EGYPT, THE KEY TO THE MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

The People’s Republic of China, the superpower state with its huge economic power is currently seeking to restore its historical trade project “Silk Road” as a new strategic initiative “One Belt, One Road”, regards the United States, Japan, India and Russia as a near- future competitor in the economic field in the Middle East and Africa. China knows that Egypt, KSA, UAE and Jordan are the most important future key countries to the Red Sea, North Africa, Horn of Africa and some parts of Central and West Africa.

Japan, another superpower state with its strong economic power who closely watches the political situation in the region, will also seek maximizing its political and military presence in the Middle East and Africa, promoting its military relations with Egypt and other Arab nations to become more cooperative and fruitful starting from reciprocating defense attaches all the way to the conduct of joint military exercises to secure the Straits of Hurmuz and Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea since they represent the main artery of life to Japan (the state lacks almost no resources other than industrious and innovative people). Doing so, the Egyptian Japanese military relations may become closer to or equalize with the level of their political, cultural, educational and scientific research relations. Since Egypt retains high considerations to China, Japan which has the less military capabilities, manpower and overall biomass than China, may seek to choose Egypt as a good political mediator with Japan’s historic competitor (China) in the equation of influence in the Middle East and Africa; the same path followed by UAE with India towards its relations with Iran.

(Russia-USA) and Egypt

Putin has succeeded in consolidating his influence in the north of the Middle East through Syria. He is now trying to expand his influence to the west aiming North Africa and perhaps to the south aiming Horn of Africa through Egypt, a former ally to Soviet Union. Egypt has been the strategic partner of the US and the West for four decades. However, Russia has been able to obtain Egypt’s approval to establish an industrial zone in its northeastern coastal governorate of Port Said, known as the eastern gateway to Egypt. Russia has also managed to conclude major energy deals including the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Daba’a. Russia has also been able to increase arms sales to Egypt and enjoyed its diplomatic support in several regional initiatives.

Economically, it is doubtless that Russia intends to diversify its economy by entering into non-traditional markets that could mitigate the negative economic impacts of the sanctions imposed by the West. Egypt provides a market for Russian goods; starting from wheat to arms, and can serve as a passage to other markets in Africa.

Militarily, analysts expect that Russia may try to secure a naval base in Egypt (for military or logistic purposes) to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean to become an opponent who can compete for freedom of maneuver against the United States via the Suez Canal.

Russia cannot engage in an absolute competition on the long term with the US which provides annual military aid to Egypt. Therefore, Putin will focus on the possibility of supporting Egypt in key areas such as security, food and energy. This endeavor will drive US decision makers to vote for the sustainment of the United States’ strong strategic relationship with Egypt; not only to preserve its partnership with a major regional state and to ensure freedom of maneuver in the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, but also to ensure its influence in the region and to neutralize a strong global competitor  that may reach up to the level of a dangerous enemy; namely, Russia.

On the security front, Russia is seeking to achieve the utmost possible level of cooperation with Egypt in the fight against terrorism; the same action taken with Syria, however in a bit easier manner. Hence, Russia is strengthening its credibility as a reliable strategic partner in the region; a reputation which neither the US nor the West enjoy.

Russia has long sought to pull Egypt away from its partnerships with the West; especially the United States. In earlier times, the Soviet Union used naval bases in Marsa Matruh and Alexandria in Egypt. The Soviet navy also operated on the coast of Port Said. the Soviet Union and Egypt enjoyed close ties until Egypt moved to The West in the seventies; which was a like a strong blow to the “Communist Bear”.  Early 2014, Putin started to revive his country’s relations with Egypt achieving a more moderate and balanced success. Putin publicly expressed his support to Field Marshal “Elsisi”  as future president of Egypt when he was still a Minister of Defense and  even before his announcement to run for the presidency of Egypt.

  • in May 2018, Russia and Egypt signed an agreement to establish a Russian industrial zone (RIZ) in East Port Said.
  • Russia and Egypt recently launched bilateral military exercises
  • As of 2014, Russia has increased its sales of land and air weapons in addition to air defense systems to Egypt.
  • Russia has signed major energy agreements with Egypt.
  • Russia has gained Egypt’s diplomatic support in a number of major global and regional issues such as:
    • Egypt’s stance in the Syrian crisis
    • Egypt’s position in Libya
    • Egypt joined Russia in boycotting a none official Security Council meeting on Venezuela held in 2017 and led by the United States of America
    • Egypt and Russia highlighted their joint efforts to defeat terrorism and resolve regional conflicts in the Middle East
  • In April 2018, Russia resumed its direct flights to Egypt and provided support in airport security.

My view on Russia’s attempts to secure a strategic base in Egypt

Russia has managed to transform Turkey, a NATO member, (NATO is Russia’s arch enemy) to an ally that made Russia able to reach the Mediterranean from the Black Sea through the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosphorus. Likewise, Russia can also find ways with Egypt, the owner of the most important geostrategic location, to complete the consolidation and expansion of Russian influence in the East of the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea southward through the Suez Canal. “I believe that Russia is thinking seriously in this approach”.

Russia will continue to expand its influence in Egypt seizing the opportunity of the diminished Western American influence and their lack of acceptance in the Egyptian and may be Arab streets. Russia’s efforts will remain focused on the economic and military levels; in addition to Putin’s attempts to deepen his personal relationship with president Sisi. However, Russia’s economic capabilities are extremely weak if compared with the United States. Therefore, it is most likely that Russia will take gradual steps to obtain a naval base and gain access to air bases in Egypt; hence, expanding its influence in the region and restricting US freedom of movement in the Mediterranean if it can secure this strategic principle in North Africa.

To achieve this Putin will target the following:

  • Engage Egypt in the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEU) to reinforce the credibility of the European Union. Russian media have already reported that the first round of talks on the EU-Egypt Free Trade Agreement will be held in September 2018.EAEU includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The Eurasian Economic Community (EAEU) has a free trade agreement with Vietnam and Russia is trying to use it as a tool for regional influence.
  • Try to increase all types of advanced arms sales to Egypt
  • Convince Egypt to function as a gateway (a beneficiary broker) to Russia’s economic, political and military expansion to Africa.
  • Intensify the efforts of Russian psychological operations to spread propaganda ideas that attract Egyptians to Putin’s person and Russian culture confirming that it is better and closer to the Egyptians compared to the West.

On the other side, it is clear that president Elsisi seeks to continue to try to balance the relations with Russia to that of Egypt’s main allies such as the United States, which is still the largest provider of foreign assistance. It is worth mentioning that the United States has provided Egypt with 80 billion US dollars of foreign aid to Egypt for 40 years, Including, of course, annual military aid.

The possibility of establishing a strategic Russian base in Egypt remains difficult objective to achieve. It is largely incompatible with Egypt’s culture and military ideology, and the idea may be met by a major rejection in the Egyptian street despite Putin’s popularity therein.

 

Major General. Sayed Ghoneim
Fellow, Nasser Higher Military Academy
Chairman, Institute of Global Security & Defense Affairs (IGSDA)

 

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