Egypt was always an attraction: Russian historian

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 10 Feb 2015

Russian historian Vladimir Belyakov sees an inevitable rise in the profile of Egyptian-Russian relations

Sisi and Putin
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during their dinner in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, Feb. 09, 2015 (Photo: AP)

“Cairo is a very big city with 14,000 streets; each street has two gates … some streets have around 15,000 houses and actually in some cases there are 18,000 houses in the street; and in every of these streets there is a big market”.

These were the impressions that one of the early Russian visitors to Egypt wrote down in his memoires about a trip to the Middle East when he came to visit the sacred Christian sites in Jerusalem, Palestine and the Sinai in Egypt.

These memoires date back to a visit that took place in 1466 – and along with other memoires, it offers the base for a book that compiles the early Russian reflections about Egypt. It is inspired by visits to Cairo, Sinai, Alexandria, Damiatta and Rashid.

Titled ‘Egypt through the Lens of Russian Travellers', the book was compiled by prominent Russian historian Vladimir Belyakov, who was in Cairo only a few days before the visit of Russian President Valdimir Putin, to launch the Arabic translation of the book.

“It was very well received and I think what the memoires of the early Russian travelers to Egypt show is that our two peoples have a thread of joint interests in life as in religion,” Belyakov said in an interview with Al-Ahram Online.

Belyakov was a frequent visitor to Egypt, where he lived, worked and studied for 15 years in the 1980s at a not-so-high point of Egyptian-Russian relations. He said the interest that the audience of the Cairo Book Fair demonstrated earlier in the month in the new translation of his book was no less than the warmth and generosity that the average Egyptian showed towards him when he lived in Egypt. This was even before Cairo and Moscow began to officially work on uplifting the profile of their bilateral relationship that saw its high during the 1950s and 1960s under the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The relationship then suffered a crucial low in the second half of the 1970s with Anwar Sadat turning his back on “the good friend that he had at the then Soviet Union and (instead) chose to turn West."

The rule of Hosni Mubarak that started in 1981 following the assassination of Sadat is thought by Belyakov to have seen the “eventual elimination of tension” between Egypt, which was already in a firm friendship with the US, and the then Soviet Union.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Belyakov admits that the new Russian Federation was also seeking to ‘normalise relations with the West’.

“But it was also seeking to keep good old friends in many parts in the world, including the Middle East, especially Egypt."

Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the Soviet Union had so much economic and military support to offer to Egypt and which was challenged by the West, especially the US, Belyakov acknowledged that in the 1990s and throughout the first decade of the new millennia, the Russian Federation was rebuilding its own assets. “Still, at the time, Moscow reached out to key capitals in the Middle East and Cairo was certainly one of those capitals."

Today, the Russian Federation, despite what Belyakov qualifies as 'a temporary economic crisis', has much to offer Cairo.

“Egypt is very keen for stronger and wider cooperation with Russia in the area of armament; a good deal of the Egyptian military arsenal is manufactured in Russia and the Egyptian army fought the 1973 War essentially with Russian arms,” he said.

The scope to which the visiting Russian President would be willing to accommodate the wishes of his 'prominent host President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi' will depend on complex regional and international factors.

“Putin will resume a discussion that he had with El-Sisi, when the latter was still minister of defense during the political transition that followed the ouster of Mohamed Morsi; some agreements could be reached and other issues could be subject to further consultations,” he said.

Scientific and economic cooperation is also expected to figure high on the agenda of the talks with Putin and El-Sisi which is scheduled to take place in a four-eyes only meeting first thing Tuesday morning and then to be followed by talks with the delegations of both sides.

“We have a long joint history; sometimes people tend to only remember the High Dam, but what we have together – what we built together during the glorious years of our friendship includes some 100 factories in so many parts of Egypt,” Belyakov said. Today, he added, there is room to upgrade these factories and to consider new projects.

But the author of 'Egypt through the Lens of Russian Travelers' is particularly keen to stress the importance of promoting cultural and educational cooperation.

Since the 1950s, Belyakov said, there are over 30,000 Egyptian students who graduated in Russian universities either as graduate or post-graduate students. “They studied a wide range of things ranging from cinema and ballet to military sciences and medicine,” he said.

Belyakov is keen to see more Egyptian students going to Russian universities and a more intense exchange of exhibition and cultural fairs.

“There was a time when our two countries had a very happening agenda of exchange of cultural activities; of course so much has changed since that time in the 1950s and 1960s and neither of our countries have enough resources for the volume of state-sponsored cultural activities as before, but we still could expand a little,” he argued.

Belyakov is convinced, as he told Al-Ahram Online, that both Putin and El-Sisi are keen to build stronger and much more diverse relations. “Right from the beginning, Russia was on the side of the 30 June Revolution and its political support was certainly appreciated in Egypt which is now making a dedicated effort to diversify its international relations in the real sense of the word,” he stated.

As chair of the Moscow based Orientalism Studies Institute, Belyakov is sure that the next few years will see many new projects that would continue to examine the rich long history of Egypt and Russia and to propose ideas for the future of these bilateral relations.

“What brought us together in the past was our common interests both in the cultural and the geo-strategic sense; what will bring us closer today is exactly this same shared interest,” Belyakov stated.

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