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There has been a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between Cairo and Moscow since Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy visited Moscow in his first overseas trip in mid-September.
On October 24, an Egyptian public diplomacy delegation arrived in Moscow to “reinforce Egypt-Russia” ties. The trip came two weeks after the White House announced it would suspend up to one-third of its $1.6 billion assistance programme.
Lavrov’s arrival in Cairo with the defence minister in tow, experts say, is geared toward signing a number of trade deals and a possible agreement for Russia to sell advanced weaponry to the Egyptian military.
Fahmy confirmed in an interview with RT television earlier this week that his government was carefully examining the purchase of new Russian weapons.
Russia sees the frayed Egypt-US relationship as an opportunity to expand its influence.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich last week said that Egypt and Russia would hold negotiations in the “2+2 format” in Cairo, the first time the two countries hold talks within such a framework.
“[This] demonstrates the priority ascribed by Russia to further comprehensive development of its relations with Egypt,” Lukashevich said at a press briefing in Moscow.
Russia recently held 2+2 negotiations with Japan in Tokyo.
Lavrov’s arrival comes two days after the latest naval exchanges between Egypt and Russia.
On Monday, Russian guided missile cruiser Varyag received a 21-gun salute and was greeted by a military band as it docked at Alexandria’s port.
The Russian cruiser’s arrival in Egypt – the second such military engagement in over 20 years – is seen by Middle East observers to be a possible major shift in alliances in the region.
In October, the anti-submarine cruiser Admiral Panteleyev docked at the Egyptian port of Bur Safajah for a day. The Varyag is expected to stay until November 16.
“This visit can hardly be overestimated. I hope that the good traditions of cooperation that existed between our countries in the past will continue,” Russian Consul-General Sergei Petlyakov was quoted as saying by the Itar-Tass news agency.
Regional media has speculated in the past month that the strengthening of Egyptian-Russian ties – particularly with emphasis on the military dimension – represents a significant paradigm shift which could see alliances realigned in the Middle East.
The former Soviet Union was Egypt’s main arms supplier until 1972. Following the 1973 October (Yom Kippur) War and with the signing of the 1978/1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Accord and Treaty, the US became the Egyptian government’s greatest Western backer.
Under the tenets of the Treaty, the US has supplied economic and military assistance to Egypt’s government since 1979.
However, two years of tense ties since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted boiled over in July 2013 when the military stepped in – following a populist uprising – to remove a democratically elected president.
Washington did not outright condemn what many called a military coup; it did, however, pressure the interim government to quickly hold elections and show restraint in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In August, the Pentagon canceled military drills with the Egyptian army and two months later, portions of the US aid package were suspended.
Nervana Mahmoud, a Middle East observer, blogger and columnist agrees that suspension of the aid programme appears to be the most obvious reason for Egypt looking beyond the US for military and diplomatic backing.
However, shifts in the spheres of Middle East power in the past few years may play an ultimately larger role.
The Syrian Civil War, in particular, has been of major concern to both Egypt and Russia. Both countries fear the kind of power vacuum that is created when a state fails in the region – Iraq and Somalia being the best examples.
Both fear the rapid rise of militant Islamism where authoritarian regimes once ruled. And both view each other as having warred with Islamic militancy.
“It is probably also true that both share a distaste for what they perceive as Western complacency with organized political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which although perceived as moderate in the West, are in contradiction to the Russian and Egyptian assessment,” Mahmoud told The BRICS Post.
The 2+2 format, coupled with Fahmy’s confirmation that his government was seriously considering buying weapons from its former 1960s ally, will likely lend credence to earlier reports that Russia may sell advanced fighter jets to Egypt some time in early 2014.
In late October, reports largely published in a number of Israeli media claimed that Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Kondrashov arrived in Egypt at the head of a delegation of military experts to discuss arms sales to Egypt.
Neither government commented on the reports.
However, Fahmy sought to dampen any idea that Egypt was giving up on the US.
“That’s Cold War mentality. I’m not trying to bring in Russia vis-a-vis America. I’m trying to bring in 10, 20, 30 new partners for Egypt,” he said in an interview with the local state-owned newspaper Al Ahram and carried by Reuters last week.
“The Egyptian government is committed to diversifying its relationship, not at the expense of our friends but over and above … This is not a position against an American policy, it’s a position that is consistent with Egypt’s interests,” he said.
Nevertheless, Lavrov’s visit with a military entourage – and the duration of his stay in Egypt – is likely to be compared to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit on November 3, the first since the military seized control in July.
Kerry stayed for a few hours – he was en route to Saudi Arabia to patch yet more frayed relations there – and appeared to back Egypt’s current political course. This would have been welcome news to the Egyptians had relations with Washington not soured so significantly since July.
It seemed as if the Americans had been written out of the Egyptian equation, albeit for the interim.
Whether Kerry’s visit will be seen as ‘too little, too late’ will depend on the outcome of Lavrov’s visit starting Monday. Egyptian media have since August alluded to a possible state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Egypt some time in the next few months.
This would significantly boost the Egypt government’s credibility and legitimacy, as well as further Putin’s already growing popularity among Egyptians.
Mahmoud believes that Russian ties have endured a series of ups and downs but she says that when Putin arrives in Cairo he will find “a country trying to rightly balance its affiliations and partnerships, and eager to rekindle the past without repeating similar mistakes”.
Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies