In a strong signal of Moscow’s intention to play a greater role in the Middle East, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Cairo on Monday to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Lavrov’s visit to Cairo took place a day before his visit to Iran and soon after his diplomatic tour of the Gulf, in which he visited the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It also took place against the backdrop of an extremely volatile Middle East.
The crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the delicate negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme, the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the armed conflicts in Syria and Libya, the precarious situation in Lebanon, and the fraught tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are all aspects of the Middle Eastern powder keg that Egypt and Russia are eager to defuse as soon as possible.
Lavrov’s visit to Cairo, his first since US President Joe Biden took office on 20 January, also comes at a time of an unprecedented spike in tensions between Moscow and Washington, and Biden has taken a much tougher stance towards Russian President Vladimir Putin than did former president Donald Trump.
The US Interim National Security Strategic Guidance Report that the Biden administration released last month identifies “growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states” as one of the US’ main immediate challenges. Washington has threatened to broaden the scope of Western sanctions against Russia to include vital sectors such as banking and energy. It is also contemplating adding more individuals close to the Kremlin to its sanctions regime, perhaps even Putin himself.
Russian-Western tensions in general have been steadily rising due to recent developments in Ukraine and the imprisonment of the prominent Russian political activist Alexei Navalny. Western demands for Navalny’s release have been met with Moscow’s angry rejection of “unacceptable intervention” in its domestic affairs.
In this highly charged climate, Moscow hopes to rally friends and allies in the Middle East in preparation for a looming new cold war with the Biden administration. Russia has thus been engaging with all the countries in the region. It has increased its arms sales to Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the UAE, and Turkey, and it has just signed a 25-year contract with Khartoum to build a naval base in Sudan that will be the second of its kind after the Russian naval facility in Tartus in Syria.
During his tour of the Gulf last month, Lavrov outlined a Russian vision for a collective security order in the northern Gulf, a vision that appears to have drawn on the outputs of a succession of visits by the UAE, Saudi, and Qatari foreign ministers to Moscow in December 2020 and January 2021.
As Lavrov’s visit to Cairo this week suggests, Russia sees Egypt as a linchpin in the alliance it hopes to build. Egypt, for its part, has showed little enthusiasm for Washington’s initiative calling for the creation of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) to counter the “Iranian threat”. Announced in 2017, MESA was billed as a “security partnership” between the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — plus Jordan and Egypt. In 2019, Cairo notified the US officially that it was not interested in taking part in the initiative, nicknamed the “Arab NATO”, because it felt the idea had not been thoroughly conceived and could risk an unwarranted increase in tensions with Iran.
This week’s visit highlighted the opportunities that the Egyptian-Russian partnership will create to advance security, stability, and development in the region. The Egyptian foreign minister noted that Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with extensive diplomatic resources, understands Egypt’s position on the GERD and that Moscow has indicated that it is ready to continue to coordinate with Cairo to promote an agreement on it that would benefit all three parties, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
Shoukri added that “[Egypt] is counting on Russia’s relations with Ethiopia to help achieve a binding agreement on the Renaissance Dam, especially now that the African Union negotiating track has stalled.”
On another crucial Middle East issue, Lavrov’s visit worked to enhance cooperation in helping the Palestinians to hold general elections on 22 May. Egypt also supports the new Russian peace initiative that Lavrov announced at the end of March. This proposes direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis in a broader international mediating framework that would include, in addition to the Quartet of Russia, the US, the UN, and the EU, four Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, namely Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia would attend in its capacity as the author of the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been endorsed by the Security Council.
At another level, Lavrov’s visit reaffirmed Egypt’s and Russia’s determination to forge ahead with agreed projects, such as the Dabaa nuclear electricity plant, the Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal Economic Corridor, and deliveries of new railway cars to Egypt.
The forthcoming “2+2” talks attended by both the foreign and defence ministers from each side will flesh out further details and explore other areas of cooperation for the Egyptian-Russian partnership, which has become an important cornerstone of security, stability, and development in the Middle East. This partnership will likely deepen in the near future in view of the current US administration’s inclination to brandish misleading slogans about spreading democracy, human rights, and liberalism across the world.
*The writer is head of the International Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly