It is no secret that the Egyptian military and the interim government feel betrayed by their country’s longtime ally, the US — a sentiment reflected vocally on the street and by the media. When the chips were down, the Barack Obama administration not only failed to support the will of the majority, but also implemented punitive measures in an attempt to impose its own. That was a gross miscalculation. The most populated Arab country is no errant teen to be deprived of his or her iPad nor a weak nation with no option but to accept punishment lying down.
President Obama’s national security team did no service to US interests in the Middle East when it advised him to suspend military aid and weapons to a friend in serious trouble and may be about to pay the price. The days when Uncle Sam could strut around the region barking orders are over. The US is currently bleeding trust with many of its regional allies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Israel — on several counts — its hugging of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; its shambolic policy towards ending the carnage in Syria; its incoherent Israel-Palestine peace process and its rush to mend fences with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Now the penny has finally dropped in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry’s officially unannounced visit to Cairo on November 4 was seen as a desperate attempt to repair damaged ties, following an admission from the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabeel Fahmy, who said Egyptian-US relations were in turmoil while warning that the entire Middle East could suffer including “American interests”. America was wrong to assume Egypt would always follow its line, he added.
Kerry was out to play good cop to Obama’s bad. Whereas Obama had earlier announced there would be no “business as usual” between Washington and Cairo, citing America’s pristine “values”, Kerry said: “We are committed to work with and we will continue our cooperation with the interim government”. He applauded Egypt’s steps towards reinstating democracy and expressed the hope that “progress” will result in Egypt and the US marching “together hand in hand into the future ...” He diplomatically steered away from giving former president Mohammad Mursi a mention. Fahmy acknowledged that while Kerry “left better sentiments here in Egypt” not everything had been resolved. “It does not mean there won’t be hiccups in the relationship in the future.”
Last week, a delegation from the US Congress, led by House Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chief Anne Marie Chotvacs, arrived in Cairo for talks with Amr Mousa and other officials. The delegates slammed the White House’s decision to suspend aid, saying it sent a wrong message to the Egyptian people. Another Congressional delegation is expected later this week. However, such overtures may be too little too late. The signs suggest Cairo is poised to take a different path.
During an AFP interview last Saturday, Fahmy revealed that Egypt was keen to expand cooperation with Russia so as to increase its independence and broaden its options. “Independence is having choices. So the objective of this foreign policy is to provide Egypt with choices, more choices. So I am not going to substitute, I’m going to add,” he said. His are no empty words.
A three-day visit to Cairo by Russia’s military intelligence chief Viackeslav Kondraskou late last month has paved the way for his country’s big guns — Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu — to arrive tomorrow to discuss a $4 billion (Dh14.71 billion) arms deal to include advanced weapons systems. The issue of financing remains cloudy. There were earlier reports that Saudi Arabia had agreed to bankroll Egypt’s weapons purchases from Russia. The Egyptian press suggests Moscow is willing to offer generous low-interest payment terms over 20 years.
Such a high-level visit signifies a sea change in Egypt-Russian ties, that were staunch during president Jamal Abdul Nasser’s era but saw a dive when president Anwar Al Sadat reoriented his policies towards the West and ordered 20,000 Soviet advisers to leave the country. If all goes well, a state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the cards. He can expect a warm welcome; his image is already visible alongside that of Egypt’s wildly popular Defence Minister, General Abdul Fattah Al Sisi, on billboards around the Egyptian capital.
Some US political pundits are convinced Egypt’s overtures to Moscow are little more than a bluff to counter US pressure, asserting that it could take up to ten years for the Egyptian military to familiarise itself with Russian-made weapons systems. If that is so (and I do not believe it is), the Egyptian government is playing a dangerous game. Russia is not a nation to be toyed with and if it were to be rejected in favour of giving Washington a second chance, Putin and his successors will likely have long memories. Snubbing Russia will place Egypt firmly under US sway with few viable options.
A close diplomatic, military and economic detente between Cairo and Moscow at a time when Washington is shown to be a fair-weather friend, will strengthen Egypt’s independence and allow Russia access to Mediterranean ports as well as offering increased geopolitical clout. Ultimately, a strong Egypt free of America’s chains can become a much-needed anchor for the Sunni Arab world.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org