Last month Georgiy Borisenko presented his credentials to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as Moscow’s ambassador to Egypt. Except for a period in the 1970s, Cairo and Moscow have enjoyed stable, and at times very close, relations since they were established, first with the USSR on 26 August 1943, and then with the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
Since President Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, Egyptian-Russian rapport has been generally very positive.
“Today our relations are on a positive track and we want to keep it that way. We want to work together and cooperate… Egypt and Russia are like-minded states… our two presidents have good chemistry and they have been giving a push to relations,” Borisenko said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I think we are good partners. We have strategic relations — in 2018 our two countries signed an agreement to establish a comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation.”
Borisenko lists the projects that he says reflect the close cooperation between Cairo and Moscow, including a major purchase of Russian train carriages by Egypt. “In total 1,300 carriages: 34 have arrived already and the rest should be sent to Egypt by 2023.”
“There is the nuclear power plant at Dabaa. The project was delayed because of coronavirus but construction work has already started and we are hoping to finish and have the power plant operating within ten years. Russian staff from Rosatom are already doing research on site.”
Rosatom, the Russian State Atomiс Energy Corporation, is building the nuclear power plant.
Borisenko also stresses Russian commitment to the Russian Industrial Zone (RIZ) in Port Said. An agreement was signed in 2018 after three years of negotiations, and was approved by President Al-Sisi in 2019. Though it remains largely a paper construct, Borisenko says 30 Russian companies have already expressed interest in being part of RIZ.
“Because this is a business to business operation there are still a few matters to discuss, details about economic feasibility,” he says.
Borisenko is fully aware of the differences in relations between Cairo and Moscow now and in the 1960s heyday of ties between Egypt and the Soviet Union. Today’s relations are not the exclusive preserve of state institutions but encompass independent bodies working in the economic and cultural fields.
Before 1991, a government agency in Moscow undertook the translation of hundreds of titles from Russian literature into Arabic, volumes that were made available in the Egyptian market at low cost. When the scheme ended, the flow of Russian texts in Arabic dried up.
“We are very committed to cultural cooperation and there is no reason why, in the future, a company will not find such a project interesting and worthwhile. This is the way to do things now,” says Borisenko.
Unlike books, the flow of Russian tourists to the shores of the Red Sea had been increasing exponentially. Before the downing of a Russian flight over Sinai in October 2015 three million Russian tourists had been arriving annually. In 2019, the figure had fallen to 150,000 tourists who arrived in Egypt from Russia through a third country.
In the wake of the crash Russia banned charter flights to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
“This attack happened eight weeks after the beginning of our work in Syria against the terrorist groups and we know it was meant to hit us for the work we had started in Syria,” says Borisenko.
Acknowledging that Russian tourists would love to return to the beaches of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, Borisenko says the return of Russian charter flights to Egypt’s resorts still awaits security clearance.
Several Russian security teams have inspected revisions to security measures at Egyptian airports and Russian flights to Cairo resumed in 2018. Suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s ambassador to Egypt expects them to resume in a matter of weeks. There is, however, no firm date set for the resumption of charter flights to the Red Sea resorts.
The last visit of a Russian security team to the Red Sea to inspect the measures at the airports took place in January. Later this year the security teams are expected to resume their work in the hope of allowing Russian tourists to return.
Security is central to Egyptian-Russian cooperation. Cairo and Moscow are working on a new international convention combating cybercrime which Borisenko says “we are hoping to finalise by 2022”.
Egypt and Russia’s intelligence communities cooperate closely “to prevent and combat terror”, and the two capitals consult extensively over Libya where Moscow has been working with Turkey to secure a ceasefire around Sirte and Jufra.
This week Borisenko exchanged views with Egyptian officials at the Foreign Ministry on Libya.
“I cannot say when this will be done, but I can say that we have been working on this for eight weeks and both sides in Libya are observing the existing frontlines,” he says.
Since the start of the talks between Turkey, which supports the Government of National Accord (GNA), and Russia, which supports the Libyan National Army (LNA), neither side has moved from the positions they occupied two months ago.
Borisenko does not acknowledge the role of Russian mercenaries working for Wagner on the ground in Libya.
“There is no company under the name Wagner registered in Russia as far as I know. If there are some Russian citizens doing some work in Libya it is an individual matter,” he says.
The trouble in Libya, he argues, is essentially about weakened state bodies and the presence of foreign fighters.
Egypt has been uncompromising in its rejection of any advance further east by the GNA, and is concerned about the unchecked presence of Jihadists in Libya and the potential for those Jihadists to cross the border into Egypt and possibly move east into Sinai where Egyptian security bodies have been fighting terrorist groups for five years.
The Russian ambassador blames the “theory of former US president George W Bush to democratise the Middle East” for the situation in Libya. The US administration of Barack Obama then worked with other Western capitals to continue these schemes, he adds.
Moscow had little if any sympathy for the Arab Spring and the calls for democracy that spread in 2011. It was the Western policy of supporting the calls, Borisenko argues, that caused the current situation in Syria.
“I clearly remember when [former US secretary of state Hillary] Clinton [and her successor John] Kerry tried to convince our Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov not to hit Jabhat Al-Nusra,” he says.
The US objective at the time, he argues, was to get the militant group to help the moderate opposition overcome the rule of Bashar Al-Assad. Yet today, he says, there are few moderate opposition groups left, but a great many terrorists.
After five years of fighting on the side of the Al-Assad regime, Borisenko insists Russia is not in Syria to support any particular political figure but rather “to support the rule of international law that should not allow for any foreign forces to impose their will on Syria”.
“Syria has to be reunited, its infrastructure has to be rebuilt and it has to be governed from Damascus.”
Borisenko acknowledges that Syria and Libya continue to offer space for foreign fighters and terrorist groups whose activities threaten not just the two countries but also neighbouring states.
He argues that creating job opportunities and bringing stability could help rehabilitate some of the combatants but there will still need to be a firm security confrontation because many will refuse to simply lay down their arms.
The need to be firm in combating terrorism is, Borisenko underlines, something to which Moscow and Cairo are unequivocally committed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly