Is the Arab World turning back to Russia? Egyptian Delegation heads for Moscow

An Egyptian delegation heading to Moscow just after the United States cut $300 million out of its aid package to Cairo to punish the July 3 military coup there has raised speculation that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military junta is shopping for a new superpower patron.

In the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, the old Soviet Union had a favored position in the Arab world. The Arab nationalist Egypt of Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser tilted heavily toward Moscow after 1956, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev made a regal state visit to Cairo in 1964. Algeria and Syria tilted to the Soviet Union, and in 1967 South Yemen became the region’s only Communist state. Iraq gradually also came to tilt toward Moscow at times. US strategic analysts were deeply worried about the whole region becoming a Communist stronghold and a Russian sphere of influence. The Suez Canal and the region’s gas and oil were seen as key global assets. The US coordinated with Saudi Arabia and other conservative Muslim and/or monarchical forces to push the region to the Right, in which it ultimately succeeded. The high point of that effort was the joint Reagan-Saudi jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan of the 1980s, which produced al-Qaeda as blowback.

In the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat abandoned the Soviets in favor of the US, a major coup for Washington policy, resulting in massive US aid for Egypt since 1979, in part to nail down the resulting peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Russia is no longer a progressive force, and if anything now resembles some Middle Eastern regimes. Its economy is dependent on gas and oil, and it has a semi-authoritarian government backed by billionaire oligarchs, in which the religious irredentism of the Eastern Orthodox church is invoked for the purposes of a wounded nationalism. At the same time, religious extremism and separatism, as with the movements in Checnhnya and Daghestan, were brutally crushed.

Thus, if Gen. al-Sisi saw Vladimir Putin as a kindred soul, it would come as no surprise.

Egypt just collected $4 billion each from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Gulf monarchies see as a revolutionary and republican force rather than as a conservative one loyal to the royal status quo. But as patrons, the Gulf monarchies are distinctly unsatisfactory, and indeed, they are seeking an Egyptian security umbrella against both the Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran, both viewed as anti-monarchical and populist.

The Egyptian feint toward Moscow, however, is probably a form of flirting, aimed at making Washington jealous, rather than a serious reorientation.

The USG Open Source Center translated canny remarks of Russian journalist Mariya Yefimova on the issue at Kommersant: “Egypt Looks for US Aid in Russia. Playing on Russian Federation-US Contradictions” for October 24.

She notes the Egyptian aim of “raising bilateral relations to a new level.” She adds, “And in mid-November, according to Kommersant’s information, a meeting of the heads of the two countries’ foreign and defense ministries in the “2+2” format is due to be held in Egypt for the first time.”

She observes that the US aid freeze, coming from a criticism of the summer overthrow of democratically elected but authoritarian President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, deprived Egypt of 10 Apache helicopters, 4 F-16 fighter jets, as well as anti-ship missiles and spare parts for tanks, along with a lost of $250 million in cash assistance.

So the Egyptian military may be looking around for more reliable weapons’ suppliers, she says.

Her Russian sources, however, think that Egypt is mainly trying to arouse Washington’s jealousy. She writes:

“The Egyptians are hoping that US Congressmen will begin at least to needle Obama for the fact that he is handing the strategically-important Egypt over to Russia,” Yevgeniy Satanovskiy, president of the Middle East Institute, explained to Kommersant. At the same time, in his words, the Egyptians understand perfectly that “Russia does not have enough money to maintain their country.”

Satanovskiy also told her, ” Moscow has received a chance to use the situation tactically. “Some arms contracts may be concluded. Moscow can ask for a base in Alexandria in place of the military facility at Tartus in Syria … but it is hardly a question of the establishment of real strategic relations.”

(Description of Source: Moscow Kommersant Online in Russian — Website of informative daily business newspaper owned by pro-Kremlin and Gazprom-linked businessman Usmanov, although it still criticizes the government; URL: http://kommersant.ru/)

I would just point out that weapons systems are systems, and you can’t necessarily get Russian jets to talk to American tanks easily, nor can Russia provide Egypt with spare parts for Cairo’s massive arsenal of Us military equipment.

As I noted a couple of days ago, Saudi Arabia itself, a firm US client virtually since the 1930s, is also straying, perhaps to Beijing.

The authoritarian backlash in the Middle East against the political opening and instability produced by the 2011 youth revolutions appears to have given Putin an opening to reassert Russian influence in the Arab world. Russia and the Baath government of Syria are extremely close. Russia is also friendly to Iran and hence Iraq. Egypt’s flirtation with Moscow may just be pique, but it could also signal the glimmers of a more multilateral Middle East, in which Bush-era hopes for complete American dominance are fading fast.

