CAIRO — In an echo of the Cold War, Egypt gave the red carpet welcome Thursday to senior Russian officials aiming to expand Moscow’s influence through military and economic cooperation with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The flirtation underscores how U.S.-Egyptian relations have soured lately over the Obama administration’s criticism of the July 3 military coup. And although Egyptian officials say the one-time Soviet client is not turning away from the United States, the military-backed government is clearly signaling it has options.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy sought to downplay speculation of a major foreign policy shift, describing the visit by Russian’s foreign and defense ministers as an “activation” of existing ties and speaking positively of cooperation between the two countries “in multiple fields.”
But the fact that the visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shogiu came weeks after the United States froze millions of dollars in military aid is significant.
Tensions are high between Egypt and the U.S. — its chief foreign backer and benefactor since the 1970s, since the ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, and the subsequent crackdown on his Islamist supporters that has left hundreds dead and thousands arrested.
Lavrov and Shogiu were greeted with an honor guard and met at defense ministry headquarters by Egypt’s powerful Defense Minister and military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. El-Sissi, who led the coup that ousted Morsi, wore his trademark uniform and sunglasses and was joined by his top commanders for talks with the Russians.
Throughout the day, state television broadcast black-and-white archival footage of Soviet and Egyptian leaders meeting in the 1950s and 1960s, the two decades that saw the two nations forge a strategic friendship at the height of the Cold War and Egypt’s wars with Israel, Washington’s closest Middle East ally.
“We seek to energize a relationship that is already in existence,” Fahmy told reporters later after meeting with Lavrov.
When asked whether Russia would replace the U.S. as his country’s chief ally, Fahmy said Egypt was not looking for a “substitute for anyone” and that Russia was too significant for such a role.
Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter, described the meeting as “historic.”
He stressed Russia “would like to see a stable Egypt with a prosperous economy and an efficient political system,” and he endorsed a transition-to-democracy plan put forward by the military the day it ousted Morsi.
The political blueprint envisages a nationwide referendum on an amended constitution before the end of the year and parliamentarian and presidential elections by winter and summer of 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to patch up things with the Egyptians during a visit to Cairo earlier this month, but the partial suspension of military aid, which covers the delivery of tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, appears to have hurt the interim government’s pride.
It was unclear whether any arms deals would result from the visit.
Russia’s Interfax news agency recently quoted an unidentified official of the state Rosoboron export arms trader as saying that there are no plans to sign big contracts during the Cairo talks.
It said Egypt has shown interest in purchasing Russian air defense missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons. But it quoted an unnamed official dealing with arms trade as saying that no big deals are expected in the near future as Egypt currently can’t afford it.
However, a retired Egyptian military general who maintains close ties to the present army leadership said Egypt was inching close to signing a $2 billion deal with Russia for the purchase of 24 MiG fighter-jets as well as anti-tank missiles and an air- defense system.
“Do you want us to take the (U.S.) slap on our face and remain silent? Of course not,” said the retired general, Talaat Musalem. “This pressure is not acceptable, so we returned to the Russians to maintain our fighting capabilities.”
The Russian defense minister vowed to develop military ties and increase bilateral contacts between the two countries, saying “I expect to continue a constructive dialogue on the entire spectrum of military and military-technical issues.”
He said their discussions also covered fighting terrorism and future joint exercises.
It was the highest level Russian visit to Egypt since former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a partnership deal with then-President Hosni Mubarak in 2009.
It is difficult to see Russia, at least in the short term, replacing the United States as Egypt’s chief backer.
Egypt has been the second-largest recipient — after Israel — of U.S. bilateral foreign assistance, largely as a way to sustain the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. Washington’s froze a large chunk of about $1.5 billion in annual aid, mostly for the military, last month.
“Theoretically speaking, there’s no polarization and no need to pick and choose between the U.S. and Russia,” said Russian affairs specialist Farrag Aboul-Nour. “But practically, freezing U.S. aid was a dangerous alarm … The message to the U.S. today is: Egypt cannot remain a hostage to the U.S. forever.”
Russia’s cause in Egypt will likely be helped by growing anti-U.S. sentiment in Egypt, chiefly over Washington’s perceived bias in favor of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group and decades of what many Egyptians see as their country’s submission to Washington’s will under Mubarak, who himself was toppled in a 2011 revolution.
Russia and Egypt’s new government share a common enemy in Islamists, with Moscow facing Islamist insurgencies in some of its outlying regions.
Earlier this week, a 21-gun salute and a band played military music to welcome a Russian missile cruiser, the Varyag, when it docked in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. A military official speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations said the cruiser will be in Alexandria for six days. Another Russian warship, the Boris Butoma, is now docked in a Red Sea port.
Egypt was Moscow’s closest Arab ally for two decades, starting in the 1950s when the Soviet Union threw its weights behind the late nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser in his ambitious drive to modernize the Arab nation and create a well-armed military at the height of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But in 1972, then-President Anwar Sadat threw out thousands of Soviet military advisers and realigned the country’s foreign policy, taking his nation closer to the United States soon after the 1973 Mideast war.
Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union took a marked turn for the worse after Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 where Egypt was among the countries sending Arab fighters to join war against Soviets. Relations have steadily improved in recent years, with nearly 2 million Russians vacationing in Egypt every year.