What next for Egypt and Russia?

Hicham Mourad , Tuesday 23 Apr 2013

Morsi's visit to Russia could allow Moscow to regain a foothold in the Middle East - and marks a step towards an Egyptian foreign policy that is not centred on the US

On 19 April, President Mohamed Morsi completed his first visit to Russia, focusing on the economic needs of Egypt which is experiencing severe financial difficulties since the popular uprising that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. At the end of the visit, the two sides announced their intention to strengthen their economic and political cooperation.

Although the visit had urgent and clear economic objectives, it was part of the broader commitment of the new Egyptian regime to break with the legacy of Mubarak, to expand and diversify its international partners and to move beyond the narrow framework of its alliance with the West, particularly the United States.

It is in this sense that we must understand the visits of Morsi to global powers counterweight to the West and the United States, namely China, India and Russia. It is in this sense that we must also understand its stated intention to join the BRICS, a group of emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, whose gross domestic product accounts for 30 percent of the world’s GDP. These countries seek to occupy a more prominent place on the global political and economic scene and openly challenge the Western, especially US, domination of the global system.

The visit was seen by Russia as a valuable opportunity to regain a foothold in a region where it has lost ground in recent years and is expected to lose more with the likely fall of the Syrian regime. Egypt is also a major regional power and historical ally, which dates back to the era of the charismatic President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Thus, President Morsi has not missed the opportunity of his visit to Moscow to ask the Russians to modernise Egyptian industries they helped build in the sixties: the metallurgical complex of Helwan (south of Cairo), the aluminum plant of Naga Hammadi (Upper Egypt) and the turbines of the High Dam at Aswan. He dangled the opportunities for cooperation in such strategic areas as the construction of nuclear power plants for the production of 4,000 megawatts of electricity by 2025 and the exploitation of uranium mines needed for atomic energy.

Russia has lost much of its luster and marked an eclipse on the international scene after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. It has recently lost much of its position in the Arab world after the fall of its Libyan ally Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, which shattered several lucrative contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It is likely to lose tomorrow its "last" valuable Arab ally, a remnant of the Soviet era, the Syria of Bashar Al-Assad, which faces an armed rebellion supported by the West.

While President Morsi seemed enthusiastic in its opening towards Moscow, calling his Russian counterpart a "brother" and "dear friend" and calling to build a "political union" and "economic alliance" between the two countries, Vladimir Putin seemed more reserved, merely calling for a full return of bilateral relations.

One reason could be the Russian perception of the Muslim Brotherhood, in power in Egypt today. The Brotherhood has been banned in Russia since 2003 by a decision of the Supreme Court which labeled it a terrorist organisation. Russia under Putin - in power from 2000 to 2008 and from 2012 - accused the Muslim Brotherhood of supporting the rebels who want to create an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, mostly populated by Muslims. The Kremlin is working to contain the Islamist rebellion in this region between the Black and Caspian seas, while Putin warned that Islamist violence could spread to other regions of Russia.

This question of banning Muslim Brotherhood in Russia was raised by the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood Mohamed Badie with the Russian ambassador in Cairo. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, had promised to find a solution to this problem, by removing the name of the Egyptian Brotherhood from the black-list, in order to pave the way for closer relations with Egypt.

But how far can the strengthening of bilateral ties be? That Russia replaces the US as the main ally of Egypt is excluded. Primarily because the regime in Egypt does not want it. His rapprochement with Moscow, although motivated mainly by economic reasons, aims to loosen the Western stranglehold and find greater freedom of external action, without breaking with the Americans or the Europeans. Russia also does not seem to have too many illusions about the scope of its rapprochement with Egypt. While it is willing to strengthen a beneficial and lucrative economic cooperation, it is aware of the limits in creating a strategic partnership with Cairo as bilateral relations do not include a military dimension.

Since the conclusion of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the Egyptian army has changed military doctrine and weapons supplier. The United States has replaced the Soviet Union as the main source of weapons, financed by US military aid, currently at $1.3 billion per year. The Egyptian army supports the continuation of this assistance as a source of modernising its equipment, some of which is manufactured in Egypt in collaboration with US companies. This is the case for example of the main battle tank of the Egyptian Army, M1 Abrams, whose co-production with the American firm General Dynamics began in 1988.

This awareness of the limits of a deepening of relations with Cairo could explain the Russian reserves at the request of Morsi of a credit of $2 billion to help deal with the country's financial crisis. Moscow has merely announced that the finance ministers of the two countries would explore the issue quickly.

Russia has not also accessed immediately the Egyptian request for an increase in wheat exports to Egypt, which face a shortage due to a lack of foreign currencies to pay for imports. Moscow has merely pointed out that it would respond positively to the Egyptian quest if the harvest this year corresponded to expectations. The volume of the harvest will not be known until early July.

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