The Historical and Strategic Relationship Between Russia and Egypt

Last Updated: 17 May 2023
Essay type: Reflective
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Russia and Egypt's relationship is historically complex and has varied considerably along dimensions of cooperativeness throughout the past one hundred years based on global events that include regions like the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Russia has traditionally seen Egypt as a strategic partner, connecting it to the Middle East for trade and regional influence, while Egypt has traditionally seen Russia as a key trading partner to secure wealth and military infrastructure. In that sense, the political interests of the two nations have generally been congruent.

Exceptions to that have occurred with philosophical changes at the top of Egypt's government - rather than due to changes with Russia - which is why the relationship is best understood from the perspective of who was in power in Egypt throughout the period. With that in mind, the modern Russia-Egypt relationship can be described in phases: the first phase representing a warm and open association with the Nasser regime, the second phase representing a cold and closed association with the Sadat regime, and the third phase from Mubarak to today in which Russia is again treated as a close ally.

The most helpful place to start with an examination of Russia-Egypt relations is to look at its historical foundation, which began as early as the 1500's and so not surprisingly, based in religion. At that time, the Orthodox Christian tradition was very strong within the Russian political landscape and would significantly influence Russia's decision to get involved with Egypt's religious and political affairs. Patriarch Joachim of Alexandria sent correspondence to Russian Czar Ivan IV for assistance to the Sinai Peninsula-based Saint Catherine's Monastery, which had been contested by Turkish fighters'. In response, Ivan IV sent a Russian delegation to visit sites across Egypt. Since that showing of support, Russia continued to provide support for Egypt's Christian population, which accounts for roughly one-tenth of Egypt's total population as of 2010.

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Russia and Egypt maintained a productive, mutually beneficial relationship with one another - but until the 1950s, the relationship was never quite as strong or as public as it became with the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Historically, Nasser's ascendance came after a long process of revolution and independence in June 1953. Nasser and his group, the Free Officers, were expected to maintain the interests of the people against the ruling monarchy in place.

General Muhammed Naguib was elected the first president of Egypt in the aftermath of this revolution; however, he and Nasser differed on their point-of-view with regard to a number of topics. Naguib ultimately resigned his presidency under pressure that he was too authoritarian, which worked against Nasser and the Free Officers' intended purpose of maintaining power for the public, instead of for the few". Nasser assumed power and oversaw the creation of Egypt's new constitution - as well as many other populist reforms aimed at bolstering the power of the proletariat.

A concept called Pan-Arabism (related to Arab nationalism and Arab socialism) reached its highest popularity during the 1950s and 1960s and was promulgated by Nasser through state policy. Nasser's purpose in employing Pan-Arabism was to define Egypt's place both in the region as well as in the world - as well as to define his country's opposition to the ideology of Israel (Zionism)". As a result of this, Egypt formed the "United Arab Republic" in 1958, which was a unitary state comprised of Egypt and Syria?. One driving force behind the movement toward Pan-Arabism was a reaction against Western colonialism - a concept that had been on the decline throughout the first half of the 20th century and had collapsed as an institution within many parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa.

A trend from all instances of "Pan" ideology is the existence of a "villain image" to be negated. Russian foreign policy identified Pan-Arabism to this extent as a friend in the struggle against a common threat, which was the strength of the United States and its allies". Just as Russia had used Pan-Slavism against the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary in the 1900s and 1910s, it supported the use of the same "Pan" concept against its new enemy, particularly the US and Britain. That tension between Russia and the West was not a silent friction but instead became a major public spectacle throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The push for Pan-Arabism and support for Nasser strengthened during and in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis". The expected outcome for Israel would be control over the Straits of Tiran, which would allow Israelis to ship goods through the waterway instead of relying on the Suez Canal under Egyptian control. In spite of secret planning and coordination between the three major nations, the invasion ended in failure for all three aggressors and led to the end of Britain's status as one of the world's major powers when the US and the USSR ordered the invaders to withdraw. Fatalities from the conflict were not major, but were significant enough to cause an international uproar against the West and against Zionism generally.

