Egypt treads careful middle ground on Russia-Ukraine conflict

Cairo struggles to chart a path that protects its interests as world becomes sharply polarised by Russia-Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shake hands during a signing ceremony following their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses a problem for Egypt’s foreign policy, which is characterised by the pragmatic approach adopted by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and designed to encourage co-operation among the world powers, analysts say.

Egypt under Mr El Sisi, in office since 2014, has maintained its close ties with the US while forging friendly relations with Washington’s rivals Russia and China. He also has established diverse relations with the EU, with deep ties with members Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France and Germany.

But maintaining this middle course may be more difficult going forward given the global polarisation created by the war in Ukraine and the reaction of the US and its European allies, says Gihad Auda, professor of political science at Egypt’s Helwan University.

“Technically, if you cannot get wheat or weapons from one source, your money or the money and credit of those helping you can buy them elsewhere,” he said.

“But the problem is not today. It is later when alliances change, new arrangements are in place and we in Egypt need to move from ‘going in between’ to a full balancing act.”

Egypt’s initial reaction to the war in Ukraine was a foreign ministry statement that called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

“The Arab Republic of Egypt follows with serious alarm the rapid developments in Ukraine. It emphasises the importance of dialogue, diplomatic resolutions and efforts aimed at quickly finding a political settlement that will safeguard international security and stability,” the statement said.

But analysts believe Cairo's seemingly neutral and brief response belied its alarm over the consequences of the war on its own interests.

Egypt has been inching closer to Russia in the seven years since Mr El Sisi took office, co-ordinating policy on war-torn Libya, Egypt’s western neighbour with Moscow. Egypt has also supported Russia’s military intervention in Syria. Mr El Sisi has visited Russia at least twice since becoming president.

Significantly, Egypt has been shopping for multibillion-dollar, cutting-edge weapons from Russia, ignoring repeated US threats of punitive actions under a law that prohibits Washington’s allies from buying Russian and Chinese weapons.

Egypt’s most recent purchases included fighter jets and assault helicopters.

The country's vital tourism sector, which has shown signs of recovery after years in the doldrums, heavily depends on tourists from Ukraine and Russia, who flock to its Red Sea beaches throughout the year.

Underlining its wish to continue this trend, Egypt has ordered hotels in popular Red Sea resorts to continue to accommodate tourists from Ukraine unable to return to their country.

Moreover, Egypt relies on Russia and Ukraine for at least 80 per cent of its wheat imports, which stood at a total of about 13 million tonnes last year.

The fallout from the war on Egypt’s wheat imports has already been felt, with Cairo saying it will look for alternative sellers amid rapidly rising prices. The topic has been discussed in top-level meetings headed by Mr El Sisi.

Aswan, Egypt - July 6, 2010:  The Aswan High Dam.  ( Philip Cheung / for The National Magazine )

Cold War legacies

Egypt’s relations with the former Soviet Union date to the 1950s, with Moscow providing Cairo with its first shipments of weapons in a deal that strained relations with Washington at a time when the Cold War was a driving force in global foreign policy.

Later, Moscow provided Cairo with Soviet military advisers as well as technical assistance with milestone development projects such as the Aswan High Dam.

Egypt threw out thousands of Soviet military advisers in 1972, with late president Anwar Sadat claiming that Moscow was not doing enough to equip his army to retake the Sinai Peninsula, which was captured by Israel in 1967. In 1973, Egypt launched a surprise attack to retake Sinai.

Sadat travelled to Israel four years later on a historic visit that initiated a process that produced a US-sponsored peace treaty in 1979. Egypt was rewarded for making peace with Israel with billions of dollars in US economic and military assistance.

Today, Egypt annually receives $1.3 billion in US military aid and the two countries maintain a high level of security co-operation and intelligence-sharing, while relations with Russia are mostly restricted to military-related procurements and plans for Russia to build Egypt’s first nuclear power station.

A Ukrainian tourist, Solomia, at the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Hurghada, cries over the war in her country. Reuters.

Beyond the impact of the war in Ukraine, the global polarisation shaping up as a result of the conflict is likely to compound the challenges Cairo will face as it tries to chart a middle path.

“The Cold War had ended and the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) became redundant, but this new crisis offers a chance for the Nam to be revived, albeit with new thinking and dynamics,” said former diplomat Mohamed Anis Salem of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

Nam was a global coalition of developing countries that sought, with varying success, to stay out of great powers competition that was worsening internal conflict in many parts of the world. Egypt, the former Yugoslavia and Indonesia founded the movement in the 1950s.

“It would not be like fence-sitting, but rather a search for a positive and non-aligned position that advocates a peaceful settlement of the conflict and gives a greater role to the United Nations,” said Mr Salem.

“Without this, we will all lose; and, at the end, neither the United States nor Russia will really benefit if we in Egypt take sides.

“The new Cold War is generating new dynamics towards developing a new Nam.”

For now, the Cairo-headquartered Arab League decided after an emergency meeting on Monday to create a ministerial liaison group to contact stakeholders in the Ukraine conflict.

The meeting, called by Egypt, discussed the conflict’s “direct impact” on Arab states in view of the close relations between Arab states and both Russia and Ukraine, a league statement said.

Updated: March 01, 2022, 8:07 AM