Following Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu’s visit to Egypt, Moscow and Cairo have agreed that Russian Aerospace Forces will have the right to use Egypt’s air bases. In addition to both permanent and temporary bases in Syria, this means that Russia now has two friendly states in the Middle East with whom it can rely on for defence and security cooperation.
While this represents an achievement in the steadily re-ignited positive relations between Egypt and Moscow, which have attained their most fruitful levels since the Nasser era, ultimately, the move is more important for Egypt than for Russia.
In the Nasser era, Egypt was the undisputed leader of the Arab world and the wider Middle East. It’s geo-political leadership, military strength and economic might meant that other countries looked first to Cairo for all matters concerning pan-Arab issues.
Today, Egypt’s position is far weaker, although Egypt remains incredibly important as the most populous Arab state. Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt has restored secular rule after a brief period of being held captive by a Muslim Brotherhood regime. The terrorist group is once again illegal in Egypt.
However, since 2013 when Egypt re-established normalcy in government, Cairo has become overly reliant on Saudi Arabian investments. In spite of this, Egypt still shows some degree of geo-political independence on issues such as Lebanon. Cairo recently refused to join Saudi Arabia in sanctioning Hezbollah, much to the chagrin of Riyadh.
Beyond this however, Egypt’s warming relations with Russia could help to ensure Cairo’s geo-political independence, as in recent years the country has been far too reliant on both Saudi money and American geo-political cooperation to truly exercise the kind of sovereign regional leverage it achieved in the age of Nasser and the Non-Aligned Movement which he co-founded.
While the agreement with Russia does not change Egypt’s position overnight, it does signify an important building block in a longer-term relationship that could help Egypt become more independently assertive in the following ways.
Under Nasser, Egypt was the most important supporter of Palestine. Egypt’s historical ties to Palestine still carry some amount of weight, as Cairo was the location of a recent meeting between the Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas which resulted in a power-sharing agreement, the conditions of which are still attempting to be implemented in Gaza, in spite of a new Israeli onslaught.
Since 1979 when Egypt normalised relations with the Israeli regime, Cairo has been less generous to the Palestinians. However, if Russia were to become more involved in Egypt, Cairo could become more assertive in this area.
Russia retains a balanced relationship with both Palestine and the regime in Tel Aviv, but crucially, Russia’s most important Arab ally Syria is the last Arab country in which supporting Palestine is a major policy issue.
While many highlight the fact that Russia does not consider it within its mandate to stop illegal Israeli attacks on Syria, what many neglect to realise is that if not for Russia’s presence in Syria, Israeli forces could have attacked and occupied more parts of Syria than that which they already do.
Tel Aviv will not want to risk Russia’s wrath by provoking any new major conflicts with its neighbours. This is why the regime has increasingly turned to terrorist funded proxy wars rather than direct military engagement.
A more independent Egypt could return to a more balanced policy on Palestine, something which would irk both the occupier and Saudi Arabia, but which is necessary if any lasting peace is to be achieved for Palestine.
An Egypt that has been closer to Palestine has been invaded and occupied by Israel in the past. The presence of Russian fighter jets in Egypt could serve to deter such a move if relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv were to deteriorate over Palestine.
2. Saudi Arabia
The kind of liquid cash flow that Saudi Arabia injects into Egypt will not be easily replaced, but at the same time, with Riyadh becoming ever more assertive over its regional allies, the presence of Russian planes on Egyptian airfields would certainly make Saudi think twice before attempting to meddle in Egypt. If Saudi Arabia wants to complete its ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification programme, it cannot afford to alienate China or Russia, as the expertise required for such a project can and likely will be provided by the two eastern superpowers. The US by contrast, would rather see Saudi retain its own economic dependence on the Petrodollar. Thus, Russia could help Egypt to leverage its diplomatic weight against an increasingly power-hungry Riyadh.
Unlike the US, Egypt supports the secular Libyan House of Representatives whose capital is in the city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. In recent months, Egypt has coordinated airstrikes on Takfiri terrorists with the Tobruk government and both have pledged to expand mutual commitments.
Russia has also been developing increasingly close ties with the Libyan House of Representatives and its de-facto representative abroad, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
As Egypt is the only country with any legitimate mandate to help secure Libya and reverse its current status as a failed state, a Russian partnership with both Cairo and Tobruk could ultimately provide the only source of salvation for Libya.
Dating from the beginning of the Syria conflict, Egypt’s policy towards Syria has at best been ambiguous and at its lowest ebb, has been hostile.
Recently, Egypt has become increasingly supportive of stability in Syria and has called for preserving the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria.
It is no coincidence that Egypt’s increasingly reasonable and productive line on Syria has happened as Russian relations with Cairo have grown increasingly warm.
With quiet Russian assistance, Egypt could become a key problem solver for Syria. As a large predominately Sunni Arab state, Egypt’s voice in support of Syria’s unity and political sovereignty could be important, not least because it would counter the Saudi/western narrative that the war in Syria is a sectarian battle rather than the proxy imperialist conflict which it is.
If Saudi Arabia was foolish enough to attempt airstrikes on Lebanon, it would almost certainly require the use of Egyptian air bases. Egypt has already shown reluctance to join Riyadh’s anti-Lebanon would-be jihad. insofar as President Sisi refused to sanction assets of Hezbollah.
An increased Russian presence in Egypt could only help solidified Egypt’s position as a restraint on would-be Saudi aggression against Lebanon.
As I have previously written, the Middle East is now roughly divided into rival north versus south blocs. At the moment, the two most influential powers in the southern bloc are Saudi Arabia and Egypt. If Egypt, rather than Saudi were to become the most important power in this bloc, it could go a long way in easing tensions as secular Egypt is historically not hostile towards countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
While Russia is also developing historically new ties with Riyadh, ultimately, Saudi Arabia holds the potential to be an economic leader of the wider southern bloc of the Middle East if (and it is a big if) Vision 2030 is successful, but ultimately, Egypt is far better placed to assert diplomatic leadership of the region, not least because it is a far less ideologically restricted power than Saudi Arabia.
Russia can help Egypt in respect of re-establishing a broader, more open, more balanced and more dignified position in the region. Russia and Egypt were once highly important allies, in the coming years, this relationship could become increasingly restored.