Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri paid a three-day visit to Moscow this week during which he met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. The two top diplomats discussed bilateral relations as well as the latest developments in the Libyan crisis and the situation in Syria, and Shoukri conveyed a message from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shoukri also met with Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev to discuss ways to boost cooperation and coordination between Cairo and Moscow.
Rakha Hassan, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, told Al-Ahram Weekly both states agree on the importance of “combating extremism and terrorism on the bilateral and international levels, solving the problem in the Middle East and settling differences among its countries in order to focus more on the development of the region”.
Shoukri’s visit came less than two months after Minister of Defence and Military Production Mohamed Zaki headed a high-level military delegation to Moscow. Zaki attended the seventh meeting of the Egyptian-Russian Joint Military Committee and held talks that aimed to enhance military cooperation between the two countries.
Regular visits reflect the growth in relations between Cairo and Moscow, says political science professor Nourhan Al-Sheikh.
“Moscow helped with most of the major projects implemented in Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s. It also aided Egypt with the launch of satellites for scientific research in 2014 and 2019 and is a partner in many development projects, not least the Dabaa nuclear power station.”
According to Hassan, the visits provide an opportunity to discuss and coordinate stands in the light of regional developments in various important files in the region. Citing the Syrian crisis, he said the two states needed to address opening the Syrian-Jordanian border, plans to deliver Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Jordanian and Syrian pipelines, and “ways to return Syria to the Arab League, a demand that both Cairo and Moscow are pushing for”.
On the Libyan issue, Hassan says both states need to discuss the fate of mercenaries, and whether they should withdraw simultaneously, before or after the presidential and parliamentary elections due in December.
On the bilateral level, military cooperation is a key element in the growing relations between Egypt and Russia. Since 2014, Egypt has signed several military deals to buy Russian weapons, including fighter jets, assault helicopters, air defence systems, and frigates. Egypt and Russia have also held regular joint military exercises since 2016 that have bolstered their military relationship.
In addition to the Dabaa nuclear power plant project, likely to cost $25 billion, the two countries have signed an agreement to establish a Russian industrial sector in the Suez Canal Economic Zone which is expected to increase the number of Russian companies and investments in Egypt and generate thousands of jobs.
“Yet despite cooperating on various bilateral and regional projects,” said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, “Moscow failed to support Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] before the UN Security Council.”
Cairo, added the diplomat, had expected full Russian support on the GERD file, and when that support was not forthcoming Egypt’s local media widely criticised Moscow, describing its position towards Cairo during the session as unfriendly.
The tensions first surfaced when Russian representative Vasily Nebenzya told the Security Council in July that diplomacy is the only option for resolving the disputes surrounding GERD. Days later, Moscow and Addis Ababa signed a military agreement.
El-Sheikh believes the media campaign was misdirected, pointing out that the Russian ambassador to Egypt had explained that Russia fully supports a return to negotiations.
Egypt was for long a favoured destination among Russian tourists. By 2014, Russia was dominating Egypt’s tourism market, especially in the Red Sea resorts, with the number of Russian tourists surpassing 3.1 million that year. In October 2015, following the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, Moscow ended all direct flights between Russia and Egypt. The ban was finally lifted in July this year and Egyptian operators are hopeful that Russian tourist numbers will soon recover.
Relations with Russia date back to 1943, when Egypt and the then Soviet Union exchanged ambassadors. Bilateral relations reached an apex in the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt was awash with Soviet experts. The Soviet Union was Egypt’s principal arms supplier from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, when president Anwar Al-Sadat began a reorientation toward the US.
Relations have been growing since President Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, a year in which trade between the two states saw an 80 per cent rise.
In October 2018, presidents Al-Sisi and Putin signed a comprehensive partnership agreement covering military, security, trade, and economic cooperation. In December 2020, Egypt’s parliament ratified a second bilateral comprehensive agreement under which two countries agreed to exchange regular visits at the presidential level, and the level of foreign and defence ministers.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly