Egypt still counting the cost nearly three months into Ukraine war

With close ties to both Moscow and Washington, north African nation must tread carefully to keep its distance from the 'new' cold war, analysts say

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a ceremony on board guided missile cruiser ‘Moskva’ at the Black Sea port of Sochi. Reuters
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Nearly three months after the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, Egypt remains embroiled in the challenges posed by the conflict to its foreign policy as an increasingly polarised world leaves it with little manoeuvring room, analysts say.

A close US ally with vital ties to Europe, Egypt’s relations with Russia lie at the centre of its dilemma. The analysts, however, believe the patience and caution that have traditionally defined Cairo’s foreign policy could buy the Egyptians time to see the crisis through.

“The challenge grows with every passing day, whether on the level of bilateral relations or striking a balance,” said Gehad Auda, a political science professor at Helwan University in Egypt.

The nation has been hit hard on many levels by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war.

With the country still smarting from the devastating effect on its economy wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, the war has disrupted some of Egypt’s vital supplies – the warring nations account for 80 per cent of its large wheat imports – sent inflation soaring to double digits and triggered the flight of billions of dollars’ worth of foreign investment.

The tourism sector has also been affected, with tourists from Ukraine and Russia, who account for at least a third of the 10 million-plus visitors to Egypt every year, staying at home.

Last month, high inflation pushed the government to devalue the local currency by 14 per cent against the US dollar, and to begin negotiations with the IMF on a possible rescue package, after it banned the export of essential foodstuffs and introduced a costly stimulus programme to avert economic meltdown.

The government says it is confident it will ride out the continuing economic crisis, as it did the pandemic before, but the foreign policy challenges created by the conflict and facing Cairo are much more complex and nuanced.

“Egypt is something of a special case vis-a-vis the West because of both its robust relations with Russia and being a key US partner in the Middle East,” says Michael Hanna, the US programme director of the International Crisis Group.

“It continues to hedge and is loath to do more after it voted in favour of a March 2, UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Egypt spent years trying to shield itself from the polarisation of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, co-founding the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955 in a bid to formulate a common approach to Soviet-American rivalry.

But in reality, Egypt ended up being a close Soviet ally for decades, relying entirely on Moscow for the weapons it used to fight the last two of its four wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973 and securing technical help to build some of its milestone development projects in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, it is a different world now and a revival of the propaganda used by Egypt decades ago to conceal its alliance with the then-Soviet Union could hardly be effective or convincing now.

“The Ukrainian crisis, however it ends, will restructure the international system,” said Mohamed Anis Salem, a retired diplomat who sits on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. “There are strong indications of a longer-term conflict between the West and Russia.

“But Egypt has a history of creative diplomacy in the face of the changing global environment and will need to explore realistic options, like working on a regional security order and strengthening its economy.”

That may be true, at least partially, but charting a route that keeps Egypt’s distance from the “new” cold war is fraught with difficulty, uncertainty and risk.

Russian tourists in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Numbers travelling from Russia and Ukraine are not as high as they were before the war. AFP

Egypt has received billions of dollars in US economic and military aid over the past 40 years, a time when the two allies co-operated in counterterrorism operations and shared intelligence.

Their military co-operation is broad and diverse, from the procurement of cutting-edge, US weapon systems to joint war games. Egypt’s airspace has been constantly accessible to US war planes and American warships are allowed to jump the queue in the Suez Canal.

But relations between Cairo and the White House have in recent years experienced occasional periods of tension, mainly over criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, which is seen by Cairo's government as baseless or unacceptable meddling in its domestic affairs.

Egypt’s close ties with Moscow have only been forged in the last 6 or 7 years, but they have in that relatively short time grown into a special, multi-tiered relationship in which the Kremlin, to Egypt’s satisfaction, does not publicly share its views on any of its Arab friend’s policies.

Seeking to compensate for Washington’s refusal to provide Egypt with F-15 jet fighters to replace its large fleet of the less capable F-16, Egypt bought the Russian-made SU-35 planes instead. It has also shopped in Moscow for helicopter gunships and has been holding joint war games with Russian forces.

Egypt has also looked to Russia to build its first nuclear power station and been lobbying for Russian investment in its giant free industrial zone alongside the Suez Canal.

Updated: May 10, 2022, 2:56 PM
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