MOSCOW - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, dubbed by critics “Putin on the Nile,” is set to boost his burgeoning relationship with Russia by dispatching his son, Mahmoud, to Moscow as a military attache, independent regional media outlets are reporting.
Russian officials say they welcome the prospect of Mahmoud el-Sissi being based in Moscow.
The reassignment would coincide with an open rupture between Cairo and Washington over Egyptian plans to buy advanced Russian warplanes.
In Washington, a senior U.S. State Department official Thursday threatened the Cairo government with sanctions if Egypt goes ahead with a $2 billion agreement to purchase more than 20 Su-35 fighter jets, a deal the relocated Mahmoud el-Sissi would likely oversee as military attache.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the Trump administration was still discussing how to address its defense needs with Egypt adding that U.S. officials "have also been very transparent with them in that if they are to acquire a significant Russian platform like the Sukhoi-35 or the Su-35, that puts them at risk towards sanctions."
The United States has provided billions of dollars in economic and military aid to Egypt, a longtime ally, whose military has been operating the U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter. Moving his son to Moscow is seen by Western diplomats here as a signal to Washington by el-Sissi of his intent to go ahead with buying the Su-35s.
“He’s playing hardball with Washington,” said a Western diplomat based here, who asked not to identified for this article.
According to independent media, Mahmoud el-Sissi’s reassignment, planned for next year, has the added benefit for Egypt’s president of moving his son out of the spotlight in Cairo. His role as a top official in the country's domestic and foreign intelligence agency, the General Intelligence Service, has prompted turmoil within that agency, as well as growing public criticism of his father for not curbing his son, who has also been drawing allegations of corruption.
General Intelligence Service sources told Mada Masr, an Egyptian online newspaper, the reassignment to Moscow is “based on the perception within the president’s inner circle that Mahmoud el-Sissi has failed to properly handle a number of his responsibilities and that his increasingly visible influence in the upper decision-making levels of government is having a negative impact on his father’s image.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been intensifying his engagement with Middle Eastern and North African leaders, and seeking to rebuild Russian influence in the region, clout that was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to analysts. Some analysts see the re-engagement as an effort to safeguard established strategic interests. They cite as an example Russian intervention in Syria, where Moscow has its only Mediterranean naval base and needed to prop up the government of President Bashar al-Assad if it wanted to ensure its continuance.
Others say Russia’s renewed assertiveness is being overblown.
“Putin’s apparent victories in spreading Russian influence are mirages, some of which have come at a great cost,” according to Rajan Menon, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. “Putin’s gambit in Syria had more to do with safeguarding a long-standing strategic investment that appeared imperiled than with outmaneuvering the United States,” he said in a Foreign Policy magazine commentary.
Nonetheless the dispatch of Mahmoud el-Sissi to Moscow is coming at a time of heightened disagreement between Washington and Cairo. Washington has told Cairo that buying the Russian warplanes would place U.S. and NATO military cooperation at risk. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote jointly to the Egyptian leader urging him to reverse the decision to buy Russian jets.
Ties between el-Sissi and Putin began warming in 2014, when the Obama administration curtailed military aid to Egypt after the Egyptian army ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Cairo’s generals, smarting at Washington’s criticism of the coup that brought el-Sissi to power, talked openly of forging a “strategic realignment” with the Kremlin, evoking Egypt’s Nasser-era alliance with the Soviets.
Putin was quick to endorse el-Sissi as Egypt’s president, telling him during a 2014 visit to Moscow, “I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people.”
Putin also gave el-Sissi a black jacket with a red star on it, which el-Sissi wore during the Russian trip. Both men have much in common, coming from modest backgrounds and having gravitated toward the most powerful institutions in their closed societies, the KGB and the Egyptian army. They each rose cautiously up the bureaucratic ladder.
Last month, el-Sissi and Putin co-hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit, held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It was the third meeting between the two presidents this year. In October the Egyptian air force's tactical training center near Cairo hosted joint Russian-Egyptian military exercises dubbed Arrow of Friendship-1. The two countries have held several joint naval and airborne counterterrorism exercises since 2015.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a visit to Cairo this month, “When we are in Egypt we always feel like at home.” The Russian military, he said, “is ready to assist in strengthening Egyptian military forces and defense capabilities.”
Shoigu's delegation included top officials from Russia’s trade ministry, Rosoboronexport, Russia’s arms exporter, and the deputy director of the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation, prompting speculation among military analysts that Moscow and Cairo may be discussing arms deals other than the Su-35s and weapons systems co-production arrangements.