from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Red Star Over Cairo?

November 14, 2013

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When I heard that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his colleague Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, were to visit Cairo, I dusted off my copies of Mohammed Hassanein Heikal’s The Sphinx and the Commissar and Soviet Policy Toward the Middle East since 1970 by Robert O. Freedman. I am glad I still have these books.  They remind those of us too young to remember fully the extent of Moscow’s once rather robust presence in Egypt.   Against the background of fraught relations between Washington and Cairo, an underlying theme of the press coverage—in both Egypt and the West—of the Lavrov/Shoigu visit is the potential for Russia “to replace” the United States as Egypt’s patron.  I understand why the media like this angle, but the idea that Russia will supplant Washington lacks historical context and is impractical for the Egyptians.  Those wistful for the days when Moscow financed and helped build the Aswan High Dam and provided copious amounts of weaponry to Cairo have allowed time to romanticize what was often a difficult relationship.  They also fail to grasp how important American political, diplomatic, and especially military support is for the Egyptians.  All that said, there are three important reasons why the Russian foreign and defense ministers have suddenly appeared in Cairo:

1.        Even though the Egyptians are not looking to replace the United States as their primary strategic patron, the defense establishment is puzzled by and disappointed in Washington’s post-July 3 policy. The officers cannot understand why the United States would want to punish the armed forces.  From their perspective, it was only the military that saved Egypt—a source of stability and a pillar of U.S. policy—from chaos.  Like most people who have taken a hard look at the Obama administration’s October 9 decision to delay the delivery of military equipment to Egypt, they cannot figure out the upside.  Who benefits?  What did it achieve?  The Ministry of Defense’s answer to each of those questions is “no one” and “nothing.” I agree, though my sense is that delaying the delivery of some weapons systems was the result of the White House’s desire to do something in response to the coup without actually harming the ability of the Egyptian armed forces to operate and meet current threats, which, when you look at the Sinai, are serious. The Egyptians do not look at it this way and are thus making a big deal out of their high-level Russian visitors.

2.       When the Egyptians kicked out almost 8,000 Soviet military advisers and technical personnel in the summer of 1972—over the delivery of weapons—the breach was short-lived.  Within a few months, the Soviets were back helping the Egyptians prepare for the crossing of the Suez Canal.  And even though Anwar Sadat aligned Cairo with Washington after the 1973 war, Moscow never actually went away. There was a break in diplomatic relations, but over the short-run, at least, the Egyptians remained dependent on East bloc military equipment.  Of course, Moscow was much diminished after 1973 and it has been more than a decade since the Russian foreign and defense ministers visited Cairo, but Egypt and Russia were never estranged.

3.       The Lavrov/Shogui visit reflects something more profound than Egyptian pique at the United States and the Kremlin’s willingness to use the present strain between Cairo and Washington to needle the White House.  The Egyptians are hedging, but it has little to do with the delay of Apache helicopters and other weaponry.  Observers need to keep in mind that the United States has helped to educate Egyptian military officers for a generation.  They have attended American service academies and developed a keen interest in the American political process.  I know Egyptian military officers who understand the mechanics of Congress far better than the vast majority of Americans.  The same is true for Egypt’s talented diplomatic corps. Sequestration; the government shutdown; the re-emergence of strains of isolationism within both the Democratic and Republican parties; and the fact that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who is opposed to foreign assistance on principle, is a presidential contender, have compelled the Egyptians to think through the next three to five years.  Without saying so directly, Cairo has begun to consider what the world looks like when Washington either no longers wants to or cannot provide Egypt with financial, political, diplomatic, and military support as a result of the generalized dysfunction that has recently overwhelmed American political institutions.  This is clearly one of the things the boss is talking about when he says that foreign policy begins at home.

The Lavrov/Shogui visit is less about rekindling strategic ties between Cairo and Moscow than it is about Egypt’s concern with Washington’s trajectory.  If I am reading the Egyptians correctly, they are annoyed and exasperated with U.S. policy, but their last option would be to replace Washington with Moscow—or anyone else. They have too much vested in ties with the United States.  Ultimately, they may be pushing against the forces of political physics.  Given the changes in both Egypt and the United States, the status quo may no longer be possible.  That’s why it is good to know that Egyptian officials seem to be thinking ahead, albeit in terms of worst-case scenarios.  I cannot say the same thing about American policymakers.