The Crisis occurred during a period in which the United States was attempted to build an alliance trying to keep the USSR out of the Near East. Not only did nationalists in the region resent the United States, but with the Suez incident - they now resented Britain and France even more and saw the USSR out as an alternative to waning Western influence in the region.

In that fashion, the Suez Crisis set back Western interests considerably and advanced those of the USSR, who strategically worked with Egypt as a gateway to influence throughout the whole Near East and Middle East region. However, Egyptian leadership under Nasser never quite sided completely with either side of the Cold War - primarily in an effort to drive up the cost of doing business with Egypt as a strategic partner¹². During this period, Soviet approval of Egypt's role in the Middle East led to Nasser receiving the highest Soviet decoration, the star of the Hero of the Soviet Union with the Order of Lenin - awarded to him by Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev's visit in 1964.

Anwar Sadat¹ became President of Egypt in 1970. Sadat's approach to Russia was more hands-off than his predecessor and in 1972, Sadat ordered Soviet advisors to leave his country. Such a move was motivated mostly by the USSR's position that Egypt should not attack Israel, since the USSR and the US were engaged in a period of détente. After the USSR left Egypt, Egypt attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War", which helped in part restore Egyptian nationalism and pride and the regaining of the entire Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace. After war, Sadat improved relations with the US with the Camp David Accords 16 and worked toward an Islamic revival in his country. Both of these moves (relations with the US and an emphasis on religion, countering the USSR's areligious economic and political system) countered the influence that the Soviet Union had built in Egypt throughout the presidency of Nasser¹?.

Another point of departure with Nasser's policies (and thus with Egypt's friendliness with Russia) came in the form of Sadat's domestic economic policy called Infitah, which was in reaction to Nasser's Soviet-style system that produced "inefficiency, suffocating bureaucracy, and waste" in the Egyptian economic system". Sadat's focus was on making Egypt less militant and less focused on foreign affairs, and more focused on building prosperity at home through the same methods that had made the capitalist West so successful. However, Sadat distanced himself from Russia without a full understanding of Infitah's underlying problem, which was a middle class of Egypt that did not have the skills to meet the economic opportunities or an administrative system in the country that could not handle an economics focus rather than a military focus20.

Like Sadat before him, Muhammad Mubarak" replaced Sadat as President of Egypt after serving as Vice President. Mubarak's relationship with Russia, as opposed to Sadat's, was much closer - having trained at a military pilot school in what is now Kyrgyzstan". Mubarak was one of many to spend time either learning or vacationing in the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century - reflecting the underlying current of continued relations between Egypt and Russia in spite of Sadat's public policies". In 1981, with Mubarak's ascent to power, the undercurrent became mainstream as Alexander Belonogov became the new ambassador from the USSR to Egypt and in 1989 when Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze visited Egypt and its leadership24.

Mubarak's presidency would go on to last for thirty years, making him one of the longest ruling sovereigns in modern Egyptian history and during that time, the relations between Russia and Egypt improved considerably- even through the fall of the Soviet Union and its breakup into numerous nation-states". In 2005, Russia's President Vladimir Putin visited the country, returned in kind by Mubarak's 2008 and 2013 visits to Russia. Signs of solidarity between the two nations were common throughout Mubarak's presidency and supported the much earlier vision of Egypt as Russia's strategic gateway into the Middle East. Mubarak wrote, "Russia and Egypt share similar views not only on methods of solving the Middle East conflict, they have the same vision of reforms in the Arab World"".

After Mubarak's resignation in 2011 in response to widespread protests of his rule, the former leader was subsequently tried for several different crimes, including the murder of peaceful protesters. Russia offered some public support of Mubarak by saying he should not receive the death penalty. Mubarak was succeeded by the de facto head of state Mohamed Hussein Tantawi before Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected in 2012. Morsi was subsequently removed from power by a July 2013 coup d'état that resulted in crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, like his predecessor Mubarak, is being tried on charges of murder.

