The Caravan

The United States And The Future Of Egyptian-Russian Relations

Thursday, March 9, 2017

As U.S.-Egypt relations have come under significant strain in the post-Mubarak era, Egypt has sought to rebalance its international relations and has begun hedging through an assiduous focus on ties with Russia. For the United States, this hedging behavior should be cause for moderate concern and vigilance but not alarm. This rebalancing is symptomatic of Egypt’s authoritarian resurgence. However, without major course corrections on the political, economic, and social fronts, Egypt will likely remain disposed to deepening ties with Russia but also ineffective as a useful American ally. A stable, pluralistic, militarily capable and prosperous Egypt could be a central pillar of U.S. regional security strategy. But the continuation of the Sisi regime’s current policy course, regardless of Egypt’s ties to Russia, will only ensure Egypt’s continued negative trajectory and deepen the trends that render it an unreliable partner for the United States.     

Following the 2011 uprising, successive Egyptian governments signaled that they would seek to diversify their international relationships, limiting dependency on the United States and staking out an independent post-Mubarak posture. In the first instance, this stance was largely rhetorical. In keeping with the ethos of the uprising, that rhetoric focused on the restoration of Egyptian dignity primarily in the realm of domestic politics, but also as it pertained to diplomacy and international relations. This initial impulse was furthered by the conspiratorial leanings of the Egyptian security establishment, which held deep-seated convictions about the role of the United States in fomenting instability in Egypt. This anti-Americanism has only grown in recent years, becoming a persistent irritant and widening the gulf between the two countries’ strategic worldviews.

With the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Mohamed Morsi, the theme of foreign policy independence continued with the Islamist group holding deep suspicions of the United States as well as having limited experience with the intricacies of diplomacy. While the Muslim Brotherhood was still keen to engage with the United States as a means of establishing their international legitimacy, the truncated and ill-fated Morsi presidency was marked by domestic dysfunction that furthered Egypt’s years-long diminishment in regional and international affairs.   

It is since the 2013 coup and the increasing strains with the United States, however, that Egypt has systematically sought to deepen ties with Russia. This has been partly driven by Egypt’s deteriorating relationship with the United States and its desire to visibly hedge relations while suggesting both an air of independence and alternative sources of support. It has also been driven by Egypt’s relative isolation, particularly as Egypt’s strongest post-coup relationships, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have suffered in recent years. Further, while the initially critical European approach to Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the coup has fragmented and softened, Egypt’s relationship with perhaps its strongest southern European partner, Italy, has come under severe strain in the wake of the 2016 murder of the Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, which appears to be linked to organs of the Egyptian state. In this turbulent setting and amidst the notable cooling of relations with the United States, outreach to Russia and a deepening of ties represented one of the few avenues for enthusiastic diplomatic engagement. The Sisi regime has also sought to seize upon nostalgia for previous eras, and the rekindling of bilateral ties has been pushed forward by a romanticized memory of relations with Russia during the Nasser era.

Beyond the motivations for deepening bilateral ties, Egypt and Russia also share increasingly convergent views on key regional issues. This convergence on issues of state sovereignty, territorial integrity of regional states, indifference to purely sectarian framings of regional conflict, and rigid anti-militancy has lent an ease to Egyptian-Russian interactions and has allowed for diplomatic cooperation. This confluence has been boosted by Russia’s increasingly stark positions on militant non-state actors. Although Russia has traditionally taken nuanced diplomatic positions on Islamist and militant groups in the region, such as Hamas, it has adopted an increasingly hardline position on many such groups as they have become major players in the Arab world’s civil wars and have threatened regime change, particularly in Syria. It is notable that despite the huge outlays of post-coup economic assistance provided to Egypt by the Gulf states, the Sisi regime has taken a consistently Russia-friendly position on Syria despite the clear tensions this has created with the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Russia’s increasingly adversarial relations with the United States have also accelerated the tightening of relations between Cairo and Moscow, as undercurrents of suspicion and resentment continue to define Egypt’s interactions with the United States. Lastly, relations with Russia are wholly independent of Egypt’s political trajectory, and the criticisms on human rights and democracy that shape U.S.-Egypt relations are absent from their bilateral relationship. In this sense, the relationship represents a logical outcome of Egypt’s authoritarian relapse and fits easily with Egypt’s domestic and regional priorities.

The most visible manifestations of the relationship remain the unabashed diplomatic support that Egypt now receives from Putin and the visible cultivation of alternative anchors for its international and regional policy. This has been evident in the ways in which Egyptian diplomacy has sought to support Russia’s approach to Syria, and there are signals that cooperation may deepen on Libya, where Egypt and Russia share a similar outlook predicated on skepticism of the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement and support for General Khalifa Haftar, the military leader who controls much of eastern Libya. On the military front, Egypt has reengaged with Russia for the purchase of arms, with Egypt signing a $3.5 billion package of agreements with Moscow in 2014, and engaging in joint military exercises with Russia in June 2015 and October 2016. Finally, reports indicate that Egypt and Russia have entered an agreement for the long-term financing and operation of a nuclear power plant to be constructed by the Russian state-owned firm Rosatom in Dabaa, a site on the Mediterranean coast.

While this flurry of activity represents an observable and qualitative shift, the Egyptian relationship with Russia remains fairly shallow and limited in practice. Economic relations have improved in recent years, with an increase in trade, but Russian direct investment in Egypt remains very low and business links remain very modest. Similarly, people-to-people links are quite limited save for the once-thriving Russian tourism in Egypt. That linkage was damaged in the wake of the October 2015 crash of a Russian Metrojet flight from Sinai in what was believed to be a terrorist attack and the subsequent suspension of all flights from Russia to Egypt as a result of concerns over Egyptian security procedures.

