Egypt's move towards Russia hints at shifting regional alliances

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 23 Feb 2014

Egyptian-Russian relations have entered a crucial stage against the backdrop of historic changes in the Arab region

el sisi
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) Speaks With Egyptian Army Chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (Photo: Reuters )

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s recent visit to Russia marks a major turning point in strategic relations between Cairo and Moscow, and also served to hand a “yellow card” to Washington.

But it is important to look below the surface of the obvious symbolism of the visit, and to consider the underlying political dynamics.

The US is in the process of formulating new and comprehensive regional security arrangements in the Middle East after having acknowledged that its influence in the region had reached an unprecedented nadir. At the same time Russian foreign policy is acquiring a stronger profile in the region.

It is a moment that Egypt capitalised on from a purely cost-benefit standpoint. But one must also bear in mind that it is not a moment of Russian-US conflict or a revival of the Cold War.

Opinion in the US varies on the implications of strengthening ties between Cairo and Moscow. While many hold — or, at least, pretend to hold — that this development will not affect relations between Washington and Moscow, others argue it is a clear sign of how shaky the relationship between Cairo and Washington has become.

The latter will also stress that Egypt hopes that Washington will reassess its position in this relationship because it does not want to sustain the costs of mistakes caused by misinformed or short-sighted foreign policy decision-makers in the US.

In New York Ahram Online met with Leslie H. Gelb, whose career has led him through a series of senior posts in the Departments of State and Defence as well as at various think tanks. He admires Field Marshal El-Sisi for his political realism and believes that the US should engage him in dialogue more actively. He also accepts and understands why El-Sisi has turned to Russia.

“I do not have a polite way to express my opinion of what US foreign policy makers are doing in the region,” he says. “They have no clear idea about what is happening there.” This applies to Egypt in particular.

“Egypt is an important country for the US. We helped remove Mubarak from power. But in the absence of a healthy state of transition it was only to be expected the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power and not those who made the revolution against Mubarak. My advice now is to support the army in Egypt and the military establishment in order to help make up for the abuses the Muslim Brotherhood committed, on the one hand, and to move towards the political realism that Egypt needs on the other. I should add, here, that transitional phases can take decades until there is a robust civil society and democratic culture.”

Gelb, who is currently president emeritus and senior board member of the Council of Foreign Relations, noted that policy-makers in the White House — they include Tony Balkan, Jake Salfan, Denis MacDeans and Susan Rice — formulated US foreign policy on the Middle East “in closed sessions”.

“I do not know what expertise each of these has with the Middle East. They have not met with others who are aware of what is happening. Hence the results that we see in the Middle East today.”

Ahram Online met next with five senior special operations officers in US Central Command (CENTCOM) in Tampa, Florida. There was no agreed upon view or shared outlook among them with respect to political developments in Egypt and US foreign policy responses. While one homed in on the current political situation in Egypt, and the action that he felt the US should take in that context, another took a broader view, seeing the Egyptian army as a long-term ally that has always displayed a capacity for assessing situations realistically and that should therefore be supported.

In the opinion of a third, Washington’s current policy positions are more in the nature of a temporary glitch, after which relations will return to normal.

When one of the officers, a senior official in US Africa Command (AFRICOM), was asked why the US administration was reducing its support for Egypt at a critical time when Egypt is waging a grueling battle against terrorism in Sinai, he replied “there is no easy answer to that”. After a pause he added, “You, in Egypt, need political freedoms, not weapons.”

The US Marines officer who had served in the Middle East and who is currently responsible for communications with the press said: “There is confidence in the military establishment in Egypt. This is beyond question.” As for the tightening of Egyptian-Russian relations, this did not pose a problem. There was coordination between the US and Russia, he added.

On the future of security work in the region the AFRICOM official said that although Washington was relying primarily on Europe in this regard — he noted that AFRICOM headquarters were based in Germany — it would broaden its partnership with respect to action in North Africa. Libya was of prime concern at present, but attention would soon expand to Algeria and Morocco.

As much as some in the US would like to convince us that there is close coordination with Russia there is no question, which many in the US will confirm as well, that US calculations went awry with respect to Syria. In addition Russian naval vessels have taken up station in the Mediterranean, long the uncontested preserve of the American 6th Fleet.

A spokesman for the Russian Navy said last week that the Saratov and Yamal landing ships have set sail from Sevastopol bound for the eastern Mediterranean where they will join a fleet that contains the Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great), said to be Russia’s most powerful nuclear-powered battleship, the aircraft carrier Admiral Koznitsov, the anti-submarine ship Admiral Levanshinko, the landing ships Azov and Georgie Popidonisutz, Olinigorski Gorniak, and Kal Leningrad, and the reconnaissance ship Admiral Fyodor Golofin.

What has now become a permanent Russian fleet in the Mediterranean also includes escort vessels and auxiliary vessels such as Nikolai Chikir, the fuel carriers Sergie Osipof, Iman and Kama, as well as the floating BM-56 lab anchored off Tarsus.

Another major factor affecting security and defence calculations in the Middle East is Iran and its nuclear programme.

Will Iran be persuaded to abandon its worrisome nuclear programme? The answer is of particular concern to powers in the Gulf as well as to Egypt which has a major stake in Gulf security.

The operations commanders were brief in their reply. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

An American political expert on security affairs in the Middle East was more forthcoming: “The US built a wall of missiles in Poland to ward off possible Iranian attacks against Europe. It was extremely costly. Now there is a different approach towards Iran because the US administration does not want to repeat the Iraq scenario. For this and other political and economic reasons it is not interested in a war against Iran. It also believes that it must try all available diplomatic options. This has caused some anxiety to allies in the Gulf and it will induce some major powers there to look to Egypt, which is an important axis of the stability and security of the Gulf and which will support them. For this reason there is a current of opinion arguing for the need for the US to relax its stance towards Egypt and reassure the Gulf.”

This week a delegation from the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee visited Egypt. Perhaps the visit will work to calm relations between Cairo and Washington and set them back on a healthy course.

In US foreign policy towards Egypt, as elsewhere, there are hawks and doves. Each draws on its own set of experts and think tanks which have sought to promote US security, political, diplomatic and propaganda interests in the region since the 1950s. It appears, today, that the “doves” are gaining ground against the “hawks” with respect to US policies and attitudes toward Egypt

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly

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