A 10-day New Year holiday break has just come to an end in Russia as Egyptian Parliament starts work for the first time in three years. The two powerful strategic partners have been weakened by major internal problems. Some challenges are common such as corruption, sluggish political systems, and deep economic crisis. They are, however, caused mostly by different factors.
Year 2015 appeared to be very different for their bilateral relations. They seemed to be on the rise following the visit of the Egyptian leader to Moscow, the third such visit in two years. Important agreements were signed such as the one related to construction of Egypt’s nuclear plant in the Dabaa province by Russia’s RosAtom. Russia also extended a $25 billion loan to Egypt for the construction of the nuclear plant, which the country vitally needs to meet its growing demand for electricity.
The Kremlin continues military cooperation with Egypt, supplying the country with weapons. Following the deterioration of Russia’s relations with Turkey, Egypt proposed its services to supply Turkish products, primarily fruits and vegetables, to Russian markets. At the same time ban on flights between Russia and Egypt – imposed by Russia in the wake of A-321 crash over the Sinai Peninsula – triggered rumors that Russia has betrayed Egypt and that the ban is a sign of worsening bilateral ties.
The current situation is not as bad as some describe it and is not as positive as others make it out to be. Russia needs Egypt as a partner in the Middle East. The country is located at a strategic crossroad and, despite weaknesses, remains critical to the region and the Mediterranean. On the other hand, despite suffering from a severe crisis, Russia continues to be one of the key powers at the global stage. Egypt needs Russia as a stable partner to diversify its foreign relations and reduce dependence on particular players.
Economic crises and interdependence
Egypt needs Russia’s nuclear assistance for its energy sector and to maintain its military supplies. But will it be enough for a country that needs investments, social welfare, development assistance and advanced technology to bring it to a new level of development and improve the quality of life of its citizens? What Russia can propose is not even enough to keep the country stable under current circumstances. Russia has no money to invest in Egypt and its infrastructure. Most of the projects and investments discussed at bilateral levels are likely to remain stuck due to strong economic crisis Russia faces.
Russia also worries about the stability of the Egyptian regime. The year gone by has been tough for President Abdelfateh el-Sisi. Cairo faces complex problems ranging from terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula to the socio-economic issues. The crisis in the country has been dramatically aggravated by ban on flights imposed by Russia. The crisis deepened following the recent attacks on tourists in Cairo and on hotel in Hurghada.
Terrorist threats to tourist destinations has dampened the prospect of flight resumption in the immediate future. Flights aren’t likely to resume before February and most likely not before spring. Even after resumption, they are likely to remain limited to tourist destinations. The threat of terrorism, however, is no longer limited to airport zones. Securing all tourist destinations and hotels is extremely difficult and needs time. The deepening of the tourism crisis makes the situation more explosive in Egypt.
Russia cannot afford to risk the lives of their tourists, as a consequence of its policies in the Middle East, and lay the responsibility on the often corrupt and careless Egyptian authorities. The country is likely to assess situation inside Egypt after January 25. There is no political motive in steps being taken by Russia as it needs a stable and prosperous Egypt. But stakes are too high for Russia in Syria and it cannot allow ISIS to attack its tourists thus pushing Kremlin to change its course in the region.
Another problem in bilateral ties is that the Egyptian proposal to become an alternative to Turkey in terms of food supplies is unrealistic. Food export will lead to soaring prices in the domestic markets and it can hardly survive this under the current circumstances. The current volume of agricultural production in Egypt is not quite enough even to satisfy the demands of the local market. Moreover, it has nothing else to propose to Russia.
The problem with both Russia and Egypt is that they need each other. They also understand each other but for bilateral cooperation this appears insufficient. The deepening of the crisis between the two countries does not make the prospects of their cooperation brighter. A lot depends on the stability of the Egyptian regime and on how Russia will tackle the crisis this year. Year 2016 won’t be a year of breakthrough in the bilateral relations. Even in the best case scenario they will remain at the same level.