Egypt's recent history, judging from these changes in leadership, is full of political turmoil too much to give a concise analysis of the country's recent relations with Russia or any other foreign country. However, now that the political landscape within the country has begun to settle down with Egypt's new military/politician president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi some newer trends are emerging. First, relations between Egypt and Russia are improving since Russia was first to support Sisi's actions related to his presidential bid - in addition to offering a large weapons package after the US had taken more of a hands-off approach to Egypt and had suspended aid and weapons to the country. Second, Russian president Vladimir Putin was the first person to congratulate Sisi after his inauguration and Sisi travelled to Russia as his first travels abroad as newly elected president, where he met with Russian military leaders to negotiate a deal for weapons with Russia instead of the United

States. Third, the relationship between Sisi and Putin's regime is not purely military-focused; also the two agreed in principle during Sisi's visit to increase Egypt's supply of food to Russia by 30 percent in exchange for 5 to 5 and a half million tons of wheat-in addition to a discussion of a free-trade zone between the two countries in addition to others in the former Soviet bloc such as Belarus and Kazakhstan. In the midst of this, a proposal was discussed between the leaders to establish a Russian industrial presence in the New Suez Canal project, which is an $8.4 billion renewal initiative to improve the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.

In contrast to these developments with Russia, the United States has struggled to make in-roads with the new Egyptian government led by Sisi. The United States has delayed shipment of fighter jets and arms to the country as well as cancelling joint military exercises. Sisi expressed dissatisfaction with the United States' government's handling of civil unrest in America, comparing it to the brutal tactics taken by Egypt's former regime, which Sisi has used as a rhetorical tool separating himself from Egypt's historically authoritarian leadership".

Given Sisi's popularity with the Egyptian populace, his animosity toward US leadership is reflective of that of the people he represents and will require the US to re-evaluate its stance toward Egypt. While the US struggles to maintain its formerly prosperous relationship with Egypt, Russia has been establishing cooperative ties that have not been seen since the Soviet Era. Egypt's economic relationship may grow so strong in the coming years that the two countries may use Russia's currency unit, the rouble, as the basis of their mutual settlements - rather than the U.S. dollar, which is the standard for international transactions".

That change would reflect the fact that the rouble is already a payment unit within Egypt where Russian tourism is popular. The overall effect of such a policy would be to enable easier business transactions between the two countries going forward, to the exclusion of the US and its dollar. In September 2014, formal agreement between Russia and Egypt was reached on the shipment of arms; reportedly, the arms deal was worth $3.5 billion. Each of these agreements, as a whole, signify a renewed relationship between the two countries that is as strong as when Nasser held power from 1956 to 197040

We can recognize from a historical study that the relationship between two countries must be understood by looking at its past in addition to its present (seeing the parallels between Nasser and Sisi's approaches to Russia) and that in order to understand its present and future, one must recognize the broader context of the relationship (such as by looking at the United States' role as well).

Recent developments in the relationship between Egypt and Russia show that while Egypt as a nation with a traditionally strong military is concerned about its military presence, it also seeks to secure with Russia an understanding about its economic and domestic trading needs - as it has done by exploring free trade zones with Eastern Europe. We noted that by comparing Nasser's rule with Sadat's that the strength or weaknesses of a relationship between two countries is strongly determined by its leader, particularly when that leader has much centralized power - as Egyptian presidents traditionally have had.

Lastly, it is clear that wherever Russia is concerned, there will always be an underlying competition with the West and the United States in particular, because of the historical relationship the USSR and the US have had in the 20th and 21st centuries. Egypt's role in the broader global picture has varied by who occupies the office of president and because it offers strategic inroads to the Middle East region, the identity and beliefs of that president are largely determinative of the direction it goes with regard to West versus Russia - and will continue to be throughout the coming decades.


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