In contrast to the preceding years of U.S.-Egypt tension, Egypt has warmly embraced the election of Donald Trump, with Sisi being the first world leader to call and congratulate Trump following his unexpected electoral victory. The Sisi regime now holds great hope and expectation about the future of the bilateral relationship with the United States and has begun laying out an ambitious list of requests for the new administration. Expectations on the Egyptian side are such that the Trump administration will actually need to temper runaway expectations as Egypt prepares for Sisi’s anticipated visit to Washington.

For its part, the Trump administration has latched on to Egypt and its strongman ruler as a potential anchor for its inchoate Middle East policy. This attraction is an outgrowth of several factors, including Egypt’s unreserved embrace of Trump, a reflexive antipathy to the Obama administration’s approaches and policies, an expressed affinity for authoritarian leadership, a rigid and un-nuanced view of Islamism, and an admiration for Sisi’s frank calls for the reform of Islam. But this optimism is misguided on its own terms and also fails to contend with the current realities of the bilateral relationship.

In many ways, the U.S.-Egypt relationship is a vestige of an earlier era. Egypt’s strategic realignment toward Washington in the 1970s was a coup for American diplomacy and a boost to U.S. regional policy during the Cold War. With the conclusion of the U.S.-brokered Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979, the stage was set for a deepening security relationship and accelerating military ties and assistance. The relationship was on full display in the 1990s as Egypt participated in the U.S.-led multinational effort to liberate Kuwait following Iraq’s August 1990 invasion, took a lead role in the revitalized Arab-Israeli peace process, and deepened counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States at a time when transnational jihadism had become a higher priority. The United States has also come to rely on Egypt as a facilitator for its ability to project power in the region and beyond, with military planners relying on overflight of Egyptian airspace and preferred Suez Canal fast track access.

But Egypt is no longer a vital part of U.S. regional policy and is diminished in its ability to impact the politics and security trends of the Arab world. Egypt’s relationship with Israel stands on its own terms and is dependent on American intercession. Similarly, Egypt pursues its counter-terrorism policies out of sheer self-interest. Egypt is most relevant in a negative sense, in that the United States and other interested governments are most concerned about the ramifications of state breakdown in Egypt. Egypt’s ability to stabilize and normalize its domestic political, economic, and security situation, let alone reemerge as a major regional player, remains dependent on major reforms that the autocratic Sisi regime is uninterested in undertaking. Further, U.S. assistance and aid has been wholly ineffectual in coaxing positive Egyptian policy shifts.

The initial positive signals from the Trump administration suggest that the United States is no longer interested or concerned about the prospects for political reform or improvement of Egypt’s dismal human rights situation. A continuation of Egypt’s current authoritarian course guarantees that some version of the sub-optimal status quo will endure for years to come. Even when framed in transactional terms, it is unclear what the United States will derive from improved relations with Egypt beyond a tangible softening of atmospherics.    

Based on Trump’s campaign pronouncements and early posture toward Egypt, it would appear that the country represents an additional area of potential U.S.-Russian cooperation or alignment. To the extent this is attempted based on the current rhetorical approach to Egypt, it will fail to effectively cope with the chronic crises facing the country, as the Trump administration’s stance appears to be an uncritical embrace of the Sisi regime, its current repressive policies, and ineffective security strategies.

Ironically, if the Trump administration continues to view Russian involvement in the region as a potentially positive phenomenon, it will undermine the logic of Egypt’s hedging strategy, which is predicated on continued tensions between the United States and Russia. In the unlikely event that Egypt does undertake major necessary corrections and reforms, it would represent a fundamental shift in governing and strategic outlook that would also undercut the motivations for the hedging opportunities offered by Russia. While the United States should be open to such a possibility, it remains highly unlikely. Egypt is much more a problem to be managed than an asset to be relied upon.  

Assuming a continuation of present trends, the United States will have to remain vigilant about the scope of Egypt-Russian relations. Most important in this regard, though, is the enduring fact that no one country, including Russia, is in a position to supplant the role of the United States in Egypt. This is particularly true with respect to the military-to-military relationship, where the United States remains Egypt’s primary weapons supplier. That relationship is based upon the unique nature of the U.S. aid relationship with Egypt whereby the United States finances Egypt’s purchase of U.S.-manufactured military equipment and services. While that cooperation and assistance has proven incapable of serving as leverage for political ends, it does insure continued high level engagement and training.

The United States should keep close tabs on shifts that could undermine longer-term U.S. interests, such as the unlikely possibility of Russian basing rights in Egypt. Russian press reports in October 2016 suggested that Russia was looking to re-establish its Cold War-era naval base in Sidi Barrani on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Those press reports were swiftly rejected and denied by the Egyptians, and foreign basing rights are likely a red line not only for the United States but for Egypt as well. The United States should be wary of any efforts to privilege counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, which could have a negative impact on tactics. It would also represent a troubling rebuff at a time when the United States itself is seeking to deepen counterterrorism cooperation and is still struggling in its efforts to strengthen end-use monitoring for equipment transferred to Egypt. Lastly, the United States should pay close attention to efforts by Russia to leverage Egyptian support in diplomatic undertakings that are actively hostile to U.S. interests. Friendly and close relations with the United States should not entail diplomatic subservience, and healthy relations should be capable of withstanding divergences of interests and policies. However, honest disagreement is distinct from hostility and sabotage, which remain animating rationales for Russian diplomacy.