In Alexandria a warship docks, but this is no ordinary warship. It is the Russian Varyag missile cruiser, but that is not what makes it special. The ship arrived two days ahead of a high-level Russian delegation, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu. This is one of the most poignant meetings not only due to the presence of high-level officials but the context in which it is taking place.
In the 1950s and 1960s Russia and Egypt had a strong relationship, engineered by Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the time the United States and the Soviet Union were tussling for influence in the Middle East and Egypt was (and still is) a vital component of achieving that. Nasser remained neutral in the cold war on the whole but was happy to cosy up to the Russian side that was willing to support his regional ambitions and Nasser was even awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honours of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet support is still visible in Egypt, maybe an indication of the stagnation imposed by decades authoritarian rule. Soviet era cars still ferry people around the streets and the military are still using come of the old Soviet aircraft.
Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat took Egypt in another direction following the 1973 October war. The singing of a peace agreement with Israel, sponsored by the United States marked the beginning of what as been described as an “enduring” relationship between Egypt and the US.
Egypt and Russia did not become enemies by any stretch but the relationship is nothing like it was in the 50s and 60s. Both Vladimir Putin (2005) and Dmitry Medvedev (2009) both travelled to Cairo to meet with former President Hosni Mubarak, who also visited Russia in 2008. Mohamed Morsi also visited earlier this year and had a $2billion loan request turned down by Putin.
The US-Egypt relationship has come under much strain since Morsi was removed from power in July. The US was left ever so slightly dumb struck, which was reflected clearly in the comments from the State Department briefing room. The US found itself torn between remaining a champion of democracy and turning its back on an old friend: the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Eventually the US decided to adhere to its legal procedures relating to foreign funding, which states that no funding should be given “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup.” That being said, the cut related to military equipment and funding, aid programs that “directly benefit” the Egyptian people remained intact.
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already been screaming, “it’s not a coup” from rooftops around the world; therefore it stuck to its original message in response to the US aid cut. ‘The people of Egypt will decide its future and we are sticking to the roadmap not for the benefit of the world but for the benefit of the Egyptian people.’
Egypt is now looking elsewhere for support and there is no shortage of those willing to fill the void left by the US. This is abundantly clear by the billions of dollars received from the Gulf nations and the increased contact with Russia, and even some less high profile contact with China.
The Russian delegation is rumoured to be bringing a $4billion arms deal as well as seeking cooperation in various areas. An arms deal signed between Egypt and Russia would send a message around the world but would be heard loudest in Washington. The ministry of foreign affairs has said a number of times that Egypt is opening up to the world and exploring its options and is not replacing the US but adding another friend. It just remains to be seen if the US sees it the same way.