Cairo’s decision to cement close economic, diplomatic and military ties with Moscow was not one that the interim government took lightly. Egypt was pushed to forge new alliances by its longtime ally — the US, which chose to side with the Muslim Brotherhood, following president Mohammad Mursi’s ousting on July 3, 2013, rather than accept the majority’s will.
That weird embrace on the part of the Obama administration came as a great shock to a nation battling for stability. Who could have imagined that the White House would punish Egypt by cutting aid and cancelling joint military exercises for rejecting the rule of a failed president, drawn from an organisation that spawned Hamas, Islamic Jihad and served as inspiration for Al Qaida’s honchos! Field Marshal Abdul Fattah Al Sissi encapsulated the public mood when he railed at Barack Obama last August for abandoning his country. “You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget that ...” he said.
Clearly, the man tipped to be the second democratically-elected president of Egypt has not forgotten or forgiven, especially since US slights are ongoing. America’s latest snub was its omission to invite Egyptian delegates to the American-African summit scheduled to be held in August. If not for the staunch diplomatic and financial backing of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, the Obama administration would have forced the nation to its knees.
Gulf countries that are heavily invested in the US and Europe possess serious leverage with respect to still fragile western economies. Lt General Shaikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, spelled out the country’s position in no uncertain terms, saying that any “enemy of Egypt is an enemy of the UAE”, adding “Egypt is dear to all of us”. King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has also made his view crystal clear: “Egypt is too big to fail” and he is determined to ensure it doesn’t. It is no coincidence that a $2 billion (Dh7.35 billion) arms deal was pencilled between Cairo and Moscow following visits to Russia made by the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. It appears that the deal was clinched last week when Al Sissi and Foreign Minister Nabeel Fahmy paid a reciprocal visit to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin looked into the eyes of Egypt’s Defence Minister and liked what he saw, judging from his warm body language. The two men enjoyed a private chat behind closed doors — and Al Sissi flew home with a lot more than a personal gift from the Russian president — a black jacket embossed with a red star.
Putin preempted Al Sissi’s announcement of a presidential bid (expected on March 1) with a powerful endorsement. “I know that you have made the decision to run for president,” he said. “That’s a very responsible decision to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.” The White House spokeswoman responded with a scathing condemnation of the Russian president’s “meddling”, saying it is not up to “Mr Putin to decide who should govern Egypt”, although the Obama administration has been interfering to the country’s detriment over the past eight months and colludes with Muslim Brotherhood leaders until today.
On the table is Russia’s investment in nuclear energy, a Russian naval presence in Egypt’s ports, as well air-defence systems and military helicopters. Last Saturday, Egypt's Ambassador to Russia, Mohammad Al Badry, confirmed that Moscow was ready to play a role in resolving Cairo’s dispute with Ethiopia over its Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supplies. The good news is that Egypt now has one of the big five permanent member of the United Nations Security Council watching its back. This new marriage of convenience between Egypt and America’s geopolitical rival has its risks, but those are risks well worth taking at a time when Obama’s interventions/non-actions in the region are scarred by abject failure. Iraq is arguably at a more dangerous point in its history; warring factions in Libya combined with an impotent government has elicited a military take-over; Yemen is set to be divided up into a six-region federation; Sudan has already been split into two with devastating consequences; while Syria’s civil war is heightening Lebanon’s sectarian divisions.
Saudi Arabia and most Gulf states are not amused by Obama’s reach-out to Iran, fearing some kind of ‘grand bargain’. In a nutshell, the Middle East is embroiled in a worsening mess. So it is little wonder that the powers that be in Saudi Arabia are driven to hedge their bets in terms of new partnerships. Next month, Obama will travel to Riyadh to meet King Abdullah in an attempt to salvage relations. That will be an uphill task. If Obama is out to restore trust, he will need more than just sweet words and a Hollywood smile. Obama’s legacy is being writ as the president who lost — or rather threw away — US influence over the Middle East. His loss could well be Putin’s gain.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org