Raymond Stock, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow and instructor of Arabic at Louisiana State University, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on June 3 about the warming of Russian-Egyptian relations.
Russian-Egyptian relations were moribund for four decades after Cairo abruptly switched its Cold War allegiance from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in the 1970s, after which Egypt became the world’s second-largest non-NATO recipient of U.S. military aid (after Israel).
According to Stock, Russia saw an “opportune moment” to regain a foothold in Egypt in 2013 following the Obama administration’s suspension of military aid to Egypt in response to the ouster of then-president Mohammed Morsi by the country’s military following mass protests against his Islamist-led government. Although the suspension was temporary, both the Obama and Trump administrations have at times withheld portions of the roughly $1.3 billion in annual military aid the U.S. provides Egypt to pressure Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on his human rights record. Russia, on the other hand, “was the first to congratulate” Sisi after he was elected president in 2014.
The Russians were quick to exploit the opening with Sisi, and the Egyptians have been eager to purchase Russian arms – most recently a $2 billion dollar deal for advanced Su-35 fighter jets – in violation of American sanctions on Russia’s defense industry. Several factors are at play here.
First, Sisi and the masses of Egyptians who support him see American suspensions of aid as “interfering in Egypt’s sovereignty” and “don’t view the U.S. as a reliable ally,” said Stock. Russian arms, though mostly purchased rather than granted outright, have no clear political strings attached.
Second, Egyptians complain that the U.S. is not providing the kind of military hardware required to meet their security needs. “Living in a dangerous neighborhood,” chief among Egypt’s concerns are the need to “project power against jihadi groups,” counter the threat to Egypt’s water resources posed by the building of the Greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and match the military power of Israel. While Egypt and Israel have close security cooperation, particularly in fighting jihadi groups in Sinai, popular opinion in Egypt does not see Israel as a friend. “Egyptian society as a whole has been so propagandized over the years against Israel,” said Stock, “[that] it will take generations for a warm peace that they cannot bring themselves to at present.”
Third, Russia has skillfully exploited Egypt’s water insecurity and energy vulnerabilities. In addition to helping Egypt prepare militarily for “any contingencies” should a “water war” erupt with Ethiopia in the future, the Russians are building a $28.75 billion nuclear power plant on the northwest coast of Egypt.
Sisi’s justification for building the nuclear plant, which will leave Egypt heavily in debt to Russia, is ostensibly to solve the country’s long-term energy consumption needs, but Stock noted that nuclear advancement is a matter of “pride and prestige” for many Egyptians because of Israel’s (unofficial) possession of nuclear weapons. The plant “offers an opportunity” for Egypt to start a uranium enrichment program, “a first step towards a nuclear weapons program” which is of great concern to the West.
With the U.S. seeking to disengage from the Middle East and Russia expanding its presence in the region, stopping Egypt’s gravitation into Russia’s orbit won’t be easy. U.S. policymakers who want to counter Russian influence in Egypt are hampered by the “amount of repression under the Sisi regime,” which they cannot easily ignore. But aid conditionality can be paired with greater positive incentives. “We need to enhance our carrot and stick approach” when evaluating our criteria for aid to Egypt, said Stock, “otherwise, Egypt is going to disappear from our roster of allies.”
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.