The significance of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent visit to Russia lies less in the details of the talks between the president and his counterpart Vladmir Putin, than in the fact that it is his fourth visit since his first when he was defense minister.
As president, Sisi returned in June 2014, May earlier this year, and finally in August. Putin paid Egypt a visit once in February of last year.
While the visits dealt mostly with military, economic and political issues, collectively they show Egypt’s hope in Putin — who has long challenged the US in the international arena and who is attempting to regain political weight.
The looming question is whether the Russian-Egyptian rapprochement is a move on Egypt’s part to distance itself from the US, or if it is trying to balance both Russian and US interests.
Egyptian ambassador to Moscow Raouf Saad says, “the multitude of meetings on different levels is indicative of the stability in the relationship between the two countries and their mutual understanding that the rules of the regional game have changed.”
Both states have much to gain from the relationship, according to Saad. He suggests that Russia believes that its relationship with Egypt gives it more clout in the region, while Egypt sees Russia as a safe and stable partner that can contribute in developing Egypt’s potential.
“Egypt needs arms deals from Russia and it needs its expertise in the nuclear field,” he says. “On the other hand Russia expressed its desire to develop economic relations related to the Suez Canal projects. The potential cooperation between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia an advantage in running its political game in Asia without involving Egypt.”
Saad asserts that the stability of Egyptian-Russian relations do not affect other bilateral relations. “The main foundation of understanding between both presidents is that the bilateral relations must not affect international alliances and partnerships,” he says. “International policy in the 21st century is not what it was in the 20th century — Egypt and Russia are not what they were.”
What about Saudi Arabia?
Bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia undoubtedly carry weight in Egypt and the Gulf as a whole.
“Egypt’s foreign policy manifests itself in playing all sides, without favoring one over the other,” says a diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous.
“We see this in the contrast between the Egyptian and Saudi position on the Syrian crisis, even though both were keen on maintaining their relations. We can say that Egypt’s diplomacy is in the grey area, it is not biased to one side,” the diplomat explains.
Egypt played a major role in reconciling the Russian and Saudi points of view, the diplomat suggests, especially during the meetings between Russian officials and Saudi princes.
Saudi Prince Mohamed Bin Salman visited Moscow last June, a step many see as significant amid deteriorating bilateral relations, especially after former Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal accused Putin of stoking violence in the Middle East.
Salman’s visit to Russia resulted in the signing of various significant agreements, one of which stipulated that Moscow participate in building 16 nuclear reactors for Saudi Arabia as part of its new nuclear program. They also signed strategic agreements pertaining to military cooperation and a space program.
The issue of Syria has also come up in the discussions between Russia and Egypt.
Putin recently stated he had agreed with Sisi to form a united front with Syria against terrorism. The Russian president’s statement came shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that Syria and Egypt are in “one trench” in the fight against terror.
Assad’s statements regarding Egypt are surprising. While the rhetoric over the past four years did not imply there were any strong ties between the two countries, Assad’s first official statements on Egypt give a clearer picture of their relationship.
“The relationship between Syria and Egypt kept a balance in the Arab region,” Assad said, “What Syria wants is for Egypt not to be a launching pad against Syria or any other Arab country.”
He added that several institutions in Egypt refused to cut ties with Syria.
There have been reports lately on the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Damascus. The diplomatic source, however, confirms to Mada Masr that these reports are untrue, though not far-fetched.
Egypt recalled its ambassador in February 2012 and Syria responded by recalling its ambassador in Cairo.
“Egypt’s relationship with Russia, in terms of the Syrian and Saudi cases, illustrates both countries’ agendas,” the diplomat says, “Egypt is in the middle as we can see, playing an important role in bringing Saudi and Russia closer together, but it disagrees with Saudi on Syria and with Russia on Yemen. This is Egyptian diplomacy.”