After UN Ukraine war vote, Egypt strives to protect vital interests with Russia

Wheat imports, arms and tourism top list of Egypt's interests with Russia as the Arab nation faces continued western pressure to do more to isolate Russia

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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Egypt faces a complex task of protecting its economic and military interests with Moscow, after voting for a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts tell The National.

The effort, say analysts, will likely be hampered by continuing Western pressure on Egypt to be an active contributor to a US-led drive to damage Russia’s economic interests.

A country of 100 million people in the middle of an ambitious programme to modernise its economy and large military, Egypt can ill-afford to sacrifice its interests with Moscow and will strive to benefit from both camps, said the analysts.

“Egypt is having to deal with fallout on a number of fronts, including worries about crucial wheat imports, further blows to an already hard-hit tourism sector, foreign exchange reserve depletions, and an uncomfortable juggling of relations between Russia and the West,” wrote Mirette Mabrouk of the Middle East Institute on Friday.

“Egypt has extensive and convoluted ties with both Russia and the West and it would be counter-productive to step to one side or another.”

Egypt is no stranger to being caught in the middle of Russian-American rivalry, having spent most of the second half of the last century seeking, albeit with limited success, to walk a middle course between East and West during the Cold War.

But the task may prove to be much more difficult this time round, say the analysts.

A US ally since the 1970s, Egypt has in recent years inched closer to Russia, which has sold Cairo cutting-edge weapons and agreed to build its first nuclear power station.

Modern-day relations date back to the 1950s, when the Soviet Union sold Egypt its first shipment of weapons after army officers seized power in 1952 and replaced the monarchy with a left-leaning regime.

The two countries remained close allies until 1972, when then president Anwar Sadat threw out thousands of Russian military advisers and later took Egypt to the US camp, cutting off virtually all ties with the Kremlin. Relations with the Kremlin shifted between being fraught with tension and lukewarm for years, until President Abdel Fattah El Sisi took office in 2014.

Bread is a staple for the majority of Egypt's 100 million people. Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer, with 50 per cent of what it buys on world markets coming from Russia. EPA

The world’s largest wheat importer, Egypt, relies on Russia for 50 per cent of its imports of the grain, which last year stood at about 13 million tonnes.

The two countries have also been co-ordinating policy on Libya, Egypt’s war-torn neighbour.

They are also bound by the 2018 comprehensive partnership and strategic co-operation agreement which, among other things, entails regular talks between the two countries’ defence and foreign ministers.

Egypt is also a popular destination for Russian tourists. Hundreds of thousands of Russians visited each year, before a plane flying to St Petersburg crashed in the Sinai Peninsula in 2015, killing all 224 people on board in a suspected terror attack.

“These interactions [with Russia] will likely continue, albeit there may be some regression of tourism, which is still recovering from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Mohamed Anis Salem, a retired career diplomat who sits on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“There may be some difficulties resulting from the Western sanctions on Russia but we can assume that there will be solutions that ensure continuity.”

Sanctions controversy

On account of the potential risk to these interests, Egypt followed its UN General Assembly vote on Wednesday with a statement designed to reassure the Russians.

Read at the General Assembly by its permanent representative, the statement emphasised the need to find a political solution to the Ukraine conflict and admonished the West for adopting economic sanctions against Moscow outside the umbrella of the UN.

“Egypt opposes the method of employment of economic sanctions outside international mechanisms… past experiences [of sanctions] have had extremely negative effects” on ordinary people, said the statement.

The vote followed days of deliberations at the highest level in Cairo, said officials who closely monitored the process, with Egypt initially inclined to abstain. Cairo shifted to vote in favour when it became clear that the resolution would be overwhelmingly supported, they said.

Moreover, Egypt’s foreign policy, they explained, has a long and proven track record of firmly siding with international law and against military actions not sanctioned by the UN. There was also intense pressure from the US and its European allies on Egypt in the days leading to the vote.

“Egypt was very exposed because it did not want to simply follow the US line. It likes to have this diversified approach to policy and the US has been willing to tolerate that,” said Michael Hanna, the New York-based US programme director in the International Crisis Group.

“For Egypt to abstain would have been taken as effectively siding with Russia; and as much as Egypt wanted to hedge it, that would have proven problematic for Cairo. It would have raised fundamental questions about our relationship,” he said.

“But Egypt can find a safe haven from possible admonishment or reproach by Russia in the sheer large number of nations [141] that voted in favour of the resolution.”

The Egyptians have long complained that Washington has consistently denied them some of the cutting-edge weapons they need, prompting them to shop elsewhere, including deals to buy Russia’s SU-35 fighter jets, despite Washington’s opposition. Egypt’s large imports of Russian wheat have also been justified on account of their low prices compared to what's on offer from the US.

Egypt, meanwhile, receives $1.3 billion annually in US military aid and the two countries maintain a high level of security co-operation and intelligence-sharing, since they drew closer after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

However, Cairo’s relations with Washington have frequently been bumpy, mostly over US criticism of Cairo’s human rights record.

Significantly, President El Sisi has yet to be invited to Presidsent Joe Biden’s White House, although relations between the two leaders have thawed after Egypt helped mediate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel last May.

The US recently suspended $130 million in military aid to Egypt, again citing Cairo’s rights record. It marked the second time the US has taken such action in less than a decade.

“It took some time and a lot of work to get past the relationship’s fraught stage. It is not an easy relationship and it took a lot of work to get it where it is now,” said Mr Hanna, adding that considerable tension would have been placed on relations had Egypt abstained on Wednesday.

Updated: March 07, 2022, 6:26 AM