Putin in Egypt: Who’s the big player in the Middle East?

This could be just a coincidence, but the next day after Russia announced victory over terrorists in Syria, US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both of these events dramatically strengthen the role of the Russian Federation in the Middle East. The Arab world is looking up to Russia, and President Putin has arrived in Egypt to strengthen the strategic alliance with Egypt.

During the Cold War, Egypt was a difficult partner for the USSR. In the middle of the 20th century, the Kremlin was supporting the young republic in its opposition to Israel and the West, and Egypt was reciprocating. In late September 1970, when Anwar Sadat came to power there, he distanced himself from Moscow and went on rapprochement with Washington.

Even though the Soviet-Egyptian Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation was signed in Cairo on May 27, 1971, the relations between the two countries had been chilly since the mid-1970s. Since 1975, Soviet and Russian leaders have never paid a visit to Egypt. Vladimir Putin broke the sad tradition only in 2005.

After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Russia started establishing constructive relations with the new government. These days, President Putin is in Egypt again, where he received a very warm welcome. Egyptian president welcomed Putin personally at the airport and took him to the presidential palace. Cairo residents carried placards saying: “We are glad to welcome President of the Russian Federation and true friend of Egypt in the country of peace.”

Egyptian newspapers also took efforts to give Putin a hearty welcome. All major Egyptian publications predictably wondered when Russian tourists were going to return to Egypt. This issue has become one of the most difficult one on the agenda of the talks.

Since 2015, after the crash of the Russian passenger jetliner over the Sinai Peninsula, the air communication between the two countries has been suspended at the initiative of Moscow, and the tourist flow to Egypt has plummeted. Since then, the Egyptians have done a lot to meet various requirements of the Russian side to improve the security level of Egyptian airports. Russian security commissions have visited Egypt several times already, but they would always find various drawbacks.

Following the talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Vladimir Putin stated that the authorities of Egypt had succeeded in raising the level of security at their airports. The head of the Ministry for Transport of the Russian Federation, Maxim Sokolov, who arrived in Egypt as part of the Russian delegation too, said that one only needs to settle certain formalities before Egypt may expect Russian tourists to return in 2018.

In the long run, tourism was not the most important purpose for Putin to arrive in Cairo. The main topic of the talks was set by Donald Trump, who caused a wave of indignation in the entire Arab world having recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Putin’s goal is to secure the role of an arbitrator in the looming historical dispute.

Cairo has taken the side of Palestine. Egypt recognizes the right of Palestine to establish its own independent state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The decision of the US president has ruined those plans, and both Palestine and Egypt expect that Putin will be able to use his influence and give the Palestinians another chance.

Russia’s victory in Syria showed the Arab world that the United States will have to take Russia’s position into consideration in the Middle East. Egypt will not dare to confront Washington, no matter how hard they may try. Egypt will never stand up to confront Washington, no matter how the Egyptians may criticise Trump. In June 2017, Cairo was one of the seven closest allies of Washington in the Arab world that broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

As for Russia, Moscow has been gradually increasing its influence on Egypt to the detriment of the United States. For example, Russia helps Egypt build its first national nuclear power plant with a capacity of 4.8 thousand MW, and Moscow is expected to give an export credit for this seven-year project.

Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Cairo, where he discussed issues of struggle against terrorism and military-technical cooperation. This year, Russia won a tender for the supplies of Ka-52A Katran deck-based helicopter for Egypt’s Mistral helicopter carriers Mistral and discusses a possibility to purchase a land version of the Ka-52.

On November 30, the Russian government approved a draft bilateral agreement, according to which Russian military aircraft can use Egyptian airfields when carrying out military missions. During the visit to Egypt, President Putin may reach an agreement to establish a Russian military base there that would strengthen Russia’s position in the Mediterranean even further.

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