Russian foreign and defense ministers visited Egypt to meet Egyptian counterparts within the framework of the 2+2 format talks. They were received by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi who emphasized that the multifaceted ties between the two countries reached a strategic level.
Sisi is a complex figure. There appear truly pressing, immediate priorities in Egypt, such as developing the economy and combating the avalanche of extremist attempts to overthrow him. Among Middle East and North African territories, Egypt stands out as a primary target, given the cocktail of challenges that position it as a center of radical Islam.
Sisi faces violent extremist hotbeds in the Sinai Peninsula, and the still-destabilizing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (a political arm of violent radicals). Most notably, Sisi brought a reality check to the Arab Spring when he led the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, ushering a spiritual and cultural Islamic reformation with widespread popular support from Egyptians on a grass-roots level.
The 2+2 format is used by Moscow to maintain dialogue with most trusted partners to address foreign policy, defense and security-related issues simultaneously. Russia and the US had regularly held 2+2 format talks till the relations cooled over Ukraine in 2014. Moscow and Cairo have held 2+2 meeting since 2013. Russia considers Egypt as «a most important strategic partner of Russia in North Africa and the Middle East», as Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu tol-Col. Gen. Sedki Sobhy.
Extending the 10-year Strategic Partnership Agreement concluded in 2009 was among the issues for consideration. Arms sales are a big component of the relationship. The parties discussed the details of the contract in force to supply Egypt with 46 Ka-52K «Alligator» attack helicopters.
By 2015, Egypt signed arms deals with Russia worth up to $5 billion to include 50 MiG-29M combat aircraft, Buk-M2E and Antey-2500 long-range air defense systems and the Ka-52K helicopters for Egypt’s new Mistral-class assault ships bought in France. The two countries have signed several agreements for the renovation of military production factories in Egypt. A protocol has been signed to grant Egypt access to GLONASS, the Russian global satellite positioning system. Last October, Egypt hosted Russian paratroop units for a joint military dubbed «Protectors of Friendship-2016». It was the first time Russian paratroopers with combat vehicles were air dropped into an Arabian desert.
The talks’ economic agenda included the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant in El Dabaa, the creation of a Russian industrial estate and the creation of a free-trade zone between Egypt and the Eurasian Economic Union. Trade turnover between Russia and Egypt reached $3.5 billion in 2016.
The parties made progress while discussing the prospects for restoration of direct air connection suspended after the 2015 terrorist act to down an A321 airliner with Russian tourists onboard. Russia used to be a vital source of tourists to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, providing a reliable stream of revenue.
The fight against terrorism dominated the talks held just three days after an attack against Coptic Christians took place in Egypt. The parties said they wanted an international effort without trying to exclude anyone or using the terrorist threat to pursue geopolitical goals. Evidently, it was an allusion to the US and Saudi Arabia’s plans to form an Arab NATO for the purpose of countering Iran.
Sisi faces more than just militant and political extremists within Egypt’s borders; he is also walking a theological tightrope. Egypt is home to the regressive theocratic influence of the most revered Islamic institution in the Sunni world, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, which openly views freedom as a ticking time-bomb.
Being held hostage intellectually by the grip of Al-Azhar University ensures that there is a constant supply when it comes to producing the next generation of militant and political Islamists.
Egypt also faces extremist infiltration from neighboring Libya, a nation caught in a power vacuum after the murder of its leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. This vacuum has been readily filled by Islamic militants, including ISIS.
Cairo reached out to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and to his Houthi allies Saudi Arabia is fighting since March 2015 and opened diplomatic channels with the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah, fighting on the side of President Assad in Syria against the rebel groups supported by Riyadh.
The possibility of Egyptian military taking part in the implementation of the safe (de-escalation) zones initiative in Syria was on the agenda. There are many details to be discussed and the concept is far from realization phase but the involvement of Egypt is of prime importance. Its participation will no doubt hike the country’s international standing.
Egypt is a predominantly Sunni nation. Its support of the Russia-backed coalition in Syria is of fundamental importance. It makes the sectarian interpretation of Syria’s conflict not valid anymore. According to Lavrov, Russians would be happy to see their Egyptian friends join these efforts. Both countries see eye to eye on the situation in that war-torn country. Last year, Egypt supported Russia’s UN resolution on Syria. Egypt has not joined the Saudi-led anti-Iran coalition.
It is also important that Libya was mentioned as a topic on the agenda. Not much was openly said about it, but it’s only logical that such a sensitive issue was touched upon behind closed doors. Moscow has a special role to play in Libya. Russia and Egypt can contribute jointly into bringing stability to this country. Their interests by and large coincide paving the way for coordinated policy and actions. In late May, Egyptian air force delivered strikes against terrorist camps near Derna in Libya, where armed men responsible for a deadly attack on Egyptian Christians were believed to have trained.
Egypt has to wage a real war against the Islamist forces on the Sinai Peninsula. The Ka-52 helicopter is a formidable weapon to strike terrorists operating in such a terrain. The supplies for terrorist formations come from Libya. This is a big problem for Egypt and Russia can do a lot to help with weapons and experience. Hypothetically, the Russian Navy can strike the terrorists from the sea if requested to do so by the Egyptian government.
Russia maintains intensive contacts with many states of the Middle East. After the Cairo visit, the officials went to join the meeting between President Putin and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Moscow. On June 2, Sergey Lavrov met with Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechirvan Barzani on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. St. Petersburg also hosted the 2nd meeting of the Iran-Russia Energy Committee on June 3.
There are many common interests to unite Moscow with the states of the region, but Egypt is a partner of special importance. It is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, the third-most populous in Africa and the fifteenth-most populous in the world. Last year, the country’s population reached 92 million. It tries to implement an independent policy as a regional power without being too pro-US or pro-Saudi as it has its own national interests to protect.