international analysis and commentary

Russia and Egypt: an old relationship

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In 1972, in one of the most sweeping expulsions of foreign government personnel, President Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak’s predecessor, ordered 20,000 Soviet military advisers and their dependents out of the country. At a stroke, he took Egypt out of the Soviet orbit and dealt a major blow to Moscow’s overall position in the Middle East. Almost forty years later, as President Mubarak was challenged by a mass uprising, another mass evacuation loomed: around 40,000 Russian tourists found themselves trapped at Red Sea resorts such as Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.

In a nutshell, this tells the story of the dramatically changed nature of Russian involvement with, and presence in the Middle East. Gone is the bitter struggle for regional dominance against the United States; the ideological fervor has evaporated with the death of ideology in Moscow’s foreign policy; and the Russian stall at the Middle Eastern arms bazaar has shrunk and receded to the back row. “In”, instead, are the legions of holidaymakers streaming to the warm seas; a million Russian speakers in Israel – some of them in government; and Orthodox Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem and Russian Muslim ones in Mecca.

Ever since Sadat’s expulsions of the Soviet military, Moscow has regarded Egypt as a US ally: first with resentment; more recently, after the collapse of communism and disintegration of the Soviet Union, with equanimity. Russia has basically accepted a back seat in the Middle East Quartet, happily letting America tackle the seemingly impossible task – producing an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Russia politely calls Egypt its strategic partner; yet, Putin remains the only Russian leader to date to have ever visited Egypt (once, in 2005). Mubarak, for his part, has paid five visits to Moscow in the last twenty years. This imbalance in state visits is compensated, however, by 2 million ordinary Russians who come annually to Egypt’s beaches.

Instead of arms, Russia is now selling Egypt its grain, which makes up 40% of the rather puny Russian exports: the overall recent bilateral trade turnover has been between 2.5 and 4 billion dollars. Due to the abnormally high temperatures last summer, and the resulting drought, Russia had to suspend its grain exports for a few months, which led to a hike in grain prices worldwide and became one of the causes of the current food crisis.

Higher food prices may have triggered the unrest in Egypt, but the deeper cause lies with the fact that the Egyptian people are fed up with the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, who came to power when Leonid Brezhnev was still the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party. Since the beginning of the crisis in Egypt, Moscow has taken a hands-off position toward the developments there. Its only demands have been to protect the tourists and to stop acts of violence against foreign journalists – a few Russian reporters were attacked in the streets of Cairo.

In early February, Dmitry Medvedev became one of the few world leaders to have personally called President Mubarak, ostensibly to make those points. His unreported broader message may have been similar to the public statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: Russia wants a stable, prosperous, and democratic Egypt; it hopes for a peaceful, non-violent solution to the present crisis; what that solution will be is up to the Egyptian people themselves; applying pressure from the outside in favor of a particular outcome is not useful. 

This attitude is based on several guiding operational principles of Russia’s foreign policy. One is recognition of the legitimacy of the governments in place, irrespective of their ideology, the nature of their political regimes or international behavior. Thus, there are no rogue states, from Moscow’s perspective, and only very few truly rogue leaders, such as Georgia’s Saakashvili. Seen from that perspective, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are indispensable, if difficult, partners, not to be ostracized. Two is formal rejection of interference in the internal affairs of other countries. From Belarus to Sudan to Zimbabwe, Moscow’s diplomats have sought to bar international punishment of repressive governments. Three is a wait-and-see posture: by not aligning itself with any party in a domestic conflict which does not affect Russian interests directly, Moscow hopes to preserve the relationships, whatever the outcome of the internal conflicts.

This may be clever, in particular with regard to developments far removed from Russia’s self-proclaimed zones of special interests in the former Soviet borderlands. However, there are two other aspects to the unfolding Egyptian crisis which could not have escaped Moscow’s attention. One is the regional dimension. As the Arab world’s most populous and culturally predominant country, it is a trend-setter for the entire Middle Eastern region. Wherever Egypt goes, the rest of the Arab world follows.

After Mubarak’s refusal to abdicate before the September presidential elections, some observers started upgrading the Egyptian uprising to a revolution. The Russians, who, in the run-up to the centenary of 1917, often, sometimes inadvertently, compare their situation to that of a hundred years ago. This comparative analysis lends itself to other cases, too, where the overriding issue is removing an authoritarian regime that blocks economic, social and political progress. Egypt is one such case.

1917, of course, has witnessed two revolutions. One overthrew the tsar and introduced freedom which the elites have proved unable to structure as a democracy. In the end, amid the growing chaos, the masses fell for the one radical group which was populist in its rhetoric and exceedingly ruthless and brutal in establishing its monopoly on power. Today’s Cairo may look like Petrograd in February 1917. The test of how present-day Egyptian society will manage freedom, the analogy goes, will come around October.

This analogy is anything but perfect; it may be far-fetched. Some Russians may rejoice watching the travails of the Obama administration walking a very thin line between US interests, tied to the long-time faithful ally, and America’s founding ideal of people power. Others, while not particularly saddened by the losses that the United States has sustained in the minds of Arab democrats and autocrats alike, are worried about who stands best to exploit America’s sudden weakening. One beneficiary could be the Islamist radicals, the Arab world’s religious Bolsheviks. Another one may be China, a fellow “color-blind” power with deep pockets and an overriding interest in the oil-rich region. Neither prospect should be particularly cheerful to those sitting in the Kremlin.

And then there is the other aspect of Egypt, much closer to home. When recently asked during the Hard Talk show on BBC, why Russian anti-government protesters number in the hundreds, while Egypt’s are in the hundreds of thousands, Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal opposition figure, answered that Putin has been in power for a mere ten years, while Mubarak’s reign lasted three times longer. The interviewer found this explanation inadequate. She was right. Russia is very different from today’s Egypt, as Egypt itself is different from Russia of 1917. Still, the Russian authorities have a big problem. In order to avert a major socio-political crisis, which indeed may come in time for the centenary celebration, they would have to do no less than start dismantling the system of government which is based on the monopoly on power; the bureaucracy’s control and ownership of business; and has corruption for its organizing principle. Put differently, the question is whether Russia’s leaders are still capable of pulling themselves out of the sucking morass by their own hair.

In Egypt this winter, there was no mass evacuation of Russian sunbathers and divers. The Russian tourist industry has concluded that it did not have the 100 million dollars which would be necessary for such an airlift, and decided to let things go their natural way. More strikingly, many tourists themselves were not particularly bothered by what was happening in Tahrir Square, so far from their beaches. Some were even willing to go to Egypt amid the turmoil. So far, they have all been safe and sound. Will Russia, too, have a close shave with history and emerge unscathed this time? Time will tell.