Egyptian arms talks with Russia send strong signal to Obama

2013-11-15 12:10

A high-level Russian visit to Egypt has this week signalled an apparent shift in Cairo’s foreign policy away from the United States (US) towards Moscow and its readiness to supply the Egyptian army with military hardware.

In what is said to be one of Russia’s biggest weapons deals since the Cold War, a delegation of Russian foreign and defence ministers met with Egyptian officials in Cairo to discuss future military cooperation. The meeting comes in the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to suspend a substantial amount of military aid to Egypt in an effort to speed-up its democratic reforms.

For President Obama this state of affairs again points to two emerging trends in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) since the start of the Arab Spring. The first is that US foreign policy is not as successful as he would have hoped for, and the second that Russia is emerging as a major role-player.

Closer relations between Egypt and Russia is significant in the eyes of the US if it is taken into account that the US and Egypt have been allies for almost 40 years. During this time Egypt received more than $1 billion a year in military aid from the US until some of the aid was suspended in October this year. Although Cairo denies that it is replacing the US with Russia, it is clear that the Egyptian Army leadership has less than the traditional sense of loyalty displayed by President Mohamed Mursi who they removed from power in July. As such, Cairo is letting the US know that it has choices when it comes to international allies, and that it is prepared to partner with whomever it pleases.

Russia, on the other hand, is merely expanding its influence in Mena after its bold move in brokering a deal with the US regarding the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile earlier this year. A case in point is Moscow’s offer to replace the US who cancelled a joint military exercise with Egypt in August in opposition to the army’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. Russia did not hesitate to offer its services in arranging the exercise instead.

A stumbling block in the proposed arms deal, rumoured to be worth as much as $4 billion, is the availability of a third party financier. Since Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have already promised financial assistance to the Egyptian government, it is speculated that a Gulf state might foot the bill. Saudi Arabia has recently come out in strong support of Egypt, stating that it intends to replace any financial aid the US has cut.

The fact that Russia was again quick to capitalise on the outcome of a US foreign policy decision, and that some of the Obama administration’s major allies in the Gulf, most notably Saudi Arabia, has sided with those the US is punishing, should not go unnoticed. The balance of power in Mena may just be shifting in a direction the US will not be satisfied with.

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