22 Responses

  1. Recent events in the Middle East have seen the emergence of China rivalling the U.S. as the pre-eminent world power.

    This is coupled with the fact that in recent years the Chinese GNP has surpassed that of America, making China the largest economic producer in the world, albeit it has four times the population of the U.S.

    The per capita incomes of most Western European nations such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the Low Countries already have surpassed that of America.

    Expect the Tea Party call to reduce federal spending and curtail defense expenditures lead to GOP gains in the 2014 Congressional elections. Americans are beginning to understand that their standrd of living has declined due to overtaxation that has stifled economic growth.

    • I love it. Really. Mark Koroi that the per capita incomes of most Western European nations have already surpassed the US, but the conclusion is that Americans suffer from “overtaxation that has stifled economic growth”. Is it worthwhile pointing out that the taxation in Western Europe is higher than that in the US?

      The US misuses its resources, no doubt about that: it has a very effective scheme of corporate welfare with no corporate taxes, which is leading it nowhere.

    • It is astonishing how rational thinking goes out the window among some who are enamored of China’s rise these days. China is important, and it will become more important. But China is hardly a rival to the US in world power.

      Chinese GNP most definitely has not surpassed that of the Unites States. The figures for 2012 show the US GNP at $15 trillion, while China’s GNP was $6 trillion, less than half that of the US.

      As for the contention that recent events in the Middle East demonstrate the emergence of China as a rival to the US as the preeminent world power, China is hardly involved in the Middle East. To what do you attribute your observation? China is nowhere near rivaling the US as a world power, either in soft or hard power.

      • “Chinese GNP most definitely has not surpassed that of the Unites States. The figures for 2012 show the US GNP at $15 trillion, while China’s GNP was $6 trillion, less than half that of the US.”

        In the 1960s Vietnam’s GNP was just a fraction the United States’ GNP, but nobody with any sense would say the US won that war.

        Iraq 2003 to the US exit – something similar.

        And it looks like deja vu all over again in Afghanistan.

        Given the potential for Pentagon budgets to bring the United States to bankruptcy, China’s ascent to Numero Uno is plausible.

        From Castellio above: “The US misuses its resources, no doubt about that: it has a very effective scheme of corporate welfare with no corporate taxes, which is leading it nowhere.”

        Perhaps, that assessment makes a US decline and fall something to contemplate.

        • “In the 1960s Vietnam’s GNP was just a fraction the United States’ GNP, but nobody with any sense would say the US won that war.”

          My comment was in response to Mr. Koroi’s unequivocal statement that “In recent years the Chinese GNP has surpassed that of America.” In actuality, the American GNP is more than twice that of China. While I agree with your above-cited quote regarding Vietnam, it is a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with the relative GNP of both America and China, which was the original question under consideration.

    • Pfft…I expect NOTHING from the Tea Party. They support American businesses owners giving up their US citizenship so they can dodge paying taxes while collecting lucrative defense contracts for derelict programs in Afghanistan and Iraq, or to be able to dodge taxes while filing for Chinese permanent residency status to exploit cheap labour. You know sometimes workers are not even paid in Chinese factories, right?

      Why would the Tea Party curb defense expenditures? Why are people who hate our government tripping over each other, killing people’s careers, to run for the very offices they tell us again and again they loathe? Even Al Qaeda failed to shutdown our government operations. The Tea Party succeeded where Bin Ladin could not

      If per capita incomes have fallen behind, its the failed policies of today’s conservatives who care only about THEIR bank accounts. People who fall unemployed in this country are ridiculed by Tea Party sympathisers who claim to be Christian yet havent’ an ounce of compassion or consideration for other human souls.

      If your party has to write off millions of unemployed people as ‘hopeless’ or ignore their plight as the unemployed swell in our country, they need to disband. No one is going to vote for a political party that seeks their impoverishment, while they represent stats that SUCK a huge amount of aid from our federal government. Is it any irony many of the Tea Party representatives represent states that rank LAST in critical sectors of our nation?

