When I read statements by Russia’s foreign minister about the visit by himself and Russia’s defence minister to Cairo in preparation for a higher-level visit, I recalled the events of 30 June. Egyptian citizens in several squares raised pictures of presidents Abdel-Nasser, Sadat, and Russian President Putin alongside General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Meanwhile, other Egyptians raised posters ridiculing US President Obama in a scene that denoted many important positions. While they respected and appreciated President Putin, Obama was mocked and criticised. While people shouted demands for Putin to visit Cairo, they also damned US policies and politicians for not being trustworthy or reliable.
Between sweeping popular appreciation for Russia and its president and condemnation for the US and its president, a strong Egyptian public mood was formed demanding an end to the hostage relationship with Washington and the West, and turning towards other countries, especially major ones. The idea simply is two-fold: first, a call to end the special relationship with the US that has proven itself unreliable at a critical point of transformation for Egyptians. They had expected the US to clearly support, back and endorse their sweeping popular revolution. Second, a call to review history and recall the positives in terms of strong friendship, support and credibility.
Despite the simplicity, the notion behind both elements reflects a strategic vision rooted in popular belief that aspires for a multi-polar world, and dealing with everyone based on joint interests and stop putting all (or most) of the eggs in the US basket – which has proven to be a broken and indecisive, thus unreliable.
Turning to Russia is nothing new in Egyptian policies and today it appears to be critically needed. It is important that we do not repeat the same mistakes that pushed Egypt in the past to ignore Moscow and suffice with the West and Washington. What is clearly needed is that no one should think that revitalising relations with Russia, led by the shrewd Putin, is an alternative remedy to Egypt’s frustrating relationship with the US. Neither does Russia want this, nor will the US and West accept it; and Egypt will not benefit from replacing one party with another.
Egypt’s real interests lie in balanced relations with all world powers, taking from everyone, interacting with everyone, and giving to everyone. At that point, Egypt and Egyptians will have a completely different standing – something we have already gleaned in many European and US transformations supporting the roadmap and Egypt’s new reality.
There is no harm in expanding Egypt’s relations with Russia to include development, economic and military aspects under the umbrella of a strategic dialogue ruled by clear principles – most importantly that what we build today is not a mere clone of what we had in the 1960s. Today’s global environment is unlike the Cold War; it is a climate of fierce competition over interests, influence, extending broad markets while maintaining national security, regional and world stability all at the same time.
Despite this fierce environment, it offers broad opportunities for bilateral and three-way cooperation in many formats and on many levels.
We should remember that today we are at the beginning of a phase in which we strive hard to recover our capabilities as a country and society to take independent decisions at home and overseas based on popular support and real interests. We should also remember that Russia today is not the Soviet Union that gave for the sake of ideological expansion, agitate the West and build direct influence loyal to Moscow. This era is entirely gone and Russia today embraces utilitarian principles, pragmatic policies and is very flexible on global issues and crises. It also has the ability to barter and exchange benefits.
Today’s Russia is maneuvering with Washington and the West on several regional and world issues, but it is doing so to assert Russia’s role in the world – not to confront the US or replace it. Moscow does not deny it is seeking stature and influence in the Middle East and the Arab region overall. One of its main goals is that the region does not fall prey to violent fanatic Islamism, which would eventually affect it in Chechnya or other Russian regions.
It is also concerned the region will become a competitor in energy production, especially gas, or that the region becomes a network of gas pipes transporting gas from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria or Israel to Europe and leave Russia out of these partnerships and/or even coordination. Russia is also seeking to open more markets for its key development products, such as power stations, peaceful nuclear stations, automobile and chemical factories. It also produces advanced Russian weapons systems of planes, missiles and battleships that are a real competition to their counterparts in the US and the West.
Moscow’s conviction to coexist in a multi-polar world order is a key point of agreement with Egypt’s new foreign policy outlook, which opens many doors for bilateral and regional cooperation. Although Russia has proven it is a difficult friend that does not abandon its close friends, as we can see with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and consecutive governments in Iran – despite the obstacles this represents in the face of needed change in Syria according to legitimate revolutionary popular demands – there is some logic in Moscow’s position.
While protecting growing Russian interests in both Syria and Iran, there is also the goal of maintaining the status quo and blocking possible US influence if one of these regimes is toppled. It is also standing up to groups such as Al-Qaeda.
No doubt, Egypt needs Russia’s friendship; a friendship that reflects a shared determination to build and share balanced gains. A friendship that allows Egypt to tell Moscow its concerns about Syria especially, and invite Moscow to move closer to the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and justice. In short, the issue with the new Russia is not an arms deal, despite its strategic importance and significance, but a will and leadership to pioneer – which is open competition for everyone.