Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Egypt was an opportunity to create an alternative to U.S. leadership in the region and create new momentum for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the welcoming ceremony at Cairo airport. Photo: RIA Novosti

The official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Cairo can be seen as one of the most important in the region in recent years, marking as it does the first state visit of a Russian leader to Egypt since 2005.

When newly elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Sochi in August 2014 on his first international visit, it gave a positive signal and impetus for active cooperation between Russia and Egypt in almost all important spheres, from military and economics to culture and education. The current visit of Putin reiterates the existing foundation of Russian-Egyptian relations that were formed during that meeting.

Simultaniously, Putin's visit to Cairo demonstrated to the West that he remains an influential world leader despite Western attempts to picture Russia isolated in the light of the conflict in Ukraine.

During the press conference after the private talks on Tuesday, Feb. 10, President Putin in his statement concentrated on the successes that the two countries have reached over the last year in trade, tourism, energy and agricultural cooperation. There were not as many announced deals or agreements as there was with China last May, a fact that makes this visit look more symbolic in nature. The two leaders declared their commitment to fight against terrorism, cooperate on regional issues and enhance military cooperation.

However, there were a couple of important deals announced during the visit.

Firstly, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced during the press conference in Cairo that Egypt has agreed to establish a free trade zone with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In 2014 the two countries did more than $4.5 billion in trade, Putin said, highlighting an 80 percent increase in trade during the previous year. Taking into account the Western sanctions that were imposed on Russia, Moscow has been trying to diversify and intensify its ties with non-Western partners and Egypt became one of them, especially given the cooling of Egypt-U.S. relations.

That trade deal definitely can boost Russian-Egyptian trade and economic cooperation and add some value to the EEU as an institution. However, there is still a lot of skepticism about the future of the EEU, given the Western sanctions, the current state of the Russian economy, inflation, ruble depreciation, upcoming budget deficit and negative GDP growth.

Secondly, Russia is going to build the first nuclear power plant in the northern city El-Dabba. Russian corporation Rosatom and the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy "agreed to launch detailed discussions on the prospective project," Rosatom said in a statement. Rosatom intends to build four nuclear plants overall, creating the entire nuclear power industry in Egypt. In contrast, here things are much clearer. Given the generous funding from the Gulf States, Egypt tries to use any opportunity to boost its economy, including big infrastructure projects with Russian companies.

As all the agreements signed during the visit are in the form of a memorandum, there will be further work within an intergovernmental commission, which will finalize them later this year. Moreover, Putin also invited the Egyptian President to come on an official visit to Moscow to continue the positive dialogue that they initiated. The approach that the two leaders took in the bilateral relations is quite intensive and has so far delivered positive results for both countries.

Posters of Russian President Vladimir Putin hang on light poles on Qasr El Nile Bridge in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: AP

How Russian-Egyptian partnership could change the region’s dynamics

Transformation processes in the Middle East, initiated by the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and continued by the so-called “Arab Spring” in winter 2010-11, irreversibly changed the region’s security architecture. It basically resulted in the significant decline of Egypt, Iraq and Syria as regional powers, the rise of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, exacerbation of the Shia-Sunni confrontation, the rise of the radical Islamist movement and a slow erosion of the U.S. role in the region, caused by its unsuccessful war in Iraq.

Egypt, whose traditional role as the Arab leader was undermined by such conditions, plays as important a role as it always has as the center of any regional or major power’s foreign policy focus. Especially, Egypt’s role is worthy of attention because Egyptian foreign policy visibly changed its course after the new leader, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came to power and was ultimately elected as Egyptian President in May 2014.

In the last three years, Egypt experienced two revolutions, the first democratic election in the country’s history and the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, coming back almost to the same point from which it departed in January 2011.

As a result of a three-year-long period of political turbulence, by 2013 the Egyptian economy was almost in tatters, with its socio-economic and political situation severely deteriorated. At the same time, Cairo’s regional influence also declined.

A certain rift in relations between Cairo and Washington, Egypt’s rapprochement with Riyadh, together with restoration of close relations with Moscow, has become the intermediate result of the last four years of the instability.

Since the second half of 2013 when el-Sisi grabbed power, the political situation in Egypt started to stabilize, which allowed him to re-launch the nation’s foreign policy, albeit by diversifying its partners.
After the U.S. did not support the ouster of the Islamist President Mursi and put on hold its annual financial aid worth $1.3 billion in October 2013, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE gave Egypt more than $12 billion in aid, deposits for the central bank and petroleum products to back the Egyptian economy and the new non-Islamist leadership. That soured Egypt-U.S. relations to a certain degree and left more room to Cairo for maneuver. This is what Russia is currently trying to exploit.

How stronger relations with Egypt could benefit Russia

The Russian approach towards Egypt should also be seen in the broader context of regional security. Given that Saudi Arabia, along with UAE and Kuwait, became one of the strongest supporters of the new Egyptian President, there is an opportunity for Moscow to approach them through Egypt in its attempts to find a settlement for Syria.

Moscow just hosted the first round of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and the regime, which finished with an agreement to hold the second round of talks in early March. Cairo hosted meetings of the Syrian National Coalition and other groups that refused to take part in the Moscow talks. In his interview with the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper ahead of the visit to Cairo, Putin stated: “Evidently, Russian efforts and the activities of the Egyptian partners complement each other and are aimed at overcoming the standstill in the political settlement of the Syrian crisis.” During the talks two leaders discussed the situation in Syria in detail and the Russian President briefed President el-Sisi about the outcomes of Syrian peace talks in Moscow and expressed his hope that they would ultimately lead to a peaceful settlement.

The war in Syria is a destabilizing factor for the entire region: violence has already spilled over into Iraq and threatens to do so into Jordan and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are backing a big part of the Syrian opposition and without them it is impossible to reach a settlement as they have leverage over the rebels. From the Egyptian perspective, it can use this opportunity to increase its regional credibility and influence as a mediator.

Thus, Putin’s visit to Cairo did confirm Russia’s serious plans for cooperation with Egypt and gave an impetus for further development of relations between the two states. Given their historical ties and positive experience, Moscow and Cairo have a good opportunity to nurture a very close partnership relationship, especially now that Cairo has room to maneuver. However, Russia’s current economic situation limits the tools at its disposal to develop the type of genuine partnership cooperation that some day could be turned into a strategic partnership.