  2. In making foreign policy, I believe that the disposition of a PEOPLE’S cultural and economic aspirations are too readily overlooked, in favour of the ambitions of the elites that rule–usually temporarily. This puts the long-term advantages of shrewder policies off, in favour of the short-term ones. The Arab people I presently live among are, it would seem, as feudal and as hierarchical and as anti-egalitarian as most other Arabs are. Recently, in flying through Doha, in Qatar, I witnessed instances of servility that can have no other parallel but what was on offer in Ancien Regime Europe. On the other hand, in the last few years, I have read and heard of many examples of the Iranian PEOPLE’S aspirations for a fully modern, fully democratic and egalitarian society. I haven’t lived, yet, for too long in my Arab country, but what I’m observing exactly parallels the Indian elites’ determination to reinforce a status quo that dictates that there won’t be too many “slum dog millionaires,” and that the caste system will be REINFORCED, through protectionism and corruption, by the “modernization” of the country’s industrial and commercial base. Indeed, some of the people native to the place I’m presently inhabiting have bluntly stated, “Muslim countries aren’t ready for democracy.” Because of these individuals’ status in the society and their attitudes toward working people, I interpret this to mean that “the people we are dominating, economically, culturally and socially, aren’t ‘ready’ for any autonomy or independence from US.’ So, what I’m guessing is that, perhaps, SUNNI Muslims, because of their feudal instincts, are not ‘ready’ for democracy and entrepreneurial capitalism, as an instrument of social mobility, but that, perhaps, SHIA Muslims are. Because of this suspicion of mine, I think it may be about time for America to shift towards Iran, and let the Russians–naturally a people more comfortable with authoritarianism–take over the American interests in the Arab world. Of course, the Israelis must be brought to understand that the majority of the Iranian PEOPLE are much more forward-looking and less dangerous a threat than the Likudniks have led them to believe.

    • “Because of this suspicion of mine, I think it may be about time for America to shift towards Iran, and let the Russians–naturally a people more comfortable with authoritarianism–take over the American interests in the Arab world.”

      America’s interests encompass both the Arab World and Iran. There is no reason for America to cede its interests in the Arab World to Russia. That is a blinkered, binary view of international relations and national interest that has no compelling historical precedent. Just as America has relations and interests with both India and Pakistan; and just as America has relations and interests with both Israel and the Arab World; there are equally valid reasons for maintaining and strengthening our ties with the Arab World and Iran.

      Will that mean we occasionally deal with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Iran are today? Of course. But we needn’t undercut our national interest by ceding authoritarian Arab countries to the Russians in a fit of “moral superiority.”

  3. If bombing Iran and getting bogged down in the Syrian civil war is the price for keeping Saudi Arabia happy, then I say, let them deal with China. The cost of such entanglements, likely trillions of dollars if past experiences teach us anything, will far outweigh any financial benefits derived from importing Saudi oil.

  4. I don’t think Russia or China are interested in giving Egypt that much free stuff and there is no way Egypt can pay for a total conversation of its weapons platforms, so I’d say this is mostly symbolic. Saudi Arabia has the money to buy whatever weapons systems it wants, but can they really count on the Chinese to keep them safe the way they could the US? I can’t really see China being able or willing to intervene in the Middle East the way the US did in 1991.

  5. America is no longer a progressive force, and if anything now resembles repressive regimes. Its economy is dependent on imported gas and oil, and it has a semi-authoritarian government backed by billionaire oligarchs, in which the religious irredentism of right-wing evangelical nutjobs is invoked for the purposes of a wounded nationalism.

    FIFY

  6. How can Gulf monarchies support the Egyptian military against the Muslim Brotherhood while Qatar floods the Syrian rebels with arms, knowing full well that if the rebellion wins, Syria will become an islamic state?
    Egyptians remember that they turned to Moscow for the building of the Aswan Dam and military aid due to disagreement with the US. Why not a repeat of this scenario?

  7. It appears to me that these nations are playing to Cold War fears, with money from America a prize, rather than allying with us because we think the same about the regional politics, and democracy, which ironically does not exist in America.

  8. Intelligence has it Earth is dying. Now if some hold out to position themselves strategically the fact is Earth is dying.
    Seems to me that needs fixing not dominance of one faction of religion over another or the wants of a dictator or a mob.
    Egypt Brotherhood understand Earth’s condition and peace. I’m not sure Iran’s leader or that of Egypt’s military get it that Temperature is going to Extinct Earth very quickly. Situation is such that all stops need to be pulled for real.. Peace is an absolute prerequisite. That is if we do our duty.

  9. When Yeltsin’s regime laid waste to Grozny, I don’t recall many complaints coming from the West. Maybe the people in the West were too enamoured of Yeltsin’s brand of “progress.”

    How could any good little modern Western secular rationalist consider Putin less “progressive” than the shock therapy and carpet bombing under his predecessor? Is Pussy Riot really more important than thousands of Chechens buried in rubble, or tens of thousands of pensioners dying in the streets?

  10. Re: Egypt.

    In an effort to give a veneer of populism to his military dictatorship, Sisi is playing the anti-American card.

    After all, it’s not like he can point to election results!

    I suspect that Sisi’s USA-bashing will be mostly for show.

  11. I think part of what you see in Middle East today are side effect of the sanctions against Iran, and the disasters of Libya. In both cases the oil export of a major producer has been cut while the flow of Oil and its price has remain more or less constant.

    One reason is that Saudi Arabia has been stepping up its production. It therefore has increased its income beyond even what it was making a year ago. Like any oil rich tyrant before them (Saddam, Qhadafi…) , the Saudi royal family feels the money makes it entitle to defining their own version of reality.

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