when late President Anwar El-Sadat entered into open confrontation with Moscow and opted to eliminate the Cairo-Moscow alliance in favour for a Cairo-Washington alliance that expanded gradually through the years up until now.
“We had a time when everything almost was decided in view of how it would be perceived in Washington. This was briefly and very mildly challenged when Amr Moussa was foreign minister [in the 1990s], but not really and not for long, because we all know that when [former president Hosni] Mubarak decided to get Moussa out of the foreign ministry it was upon the request of [former US Secretary of State] Madeline Albright who openly told Mubarak that Moussa was blocking the Egyptian-American relation,” said a senior Egyptian diplomatic source.
The source added that a few years after Moussa was out of the foreign ministry, Mubarak started having serious issues with Washington over issues of democracy and human rights. “Mubarak suspended his annual visit to Washington and started looking for alternatives, or at least acted as if he was looking for alternatives. He visited Moscow in 2006 and was given a very good welcome, but did not actually move to execute the ideas that were discussed at the time.”
Year 71 of the Egyptian-Russian relationship will be nothing like the times of Nasser and Khrushchev, both sides admit. But it does appear as if the shared friendship, if lost in the past, is now once again found.