Al-Sisi and Putin: Two leaders who found each other?

The crash of a Russian plane 31 October in Sinai was a horrific act of terror[1] with ongoing political repercussions. After initial reluctance, Russian President Vladimir Putin called to cancel all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh while trying to get Russian tourists out of Egypt[2]. Putin succumbed to the Western narrative (voiced mainly by the US and UK) that the plane probably crashed due to a bomb on board and hence is likely to have been the subject of a terrorist attack (this has now been confirmed by Russia’s security chief). Conversely, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is strongly opposed to this telling of events and rejected investigations first undertaken by the UK and followed by Russia. As expected, the examinations have had a negative impact on tourism, a crucial economic sector in Egypt, fueled especially by Russia who is Egypt’s largest market for it.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United Nations Photo © 2015, some rights reserved.

However, at the time of writing, the fact that Putin first turned down the narrative that the plane crash was caused by a bomb leads to question the status of the relationship between the two leaders. Defined by almost cordial ties between Moscow and Cairo – which is particularly interesting because Egypt has been a long-term American ally for decades – the relations seem ambiguous. However, American hegemony in the region has been challenged and on a global scale the US-led liberal order is eroding; hence the reactions of Egypt under al-Sisi to these new realities shall now be scrutinized. Since al-Sisi’s rise to power, the two heads of state have increasingly worked together in diplomatic fields, as well as pursuing economic and defense cooperation. The 2013 coup which replaced the democratically-elected ex-president Mohamed Morsi (and sentenced him to death) lead US President Obama suspending military exercises in condemnation of the overthrow. As a result, al-Sisi has recalibrated his policies away from American support because the US increasingly linked this support to the fulfillment of domestic reforms, and reached for Russian support to diversify and stabilize economic and military cooperation[3]. It is to Egypt’s advantage that due to geopolitical realities the US is quite dependent on Egypt and has no interest in losing the country as a key ally in the region[4]. Egypt plays a crucial role in the US strategy in the Middle East for example with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt is of major importance for the conflict because it was able to positively influence the Palestinian side on several occasions – it brokered a successful end to the Gaza strip hostilities in 2014 for example. Obviously a stable Egypt is also important for the US and its Gulf allies in the fight against their Islamic enemies in the region (ISIS). In practical terms, this translates to the fact that al-Sisi has more leverage in the post-American world than Mubarak had throughout his term. Following the turn of the century and the invasion in Iraq in particular, scholars increasingly moved away from the idea of American hegemony in the Middle East and rather began to refer to a “post-American” world, or a “post-Western”, world, hereby emphasizing the idea that the US now finds its power and influence increasingly challenged by the rising powers (China, India and Brazil) who furthermore transport alternative political values[5]. Al-Sisi turning away from Obama and toward Putin can be interpreted as being in congruence with this loss of American influence and Putin pushing for influence in the Middle East.

In the end, the convergences between Putin and al-Sisi lead to the question: Does Egypt want to adjust itself to and place itself under the Russian wing? Despite the great media attention these actions have received, it is possible to argue that Putin´s promise to build a nuclear plant and strengthen economic relations, even with the military agreements, is not enough to snatch Egypt away from its dependence on the US and its Arab allies because Al-Sisi cannot keep the country solvent without financial assistance from the US (or international donor institutions dominated by the US) or the massive money flow from the Gulf states.

However, a great power rivalry in Egypt is evident, setting the current foreign policy situation in Egypt in striking contrast to the Mubarak years. And yet, the relationship with Putin seems primarily to serve temporary needs and help al-Sisi to appease the required anti-American foreign policy element which is important for Egyptian diplomacy. In other words, by pursuing this diverse foreign policy, al-Sisi also responds to the nationalist feelings which greeted him in office and were supposed to work as a protective wall against Islamist extremism. Many Egyptians expect him to act as a strong leader in the regional arena again, as well as resisting international powers and hence re-establishing Egypt’s wounded prestige. Since Egypt’s reputation throughout the Arab world diminished under the last 20 years of Mubarak, the regime’s foreign policy grew out of touch with Egyptian sentiment. Despite the view that the Egyptian revolution is regarded a response to domestic grievances, it was additionally a “call to restore dignity to ordinary Egyptians”, and dignity, translated into foreign policy terms, means pursuing a policy that is created in Cairo and not dictated by outside powers[6].

Looking at Russia, its moves in Egypt can be placed in the context of Putin’s posturing Russia as a world power anew, which includes revanchist policy and antagonism with the US[7]. Furthermore, recent sanctions are hitting Russia’s economy hard; thus an Egyptian trade alliance is in Russia’s interest. However, one could never go as far to consider this partnership with Russia as equaling an independent foreign policy orientation for Egypt. In a broader geopolitical context, these developments can be interpreted as leveraging against the United States. In addition, as a populist president, Al-Sisi urgently needs popular support which will not come about when people are reminded of the notorious dependencies of Mubarak, but rather when they are reminded of what they see as the prestigious years under Nasser[8].

It should not be forgotten that the developing Russo-Egyptian relationship is inherently limited by Putin’s relationship with Iran and al-Sisi’s priority of securing further resources and technological advantages from the US. Russia is regarded as supporting Iran, and the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry is considered destabilizing the region. Ultimately, whereas Russia’s renewed gamesmanship adds trade partners to its foreign relations, the major powers in the Middle East (except for Iran) will only ever see Russia as leverage in their relationships with the US and the West, rather than as a lasting strategic alternative. Furthermore, it is still argued that in the short-term no other power will be able overtly to challenge the US as a dominating power in the Middle East.

After conversations between al-Sisi and Putin, they agreed a few days following the plane crash to intensify their bilateral relationship and to bolster coordination in securing Russian flights and resuming them as soon as possible[9]. Thus, even considering the aforementioned US influence in Egypt, the relationship between al-Sisi and Putin is developing on a much more intensive level than anyone in the West would have ever thought and now poses the question for the West how to treat this new authoritarian leader in the region. Western powers now need to question how they can face the dilemma between a powerful influence in the region without betraying their norms and values.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34840943

[2] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/flugverbot-fuer-aegypten-putins-eiertanz-13898284.html

[3] http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/the-role-of-egypt-in-russia-s-new-power-play-in-the-middle-east

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/10/07/is-egypt-losing-its-regional-power/egypt-declined-during-mubaraks-rule

[5] Fawcett: 183;Cooley: 12

[6]. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/10/07/is-egypt-losing-its-regional-power/egypt-declined-during-mubaraks-rule

[7] http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/the-role-of-egypt-in-russia-s-new-power-play-in-the-middle-east

[8] Shama, Nael. Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi: Against the National Interest. London: Routledge, 2014.

[9] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/absturz-in-aegypten-blackbox-soll-explosion-aufgezeichnet-haben-13897862.html & http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/49696016.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

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