In the last few days remaining of 2017, Cairo hosted an eminent international leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was his second visit to the Egyptian capital in less than two years. In between, Egypt and the Middle East have witnessed dramatic developments that catapulted Russia to the driver’s seat in shaping the future of the Middle East.
When President Putin had come to Egypt in early 2015, the country was facing serious economic, financial, and political pressures from the interior and exterior. Regionally, the terrorist groups operating in both Iraq and Syria were emerging as powerful and destructive non-state actors. They were expanding east and west in the Levant, enjoying tacit and indirect western, regional, and Arab support, both financially and politically. One of these groups, the so-called “Islamic State”, had conquered Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, in June 2014. In the meantime, the west and its regional and Arab allies and partners had financed terrorist and extremist groups operating within Syria to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Turkey was the headquarters of this alliance, where terrorists roamed without hindrance and arms and militants were smuggled into Syria. Coordination and cooperation among several intelligence services, including the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been almost daily routine on Turkish territory to provide a certain shameful cover to these groups. The ultimate objective was to empower a pro-western fundamentalist regime in Damascus, in a western-inspired master plan to install Islamist regimes in the main Arab capitals that would become silent allies and partners for the United States and the west in the first half of the 21st century. Once established in these capitals, it would use them to threaten Russia and Iran, and ultimately China, in the name of spreading democracy under the guise of Islamist regimes.
By September 2015, the Syrian regime was on the verge of collapse. Libya was in the throes of a terrorist onslaught that set its sights on destabilszing Egypt, and, eventually, to bring down the Egyptian government that came out of the popular uprising in June-July 2013 against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Further east, the Iraqi government was incapable, from a military point of view, of retaking control of vast territories in Iraq that had come under the complete control of the “Islamic State.”
As far as Egypt was concerned, the country was under an American sanctions regime, coupled with a media campaign against the new political order in Cairo. Moreover, the economic situation was getting worse in light of the ever-growing scarcity of foreign currencies. Had it not been for the massive financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, the odds were that Egypt would have gone bankrupt.
The viewpoint from Moscow, back in September 2015, was that short of a direct, forceful Russian intervention in the Middle East, and in particular in Syria, the Syrian regime would crumble, to be replaced by an extremist regime dependent on Turkey and the west that would do their bidding to survive. That in itself would have had disastrous consequences for the political stability of Egypt. In sum, and from a Russian strategic point of view, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East was threatening for the national security interests of Moscow. The same was true from Egypt’s national security interests, too.
Reviewing the geopolitical situation in the Middle East as well as the overall domestic scene within Egypt in December 2017, one could only wonder how the region would have looked like without Russia’s active role?
When President Putin’s plane touched ground in Cairo on 11 December, Egypt had become more resilient, more prosperous, and more active on the regional scene and in North Africa. Cairo has become an indispensable partner for Russia in making sure that the Middle East does not become a launching pad for terrorist and extremist groups. Syria, has been liberated, the Syrian Army is being reorganised, rearmed, and expanded. Now the Syrian government has retaken control of more than 90% of Syria’s territory that had been under the control of the “Islamic State”. Furthermore, Moscow is playing a leading role in finding a way to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 pertaining to Syria. On 11 November, the Russian and American presidents signed a joint declaration on the peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis, ruling out any military solution. On the other hand, Moscow is bent on taking a certain historical revenge. The former Soviet Union, that had been chased from the region and the Arab world through Kissinger diplomacy and realpolitik in the 70s, is back under Putin’s Russia, in force, with the intention of staying as a balancer to western powers, including the United States. It is in Egypt’s national interest that Moscow become a forceful and determined player in the future destinies of the Middle East and North Africa. All the more so that the United States, under the administration of Donald Trump, has shown no inclination to play the role of the “honest broker” between the Palestinians and Israelis. On the contrary, it has shown complete disregard for the interests of the Palestinians, the Arabs, and the Muslims around the world by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as announced by the American president on 6 December, and ordering the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. Ironically, a few days before announcing the Trump decision, an official Russian statement stressed that Moscow supports East Jerusalem as the capital of the future State of Palestine, and West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Nothing could have embodied the wide unbridgeable gap between Washington and Cairo and other Arab capitals than this Russian statement as opposed to the American position on Jerusalem.
After a long road of almost four decades, the Egyptians and the Arabs should realise the limits of their association with Washington, today and tomorrow, and the great potential of strengthening a new and a reinvigorated strategic partnership with a resurgent Moscow. In this larger strategic vision, relations between Moscow and Washington must not be of concern, neither for Egypt nor for other major Arab capitals.
In the second half of the 20th century, the former Soviet Union had helped Egypt construct the Aswan High Dam. In the first half of the 21st century, Putin’s Russia is helping Egypt build its first nuclear power plant (the agreement was signed during Putin’s visit on 11 December).
It is high time that Egypt articulate a new foreign policy for the 21st century away from what some Egyptian officials had called, falsely, a “special relationship” with the United States. The Trump announcement concerning Jerusalem as the capital of Israel should be a wake-up call for those who still bet on the American connection. The unipolar world of the last 30 years where the United States was the only superpower is crumbling and a new multipolar international system is taking shape, irreversibly.
Egypt should forge a new foreign policy that is not American-centred. It would perfectly serve our national security interests, and a lot better at that.