Whether a proposed Russian deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons as an alternative to a U.S. missile strike actually works or not, Russia already has emerged as a winner among many Egyptians.
For them, the deal is a reminder that there’s a former ally that can solve the region’s problems peacefully without the tarnish of a failed intervention in Iraq, failed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, reviled alliances with fallen regimes or the perception that it has treated the region as its lapdog.
Even before the proposed chemical weapons deal, Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, was seeking to build stronger relations with Russia – and move away from the United States. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested in his congressional testimony earlier this month that the Arab world is watching what the U.S. does in Syria, it’s what Russia is doing that’s shifting alliances in the region.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy visited Russia this week, in part to thank Russians for their intervention in Syria and to discuss new ways to expand Egyptian-Russian relations. Fahmy said he hoped the Russian deal would eventually lead to ridding the world of chemical and nuclear “without exception or discrimination,” a clear reference to Israel, the United States’ most important Middle East ally and a country suspected of having both chemical and nuclear weapons.
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The Egyptian government’s moves to bolster relations with Russia have the backing of a majority of Egyptians, who are angry over the United States’ perceived support for ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, its threats to cut off $1.5 billion in military aid and the instability that U.S. military intervention – and threats of intervention – have had in the region, of which neighboring Libya is the nearest example.
Nearly every day, newspaper columns outline the many ways the United States has failed the region and how Russia, China and India could offer a new economic breakthrough. The United States is weaker, they argue, Russia is more aligned with Egypt and willing to help finance much-needed economic projects.
“Egypt should end the shame of the toxic American and European aid, and declare once and for all that it does not need it. It should focus on financial and economic cooperation with sister Arab countries and with friends with which it has already cooperated unconditionally – Russia, China, India, and others – since political, economic, and national independence are more valuable than any aid,” columnist Ahmad el Sayed el Nagger wrote Aug. 27 in the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
Earlier this month, Egyptian President Adly Mansour told state television in his first interview that Russia and China “can offer a lot to Egypt in the next phase, not only politically, but economically.”
He added that he and Foreign Minister Fahmy are “strategically reviewing our foreign relations to differentiate between our real friends and those who should not be classified in that category anymore.”
As the U.S. makes threats to cut off funds, Egyptians are hopeful Russian money will return. Russian investment in 2010 reached $2.1 billion a year, and Russians account for 2.85 million tourists annually, making the nation a key part of reviving Egypt’s moribund economy. On Sept. 10, amid news of a possible deal, Egyptian stocks rose 3.11 percent.
Intertwined in the latest move toward Russia is Egypt’s own history. With the country now guided by a military leader, Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, there is a renewed love of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former Army colonel who helped liberate Egypt from British rule and who at the height of the Cold War aligned himself with the Soviet Union, skillfully playing the two Cold War rivals off one another.
In 1972, then-President Anwar Sadat expelled Russian advisers in the face of a military defeat in the so-called Yom Kippur war against Israel and moved toward a peace deal and a renewed American alliance.
More recently, Morsi’s July 3 ouster and the return of a military-led government have resurrected Egypt’s alliance with rulers such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is largely propped up by Russia.
Still, there is much doubt that a military-led government would break with the United States openly. The United States is a source of weapons and military training for Egyptian army commanders, and there is nothing in the latest rhetoric that suggests Russia would do a better job than the U.S. at solving the regions most intractable problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, the post-Arab Spring instability or the region’s economic decline.
The establishment “is keen to maintain the relationship” with the United States,” said Abdel Raouf el-Reedy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States who is in close contact with the current Egyptian government. “Whoever counts in national security decision-making believes that maintaining the relationship is very important.”
At the same, however, “there is a sense of disappointment with the United States,” he said. “The threat of cutting off military aid is a sensitive point within the Egyptian society because they are a very proud of people. When I was in Washington, I always advised my friends to not use the aid as a means of leverage. It is counterproductive.”
William B. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council during the 1970s and the Camp David Accords, the apex of U.S.-Egyptian relations, said he believes U.S. influence in the region has been fading for at least 20 years, beginning with the end of the first Gulf War and the 1991 Madrid conference, which failed to bring about major changes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. relations fell again in 2000 when then-President Bill Clinton failed to seal a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, sparking a Palestinian uprising. Two years later, the United States prepared to enter Iraq.
While U.S. intervention in Libya in the form of airstrikes was once celebrated, the region blames the United States for the instability that has defined the period since the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The latest move toward Russia is one of many new alliances emerging in a rapidly evolving post-Arab Spring Middle East, Quandt said. That move is based on immediate interests, and can seem perplexing. Iraq’s two best allies, for example, are the United States and Iran. In Syria, the two biggest opponents of an expanding al Qaida influence are the United States and Assad – who two years ago President Barack Obama said “must go.”
For an Egypt looking to assert its independence from the United States, find new economic partners and establish itself again as a key player in the region, aligning itself with Russia now makes sense.
“There is no ideological lineup,” Quandt said. “You are going to see some very odd, very odd alignments in the next few years.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for when Egyptian then-President Anwar Sadat expelled Russian advisers. It was in 1972.