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Is Russia Egypt’s most important non-Arab ally?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu are currently in Cairo meeting with their Egyptian counterparts Sameh Shoukry and Sedki Sobhy, respectively, in the so-called 2+2 format. This is the first such meeting since 2013.

During the talks, both sides spoke of how they can boost efforts to cooperate in the war against terrorism throughout the wider world including in both Egypt and Syria.

Ever since the Presidency of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), Egypt has been a staunch US ally, but during the age of Nasser who ruled Egypt and changed the Arab world with his secular Arab Nationalist Revolution, the Soviet Union and the US both competed for influence. As such, Egypt has never had poor relations with modern Russia or the USSR, something which cannot be said of Britain, France and Israel who jointly invaded Egypt during the Tripartite Aggression of  1956 before both Moscow and Washington told them to withdraw.

It is against this background that I recently said the following,

“It is curious but unsurprising that the US, Turkey and many EU states have illegally invaded and occupied Syria with no legal justification, but seem to be doing next to nothing to help Egypt in an hour of need, even though a legal basis for intervening in Libya along with Egypt, one which does exist in Syria where US and Turkish forces continue to indiscriminately slaughter civilians in a highly chaotic campaign.

In this sense, perhaps Egypt will learn the true value of friendship with the west: value for western elites and burdens for the non-western partner”.

READ MORE: Egypt’s intervention in Libya is legal–here’s why

Indeed, the US has said precious little in public about Egypt’s decision to legally strike terrorist targets in Libya after the ISIS slaughter of dozens of Egyptian Christians on a pilgrimage. This is awkward behaviour from an ally, but it mirrors the quiet US response to an ISIS war of conquest launched against Philippines. There too, President Duterte has turned to Russia rather than the US for assistance in providing the Philippine military with modern equipment.

READ MORE: Russia helps Philippines fight ISIS

It is perhaps unsurprising that Egypt appears to be turning to Russia to try and obtain external assistance during its fight against terrorism.

Although Egypt is the most populous state in the Arab world with the largest army of any Arab country, the scale of the problems Egypt faces with ISIS in control of much of its Sinai Peninsula to the north east, an extremist Muslim Brotherhood terrorist campaign from within and Libya being a totally failed state to the west, means that any assistance Egypt can receive will be welcomed.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated,

“We are most closely coordinating with the Russian Federation the search for possible solutions [to combat terrorism], eliminating the sources of financing of terrorism, taking measures against terrorist sponsoring states that provide them [terrorists] with asylum, as well as with bases for training, arming them”.

Sergey Lavrov who also met with Egyptian President Sisi said,

“We need to keep constant vigilance and establish the broadest international cooperation in the fight against terrorism…

…we are united in the need to increase the efforts of the world community in the fight against terrorism, and we examined in detail all the steps that are being taken now”.

Lavrov stopped short of stating that a deal had been reached for Russia to offer ground or air military assistance to Egypt in the fight against Salafist terrorism, but Russia never makes such premature pronunciations on foreign policy unlike the often more rhetorically overzealous ‘diplomats’ of the west.

It is indeed premature to speculate on whether such a thing will happen, but there is little doubt that such a contingency plan for material Russian support has been discussed in the event that Egypt becomes overwhelmed in the fight that it clearly has on its hands and has had for some time.

For decades, Egypt which once led the Arab world’s resistance to western imperialism and Islamist political and military extremism, has become complacent in its position as a secular friend of the west. This has become particularly magnified as Syria and prior to 2003, Iraq were two secular Arab states states with serious disagreements with the west.

Egypt however may come to realise that while the west is happy to do business with a country like Egypt and on western terms at that, when it comes to reaping a benefit from an alliance with a superpower, it is Russia that delivers in terms of security and cooperation.

Libya is all ready becoming the next major front in ISIS’ war against the Middle East and North Africa. This means that as the war in Syria and Iraq slowly but surely dies down, all eyes will be on both the Libyan failed state and on Cairo when it comes to what happens next. The fact that Cairo’s eyes are increasingly on Moscow rather than Washington is a telling sign in respect of who Egypt thinks her friends are in this hour of need.

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