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Moscow Jolts US–Egypt Ties

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour (R) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (2-L), and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu (L) on November 14, 2013 at the presidential palace in Cairo. (AFP)

Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour (R) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (2-L), and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu (L) on November 14, 2013 at the presidential palace in Cairo. (AFP)

The recent visit to Cairo by Russia’s Foreign and Defense ministers is focusing renewed attention on the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Egypt since the July 3 military ouster of elected president Mohammed Morsi. Since then Washington has blocked some major arms shipments – something Russian officials seem eager to take advantage of.

Speaking in Cairo, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said the Russian delegation’s visit was designed to re-start long dormant defense ties between the two nations.

“We agreed to take steps toward creating a legal basis for our agreements on military collaboration” Shoygu said after a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo.

Alarms were further raised in Washington when Russia’s state-controlled industrial holding company announced that Moscow had signed a deal to provide Cairo with advanced air-defense systems – a deal potentially worth $2 billion.

“It is another sign that perhaps would push things more in the direction of a declining relationship with the U.S., it is a message to Washington that there are alternatives allies,” said Khaled Elgindy, Foreign Policy Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

But others say the concerns are overblown.

“It is designed by the Egyptian government to signal its frustration with the U.S. insufficient understanding of why the army intervened to remove President Mohamed Morsi,” said Eric Trager, who is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Trager argues that the Egyptian American relationship is a strategic one that is based on give and take.

“Egypt has been allowing priority access to the Suez Canal for U.S. ships as well as over flight rights in exchange for the $1.3 billion given annually in military aid,” he said.

Badr Abdel Atty, a spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, also played down tensions with the U.S.

"A bilateral visit by Russian ministers of defense and foreign affairs represents a very important political message to the world," he said. "Our strategy is to expand, not to replace one party with another.”

Tensions go deeper

Amy Hawthorne, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council finds rising ant-American sentiment as one of the challenges facing the bilateral relations.

“Many Egyptians believed that the U.S. was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and does not care very much about their revolution because the U.S. has had a difficult time explaining that its support for former President Morsi was based on the fact that he was elected by the majority of the Egyptian people,” she said.

Hawthorne says some Egyptian officials have exploited this issue.

“Unfortunately, it does seem at times that elements in the Egyptian government are directly encouraging inaccurate reports, information and even rumors about the U.S. in the state-owned media,” she said.

Democratic Congressman James Moran perceives this as unhealthy development.

“When only 1 percent of Egyptians trust the U.S., that means they are grossly deceived and manipulated by some of the Egyptian media and the Egyptians should verify the information they get,” Moran said. “The American people have given more than $50 billion to Egypt over the last generation and there should be some level of appreciation.”

Moving forward

Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that Egypt and the U.S. must set new goals for the relationship so that it reaches beyond the institutions of government.

“What needs to be done is a reassessment of the strategic relationship, a broad dialogue with Egyptian government, Egyptian opposition, other political forces, civil society and reshaping the bilateral relations,” she said.

Elgindy agrees and says there is a room for a much deeper relationship that is not based purely on military-to-military or government-to-government ties.

“Egyptians would appreciate such a broader relationship with the society beyond dealing only with the military and or the government," he said. "Following the popular uprising of January 2011,the U.S. has fallen into the same trap of preferring the elite bargains of the past; choosing to deal with those in power while neglecting the many other actors involved in this very complex relationship.”

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