Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War.
According to them, all is as it was – they still are officially allies of the US, still cooperate with its intelligence agencies and would still welcome American economic largesse.
But the very fact that the Egyptian leadership felt bound to articulate and accentuate a business-as-usual message indicates that its business agenda is anything but usual. The very fact that high-level and high-profile Russian visits are taking place for the first time in a very long time, replete with pomp and circumstance, attests quite loudly that things are hardly quite what they were.
It is not difficult to pinpoint the triggers for change.
The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime was greeted with undisguised American displeasure and was followed by Washington’s decision to suspend much of the $1.3 billion earmarked for military aid to Egypt each year.
The US not only withheld cash subsidies but indefinitely deferred the delivery of large-scale military systems.
Egyptian government spokesmen described this as “wrongheaded” and vowed that Cairo would “not surrender to American pressure.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to punctuate the American moves with the assurance that this wasn’t “a withdrawal from our relationship.” Yet he was as unconvincing as the official Egyptian assurances that the Russian ministerial visits signify no policy departure on Cairo’s part.
The more persistent the denials, the clearer it is that a marked shift is taking place in international ties that until recently bound the world’s single superpower with the most populous Arab state. The Russian ministerial visits were preceded by a visit by the chief of Russian intelligence and by Russian naval vessels.
More important, the visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu involve a major sale to Egypt of sophisticated Russian military hardware – clearly a counter move to the American halting of weapons supplies.
The Egyptians are essentially saying that they can shop elsewhere and not have to shell out cash. According to reliable reports, another exasperated American ally, Saudi Arabia, is footing the bill for this transaction to the tune of $4b. The Russians may receive additional compensation in the form of access for their navy to port facilities on the Mediterranean.
Like it or not, this smacks of a return – if not fully in substance then at least in appearance – to the days of the Cold War when Egypt enjoyed unstinting Soviet support, enabling Moscow and Cairo to thumb their noses at Washington.
Egypt’s latest rulers might be realistic enough not to expect the same now, and likewise today’s Kremlin likely does not expect to wield quite the same clout as yesteryear, but the direction is unmistakable.
Russia is eager for a toehold in Egypt and Egypt has every reason to play along to spite US President Barack Obama and Kerry, who are resented for what are regarded in Cairo as their sympathies for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Obama and Kerry may proclaim ad infinitum that they were only supporting democratic rule in Egypt but this will not wash. For one thing, the deposed Mohamed Morsi violated his country’s constitution and limited the authority of the courts in clear contravention of democratic precepts. But, far more telling, Muslim Brotherhood adherents denounce the Obama administration with vituperation that markedly exceeds that of their political antagonists in Egypt.
Obama and Kerry figured this out a tad tardily and on his recent stopover in Cairo, Kerry sought to talk his Egyptian interlocutors out of the Russian deal by offering to restore full military aid. Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, however, made it clear that Egypt intends to take whatever it can get from both sides.
The Russian reappearance in this region is entirely made-in-America and it was hardly unavoidable.
This serious-cum-superfluous complication in already too problematical an arena constitutes yet another spectacular US foreign policy flop, arising from a fundamental failure to fathom the Middle East’s intricacies.