The defense and foreign ministers of Egypt and Russia will meet this week in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations, which has some wondering whether this signals a shift in Egypt’s foreign policy focus.
Their visit was preceded earlier in the week by what was described in local media as a “popular delegation” from Russia, while a visit by a Russian warship to Egypt’s Alexandria port on Monday was celebrated in several media outlets as a sign of improving Russian relations.
State-run Al-Ahram daily cited Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Badr Abdel Aaty as saying that the Russian officials’ visit is “extremely important and has several indications at this particular time.”
Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told state news agency MENA that the four officials will discuss political, economic, security and military ties.
In an interview with Russia Today aired late Monday, Fahmy said Egyptian officials will meet with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss regional issues including the peace process and the Syrian crisis.
On Monday the Varyag missile cruiser, the flagship of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, became the first Russian warship to visit Egypt since 1992. The cruiser and its crew, due to stay in Egypt for six days, received a full naval welcome reception.
A military source told the privately-owned Al-Shorouk daily that the warship’s stop in Alexandria is an index of improving military relations between the two countries.
“The crew will exchange visits with local government and naval officials and take part in a series of cultural and sports events,” the agency reported, quoting the Pacific Fleet’s spokesman, Roman Martov.
Military spokesperson Ahmad Mohamed Ali told privately-owned Al-Masry Al-Youm that Egypt has no intention to allow any foreign power to establish a military base in Egypt, countering claims that the Russian rapprochement and the warship’s visit may be the beginning of negotiations for a Russian base in the country.
Some Russian media leaks suggest that Russia’s support to Egypt is brokered by the Saudi Arabian and Emirati governments, both of which are backers of Egypt’s pro-military government. In early August, Russian weekly Argumenty i Fakty reported the visit of the Saudi intelligence chief to Russia and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, who was asked to support the military in Egypt in return for Saudi Arabia retracting support from some Syrian militias fighting the Bashar al-Asad’s regime, an ally of Russia.
Besides the current political rapprochement, Russia and Egypt have been mulling a collaborative nuclear program for non-military purposes since 2008, while Russia has contributed some of the largest numbers of foreign tourists to Egypt.
Russia has been supportive of Egypt in the aftermath of the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, which has been received with far more skepticism from European and American governments.
During an interview at the Euromoney conference on Monday, presidential advisor Moustafa Hegazy said Egypt’s warming relations with Russia should not be seen as a reflection of changing ties with the US.
Instead, Hegazy said, it is more of a sign of Egypt broadening its foreign policy and taking a more pluralistic approach.
In his Russia Today interview, Fahmy spoke about US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Egypt, saying that the meeting was honest and positive.
On his first visit to Egypt following Morsi’s ouster on July 3, Kerry said the suspension of aid to Egypt is “not a punishment.” Kerry and interim President Adly Mansour agreed in a meeting that bilateral relations between the countries should not be reduced to aid.
Kerry reportedly said that US President Barack Obama asked him to come to Egypt because the US is interested in mending the relationship between the two countries.
Last month Obama froze some military aid to Egypt as well as US$260 million in cash, due to the US administration’s concern over its commitment to human rights and democracy promotion. The decision heavily strained the relationship.
Egypt has received $1.3 billion in military assistance from the US on an annual basis since the 1979 peace accords with Israel. The US also delayed the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt.