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Russia returns to Egypt

A file picture taken on November 2, 2013, shows (L-R) Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov smiling during their visit to Tokyo. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Yoshikazu TSUNO)

A file picture taken on November 2, 2013, shows (L-R) Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov smiling during their visit to Tokyo.
(AFP PHOTO / POOL / Yoshikazu TSUNO)

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's President Hosni Mubarak (R) talks to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev during their meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, in this June 23, 2009 file photo. Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman said on February 11, 2011 that Mubarak had bowed to pressure from the street and had resigned, handing power to the army, he said in a televised statement. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov/Files

Former President Hosni Mubarak (R) talks to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev during their meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, in this June 23, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov/Files

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.

US law relating to foreign funding

US law relating to foreign funding

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.

The violent birth of a sit-in

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The scene that greeted us on our arrival

Charlie Miller and I were on our way to catch the tail end of the clearing of Nahda Square when we heard reports of clashes in Mohandiseen. We adjusted our course and sped off down Batal Ahmed Abdel Aziz Street only to see a cloud of black smoke at the intersection ahead. Our driver decided he had gone far enough.

Jogging up the road to get a better view it became apparent that there was a large vehicle on fire. The tear gas drew white streaks across the black smoke and it hung heavy in the air. The sounds of birdshot were intermingled with that of live ammunition.

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The moment the attempt to start the sit-in in Mohandiseen began.

Suddenly it stopped and the police retreated. Emerging from the dark smoke men came running down the road dragging a traffic barrier, one wearing a police helmet. With a slight smile this man told me that he had just stolen it from a policeman.

We moved further up the road to discover the vehicle on fire was in fact a police truck. As I reached for my phone to take a picture a man came running towards us screaming “no pictures!” He demanded to know who we were and what we were doing, “give them a chance,” he said.

On the main road of Gameat El Dawel more vehicles were burning. Some people seemed to strongly resent that we were witnessing this and if it wasn’t for a couple of guys stepping in to calm the situation it could have become problematic. One man said they intended to start a new sit-in. “We cannot go back to Nahda, we cannot go back to our homes. We will stay here. He, like many others in Mustafa Mahmoud Square told me it is not about Mohamed Morsi, it is about legitimacy and the value of their vote.

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Men carrying a pole with street signs attached

Men were running around dragging benches to strengthen the barricades, even ripping out poles bearing street signs. This entire time people were hitting anything they could to create an intimidating clamour. A large group of women were huddled around the entrance of Hardees, many bending down to grab stones off the ground. The employees of Hardees were stuck inside and looked extremely concerned.

Out of nowhere shots were fired but it wasn’t clear from where. Many began looking upwards to the tall residential buildings but nobody could see clearly where the shots were coming from.

Shouts of “thugs” rang out and men began pouring towards the front line. The shooting began again, as did the clattering sound of sticks against poles. The response to our presence now had changed, we were now being begged to go and take pictures at the front line.

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A man who suffered a bullet through his chest is piled onto a motorbike.

The first casualty I saw was carried around the corner, blood on both sides of his shirt, a chest wound. He had lost consciousness and was not showing any clear signs of life. Still the men carrying him frantically loaded him onto the back of a motorcycle. The men who carried him screamed frantically and the driver urged people to move out of the way and eventually sped off with the wounded man leaning lifelessly on the driver.

I found my way back to Charlie who had also just seen a young man, no older than 17, suffer a bullet wound through his neck. We looked around and grown men were crying, their arms covered in blood, and the shooting continued on Batal Ahmed Abdel Aziz.

The fighting took place on the T-junction so we were on edge as to where the security forces might come from. The firing intensified so we ran for cover. Ducking behind a Kiosk we took stock and then heard the zipping noise of a bullet passing close to us.

Some local residents had also come to take cover with us. They had decided to come and see what was happening. They were shocked to see two Brits huddled up behind a kiosk and wished us luck as we moved on.

In an attempt to get around the back of the CSF we headed for the back streets where we found a man being helped into a black Mercedes. One of the doormen of the building told me that he was hit in the stomach as he watched the battle unfold from his balcony. His family was visibly shaken and piled into the car with him.

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A young man stands silently with his friends blood on his shirt and shorts

When we returned to the junction four ambulances seemingly flew down the empty street by the time we caught up they had loaded up and sped off again. we were met by more people pleading with us to report what they were saying. One young man stood silently with tears in his eyes a bandaged nose and a large bloodstain on his bright green t-shirt. I asked him what happened and he turned and said, “this is the blood of my friend” and not a word more.

We walked round to the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque and saw that Batal Ahmed had been fortified with a wall and blazing vehicles further down the road. A pool of blood had been cordoned off for display. I was able to purchase some phone credit from a kiosk that was doing a roaring trade around the corner from the front-line.

Hundreds more were arriving from the other side of the mosque and the Imam called for staggered prayers so the area could be protected while others prayed. More local restaurant workers looked out of the glass frontage, maybe deciding if they should stay or risk coming outside.

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Prayers beginning outside Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque

As the prayers began the shooting continued around the corner on Batal Ahmed. Charlie nudged me and whispered, “Guns, under his scarf.” I looked and a man with his face covered was holding something concealed under a scarf, poking out the bottom was the barrel of a rifle. Behind this man another was carrying a similarly shaped package but had wrapped it more carefully, another was trailing behind carrying a large, heavy looking bag. I was too scared to take a picture. If you don’t believe this is true then that is your issue and I don’t care, we know what we saw.

The gunfire continued and the praying men were unfazed, two Salafi Sheikhs atop a makeshift stage led the prayers. We approached the front but then we heard the automatic gunfire and decided not to go running towards it. The men we had just seen with the guns had the opposite reaction, jogging towards Batal Ahmed with a magazine ready for loading in plain sight.

It was at this point we called it a day. We went to visit my old landlady to see if she was ok, she complained that her building was empty and that the situation around the corner wasn’t going to help.

We got back to the office and were debriefed by our editor, told to wash our faces, which were apparently black with dirt. Seeing the man who had sustained the bullet wound was imprinted in my head, and I know Charlie had the same issue. Others have seen much worse and I expect I will too, but no loss of life is insignificant.

The attempt to establish a sit in at the junction and the surrounding area was violent and bloody. Charlie returned the next day and found more destruction. He was told that the demonstrators left out of respect for the imposed curfew. The burnt vehicles were cleared up and traffic flowed freely again. As of Friday morning the area is on lockdown. Military vehicles have been deployed there and Batal Ahmed is closed, braced for a march set to begin outside the mosque.

The correct and proper image of Egypt

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Interim Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy recently said one of the most important objectives of his ministry is to portray to the world the “correct and proper image” of Egypt.

In this context the ministry has been working overtime to relay this message abroad, even before Fahmy’s appointment. These efforts have come in the form of telephone conversations, meetings with ambassadors and even a tour of Africa for some diplomats.

It is undeniable that the international community have many questions about what is going on in Egypt. A coup is not something to be taken lightly, especially when democratic principles are so important to some of Egypt’s most important partners.

The question I am intrigued to know the answer to is this: what is the “correct and proper image” of Egypt? What is this message being sent around the world?

The ministry will tell you that they are giving assurances that the interim government is committed to the road map put forward by the armed forces. It will also tell you that national reconciliation and an all inclusive transition process is of the utmost importance.

This sounds great on paper and said down the telephone, but I wonder… how many diplomats hearing this message respond with: “How will you get the Muslim Brotherhood to participate?”  

The Brotherhood will not negotiate anything until “a full reinstatement of the constitutional legitimacy of the state” is achieved. This includes reinstating the Shura Council and Morsi as president, something that the armed forces and interim government just won’t do.

The Brotherhood and Morsi have a still have support around the country and a transition process that does not explore every possible way of including them will only worsen the already heated situation.

Egypt is divided not into just pro and anti Morsi, secular and conservative or liberal and religious. Egyptians have their own ideas and not every conservative Muslim is a Morsi supporter, just as not every secularist is necessarily an ElBaradei supporter.

The claim that one side represents the “will of the people” is now just meaningless rhetoric. Amongst the anti-Morsi camp there is not just one point of view. Some wanted Morsi out of office but not through military intervention and many are overjoyed that the armed forces intervened. Others were ambivalent towards Morsi but are pro-armed forces. Some of these supporters may have seen the military’s intervention as a devaluation of their vote if they chose Morsi. Others, regardless of how they used their vote stand firmly by Morsi’s electoral legitimacy.

These differences of opinion are not going to go away easily, especially when a very large sector is demanding something that just won’t happen. If the stalemate continues and the interim government ploughs ahead with the road map then it will only further isolate Morsi’s supporters and any elections held will be met with a boycott. In which case Egypt’s next elected parliament would not be a truly representative body.

The diplomats of the world receiving the ministry’s image of Egypt are not fools. The reality of Egypt is not a secret. Now they need to decide what the best way to help the situation would be. That being said, Egyptians are tired of foreigners telling them how to run their country.

Stability in Egypt is what many countries around the world were happy with for decades despite the presence of oppressive authoritarian rule. By omitting some of the controversial details, the ministry’s “correct and proper image” might just be what the world wants to hear.

Here come the Qataris

A banner at a march in Cairo on 11 February 2013

A banner at a march in Cairo on 11 February 2013

For hundreds of years Egypt has been the focal point of the Middle East and North Africa region. However Egypt’s role in the region has developed and adapted to its surroundings and since the birth of Israel 65 years ago the dynamics changed dramatically. Suddenly Egypt became more than just another colonial conquest.

The peace deal signed by Anwar Sadat damaged Egypt’s status among its Arab neighbors, a betrayal of the Palestinians and the Arab cause. A big change from Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Arab nationalism.

Aided by the US, Egypt came out the other side and reclaimed its position in the region and then Egypt stagnated under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. The US asked no questions as long as Mubarak’s Egypt remained stable.

Since the Arab Spring the rules of the region changed, Egypt’s role was vulnerable and the rentier states from the Gulf began to see an opportunity that was more than just a good investment. Morsi’s handling of the deadly spat between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 gave him a boost in the eyes of the West. However, Morsi’s performance both domestically and regionally does not reflect the title awarded him by Time magazine: The Most Important Man in the Middle East. 

Morsi unlike his predecessors has had to deal with a whole lot of scrutiny from the West. At least once every two weeks the words concerned and Egypt appear in the same sentence during the US State Department daily press briefings. The US is no longer turning a blind eye and Morsi is struggling to keep it together, the economy is failing, sectarian violence continues, freedom of expression is constantly under threat and the group he came from is showing itself to not be as progressive and accepting as it had been portraying in recent years.

Qatar has jumped at the opportunity to usurp Egypt’s position at the head of the region and has begun its quest for regional dominance by outdoing Egypt at every give opportunity.

The Muslim Brotherhood coming to power gave hope to the Gazans and the Hamas led government, which was born from the Brotherhood all those years ago. Surely the Brotherhood would help.. well … their brothers. However this would not be seen as a positive step given that Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organisation by the US. Egypt’s involvement in Gaza is as a mediator and guardian of the tunnels. Sadat’s peace agreement has meant that Egypt’s regional foreign policy is caught between a rock and a hard place (the US and Israel). Morsi did announce that aid would be going to Gaza and would not stop, however there is little information about the value of this aid.

Qatar on the other hand swooped in with a generous aid package acting like the patriarch of the Gazan people. Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani arrived for a short visit to Gaza along with an aid package worth $254 million. His visit held more political power because he became the first Arab leader to visit Gaza since Hamas took power.

Qatar has also taken regional politics into it’s own hands by hosting a number of important regional and international meetings, most notably the Doha conference on Syria, during which the Syrian National Coalition was formed. Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries were the first to recognise the SNC as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, while Egypt waited for its cue the West. Doha also hosted the Arab Summit in March, during which Morsi and his foreign affairs A-Team (Mohamed Kamel Amr and Essam El-Haddad) were snapped having a snooze. Obviously this was an important meeting for them they had stayed up all night preparing.

Morsi’s quartet initiative for the Syrian crisis began well. He had Turkey and Saudi Arabia on board and he even managed to reach out to Iran, the pariah of the region but then again crucial to the situation in Syria. However, since the quartet’s creation there have been only a few meetings and Saudi Arabia haven’t attended most of them. Many have forgotten about the initiative but Morsi’s team is currently in Iran attempting to revive it. It will be interesting how far Morsi can take this initiative without having to check with the US, at which point Iran could walk away. It will take some careful diplomacy just to have a proper meeting let alone solve the crisis, but at least Iran would be at the table and that is an achievement in itself.

It has become clear that Egyptian foreign policy is not Egypt’s. It remains in the pocket of the US State Department. Egypt under Morsi has continued as it always did, accept the military aid and maintain stability. This difference this time is that Morsi is having trouble keeping up appearances, there is  little money to give, domestic problems are distracting and he clearly does not have the same charisma like his predecessors did. It takes a certain man to run a ship like Egypt and maintain its position at the head of the fleet and Morsi has yet to show the qualities necessary for his role.

The whispers of a regional coup come from the East and there is very little that can be done; the Qataris are coming.