A difficult balance

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 26 Jul 2022


Mutual visits by top Egyptian and Russian officials are nothing unusual, considering the long historic ties between the two countries dating back to the era of the former Soviet Union. However, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, resulting in a worldwide food and energy crisis, added to the attention surrounding the visit by Russia’s foreign minister, the veteran diplomat Sergey Lavrov.

Lavrov’s visit to Egypt was the first leg in an African tour that took him to Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, and took place only a week after the summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia between US President Joe Biden and leaders of the six Arab Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Also this week, the special US envoy to Africa will be visiting Egypt, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, and French President Immanuel Macron has also launched an African tour.

This sudden, intensive attention by the world’s major powers to the African continent, as well as the Arab region, might look like a revival of the Cold War, when developing countries were being rallied by the United States and the former Soviet Union to take their sides. To counter such pressure, following decades of colonisation by former world superpowers such as Britain and France, the world’s developing countries, led by Egypt, India and Indonesia declared that the interests of their peoples should come first, and launched the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

After the fall of the former Soviet Union, many observers thought that NAM would vanish, as there was no longer a competition between world superpowers over gaining the support of developing nations. Yet that assumption was short lived, and barely 30 years later, developing countries found themselves again in a position where they are being pressured to take sides, this time between President Vladimir Putin’s Russia on one side, and the United States and Europe on the other side.

Yet, the key problem is that most developing nations, whether in Africa, Asia or Latin America, are in no position to take sides, and simply cannot afford to. A country like Egypt is a very good example, considering that it maintains close ties with both sides, whether Russia and Ukraine, or Russia and the wider Western alliance led by the United States.

The current Russia is no former Soviet Union, but this will not change the historic reality that many developing countries, like Egypt, cannot ignore the support they received from Moscow in their struggle to gain independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Mega projects that helped provide Egyptians with their needs, such as the High Dam in Aswan or steel and iron factories in Helwan, will remain signs of the long-standing friendship between the peoples of Egypt and Russia. The weapons which Egypt used to win its legitimate liberation war in 1973 against Israel nearly all came from the former Soviet Union.

Even after Egypt’s leadership under late president Anwar Al-Sadat changed alliances, and sought closer, strategic ties with the United States – this was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – Egypt remained keen to maintain close relations with Moscow. After President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi took office in 2014, Russia was one of the first foreign countries he visited. This resulted in a series of cooperation agreements worth billions of dollars, the formation of a joint senior committee that holds regular meetings, an ambitious project to build a nuclear reactor to produce energy in Dabaa worth more than $20 billion, and a surge in the number of Russian tourists visiting the famous Egyptian Red Sea resorts.

Egypt, like other Arab countries, also appreciated Russia’s firm support for the rights of the Palestinian people and their aspiration to establish their own independent state alongside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Moreover, Egypt and Russia jointly shared the view that terrorist organisations that falsely claim to be fighting in the name of Islam pose a serious threat to the security and stability of the Middle East.

Whether in Egypt, Libya or Syria, Cairo and Moscow maintained that demands for democracy and human rights should not be a gateway for terrorist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or IS, to take over power and threaten the integrity or even the very existence of those nation states.

Indeed Arab countries are at the forefront of the call for adherence to international law, the inadmissibility of the use of violence to solve border disputes and the need to respect the sovereignty and independence of all nations. The Western demands to isolate and suffocate Russia cannot be the way out of this disastrous war taking place thousands of miles away.

African and Arab counties are among the most affected by the ripples of the Ukraine war. The prices of vital commodities, namely wheat, cooking oil and fuel, have skyrocketed, leaving millions of people suffering from worsening shortages in food and other basic commodities.

Lavrov’s visit came hot on the heels of a landmark deal Russia and Ukraine signed on Friday with the United Nations and Turkey aimed at relieving a global food crisis caused by blocked Black Sea grain deliveries. Egypt and other developing nations have a great interest in seeing this agreement take effect, considering that Russia and Ukraine provide 80 per cent of Egypt’s wheat imports.

During his meeting with Lavrov, Al-Sisi stressed the importance of prioritising dialogue and diplomatic solutions to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, declaring Egypt’s support for all endeavours to speed up the settlement of the conflict politically, in a way that maintains international security and stability. He expressed Egypt’s readiness to support this path through its international contacts and movements, whether in a bilateral or multilateral framework. This balanced position is the only way out to end the war, and restore order in a chaotic world where the competition is no longer is bi-polar.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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