Cairo and Moscow: Growing bonds

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 6 May 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly examines Egypt’s strengthening ties with Russia

Russian tourists
Egypt’s Red Sea resorts are awaiting the return of Russian tourists (photo: AFP)

Direct flights from Russia to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts are expected to resume this month following a five-and-a half-year suspension.

Russian Ambassador to Egypt Georgy Borisenko visited Hurghada this week to discuss with Red Sea governorate officials the preparations necessary for flights to begin again to Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.

News of the resumption followed a telephone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 23 April.

According to the Egyptian presidency, during the phone call Al-Sisi welcomed Russia’s decision to resume flights between the two countries, and especially to the coastal cities of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt.

The presidency said Al-Sisi told Putin that Russia’s decision to resume direct flights with Egypt would not only boost the movement of tourists but push bilateral relations to new heights. Putin responded by saying Moscow was keen to establish strong bilateral relations with Egypt in all fields, and praised the long partnership between the two countries.

Al-Sisi and Putin also discussed joint cooperation projects between the two countries, including the Russian Industrial Zone in Suez and the Dabaa nuclear power plant which Russia is building west of Alexandria.

Russia suspended direct flights to Egypt after a Russian flight carrying holidaymakers from Sharm El-Sheikh was downed over Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people on board. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

Since the attack Egypt has upgraded safety and security measures at all airports. As a result of these efforts Russia resumed flights to Cairo International Airport in April 2018, ending a 30-month suspension, but did not resume flights to Egypt’s Red Sea destinations.

Aviation experts told the Russian News Agency Interfax last week that Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada airports had been declared safe by Russian experts after intensive security checks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Egypt on 12 April, had also said during a press conference that he expected direct flights between Russia and Egypt’s seaside resorts to resume “very soon”.

Commentators say Putin’s 23 April phone call with Al-Sisi signals a new era of strengthening relations between Moscow and Cairo.

Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Suez Canal University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that under Al-Sisi and Putin, Egypt and Russia had been nudging closer in recent years.

Al-Sisi visited Russia twice in 2014, first in February when he was defence minister, and then in August following his election as president. Putin has also visited Egypt twice, in February 2015, and in December 2017.

Egypt and Russia signed a strategic partnership agreement in October 2018 which Al-Sisi lauded as a “new chapter in the history of bilateral relations between Moscow and Cairo”. Since the agreement Russia and Egypt have expanded economic, security, and diplomatic ties.

“This new cooperation challenges the commonly-held view that Cairo sees Russia as a hedge against potential disagreements with the US. It suggests that the Russia-Egypt partnership has much deeper foundations,” said Zahran.

The 10-year agreement, approved by Egypt’s parliament in December 2020, seeks to reinforce cooperation between Egypt and Russia in the economic, investment, political, and military spheres. Under the deal the two countries will conduct a strategic dialogue on military cooperation, and senior officials are expected to exchange visits on a regular basis.

Zahran believes Putin’s phone call to Al-Sisi and Lavrov’s visit to Cairo have particular significance given the cooling of relations between Egypt and the US.

“Since new US President Joe Biden entered the White House in January, Egypt’s relations with Washington have been frosty. The only contact between the two countries came last February when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken phoned his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri. An official US statement at the time indicated that Blinken had raised concerns over human rights.”

“It is clear,” argues Zahran, “that the Middle East, with the exception of the Iran nuclear deal, is not a priority for the Biden administration, so we can expect Egyptian-US relations to remain frosty for some time.”

By contrast, Cairo and Moscow will grow closer in the coming years. “The actual return of the Russians to the Red Sea resorts,” says Zahran, “will open new horizons of cooperation between the two countries in all fields.”

In a press conference in Cairo on 12 April, Lavrov said that he had discussed with Shoukri the implementation of joint mega projects, including the nuclear power plant and the industrial zone in the Suez Canal area.

Shoukri said Egyptian-Russian cooperation had recently expanded to include the railway sector and that Egypt and Russia would soon set a date for a 2+2 meeting gathering the foreign and defence ministers of each country to discuss developments in Syria and Libya.

The two countries are also boosting cooperation over health. On 19 April, Minister of Health Hala Zayed and Moscow’s Ambassador to Egypt Georgy Borisenko agreed that Egypt would manufacture the Russian-developed Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Under the agreement, the local pharmaceutical company Minapharm will be licensed to produce 40 million doses of Sputnik V annually. Production is scheduled to start in November and according to Zayed it will help meet Egypt’s vaccination needs and lead to vaccine exports to African countries.

Hossam Awadallah, an MP representing the city of Hurghada and chair of parliament’s Energy Committee, told the Weekly that the return of direct flights would serve as an economic boost to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.

“Russians comprised 60 per cent of the foreign tourists arriving in Hurghada annually,” said Awadallah. “The number of Russians visiting Egypt increased from two million in 2009 to three million in 2014. The resumption of direct flights will serve the national economy.”

Awadallah says that since the October 2015 downing of the Russian passenger jet Egypt has spent $60 million modernising airport security and safety checks.

Following the phone call between Putin and Al-Sisi, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters in Moscow that “everything is going according to plan and the resumption [of direct flights between Russian cities and Red Sea resorts] is expected very soon. Indeed, I can say it is a foregone conclusion.”

Interfax reported, “Russian airlines are seeing a high level of interest in Egyptian destinations, especially amid restrictions on travel to Turkish resorts.”

An aviation source told Interfax he expects direct flights to resume as early as 10 May.

Deputy Tourism Minister Ghada Shalabi told Reuters last week that the resumption of direct flights between Russia and Egypt’s resorts could bring as many as one million Russian tourists to Egypt in 2021 and boost revenues by $6-7 billion.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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