Egypt: caught between Russia and the West

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the country led by Al-Sisi has been trying to maintain an international balance, affected by its fragile geopolitical situation

KREMLIN ALEXEI DRUZHININ via REUTERS  -   Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attend a welcoming ceremony aboard the cruise ship Moskva in the port of Sochi, Russia, 12 August 2014

Russia's growing influence in the North African and Middle East region puts those countries that are now dependent on a country at cold war with the West in a very delicate position


The outbreak of the war in Ukraine caught the world's largest wheat importer completely by surprise and in a very delicate position. Egypt, a country in continuous transformation and progress, especially since the arrival of Al-Sisi to power in 2013, has built its international relations around a kind of neutrality between the West and Russia, which has been weakened by the war in Ukraine. 

This is a conclusion reached by Sonia Sánchez Díaz, a specialist in International Relations at the Francisco de Vitoria University, and analysts at the think tanks Crisis Group and Arab Center Washington DC. They describe Egypt's situation as stagnant and with "very limited room for manoeuvre" on the international stage. While Egypt initially condemned the Russian invasion, under pressure from European and US diplomacy, as the conflict progressed its lukewarm position earned it reprimands from Ukrainian foreign representatives and the G7.  

Is Egypt's relationship with either of the two axes of this feud in jeopardy? 

Calle céntrica en el Cairo PHOTO/AP
PHOTO/AP Downtown street in Cairo

Guns and butter for Egypt: 

In 2018, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi co-signed a strategic partnership treaty with Vladimir Putin with the intention of reducing its dependence on the US and Europe. On Russia's side, strengthening its position in Egypt gives it a good gateway to the Arab world and allows it to further penetrate the MENA region, one of its foreign policy objectives. 

Until 2020, Russia was Egypt's largest arms supplier. 41% of military imports were of Russian origin.  From Russian Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopters, in its special variant for the Egyptian Armed Forces 'Nile Crocodile', to Sukhoi-35 fighters delivered in 2021

Russia also provided funding and investment for the country's development. The Cairo-Moscow partnership agreement put on paper Russian funding for the Dabaa nuclear power plant, with $25 billion from Russian coffers for its commissioning. "Egypt was counting on this investment from Russia", explains Sonia Sánchez Díaz, professor of International Relations at the Francisco de Vitoria University (UFV) in an interview with ATALAYAR. "The work on this plant was to begin in July 2022. It is a plan that now, with the war, is totally paralysed", adds the specialist in the MENA region. A situation that is repeated with the construction of the Suez Canal industrial plant, also at risk of not seeing the day on schedule because of the war and sanctions.

Un vendedor de pan lleva una bandeja de "Baladi", en el distrito del Viejo Cairo, Egipto AP/AMR NABIL
AP/AMR NABIL A bread seller carries a tray of 'Baladi' in the Old Cairo district, Egypt.

Egypt is also the world's largest importer of wheat, ahead of Indonesia. The African giant obtained about 70% of its grain supplies from Russia, followed by Ukraine with 11%. The wheat problem is a bump that most North African countries have encountered since the outbreak of the war, but according to Khalil Al-Anani, senior analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC, the impact is particularly severe in the Egyptian case. The 12.9 million tonnes of wheat that Egypt bought in 2020 from Russia and Ukraine have seen their price increase two-fold, from 230 US dollars to 450 US dollars. The price of the family basket in Egypt has risen sharply since then.

Tourism has suffered greatly in Egypt since the changes of government and the popular protests of 2011. Insecurity and instability in the country withered the international appeal for visitors to the country's important historical heritage. Then came COVID-19, another obstacle to Al-Sisi's ambitious plans to revitalise the tourism industry. The Egyptian government has recently concluded important partnerships with European countries, such as Spain, which are bringing tourists back to the country, but the war in Ukraine has cut off a significant flow of travellers. According to data collected by Crisis Group, before the war Ukrainians and Russians accounted for 30% of total annual visitors passing through the pyramids or crossing the Nile River. 

Turistas en el Templo de Luxor, Egipto. AP/MOHAMED EL-SHAHED
AP/MOHAMED EL-SHAHED Tourists at the Temple of Luxor, Egypt. 

The Al-Sisi-led government has not stood idly by and has launched a package of measures to combat soaring prices and the depreciation of the Egyptian pound, which has been severely wounded since 2016. The authorities have banned the export of basic foodstuffs, as well as capping the price of bread. Gulf countries came to Egypt's rescue in April with investments and monetary deposits in Egyptian banking institutions. Saudi Arabia offered $5 billion to Egypt's Central Bank, in addition to pledging $10 billion worth of investments in the country. Following the Saudi example, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates offered $5 billion and $2 billion in investments respectively. Despite this aid, as Crisis Group's analysis concludes, currency depreciation and rising prices are making things very difficult for Egypt's already hard-pressed working classes. 

The Gulf states' assistance comes on top of that of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to which Egypt has already turned for the third time to intervene in its ailing economy. Together with Argentina, Egypt is the country that has received the most aid from the IMF. "For all these economic, commercial and cooperation reasons with Russia, Egypt's current situation is very delicate," concludes Professor Sánchez Díaz.  

Bolsa de valores egipcia en El Cairo PHOTO/REUTERS
PHOTO/REUTERS Egyptian stock exchange in Cairo

Dialogue with Russia is not always good, despite the investments and cooperation agreements that Putin has concluded with Al-Sisi. There are some axes in relations between the two countries that diplomacy has not managed to polish. In particular Egypt's fear that Russia may have Sudan's approval to install a military base on Sudan's shores with access to the Red Sea. Sudan is an area over which Egypt seeks to maintain a strong influence, and it is clear to Egypt that Russia's presence would be of no benefit to it. 

The US leaves the Middle East

The US's exit from the Middle East, which has led to Russia's entry, is one of the reasons why Egypt has turned to this new alliance with Moscow, which is now taking its toll from the war in Ukraine. But before it withdrew from the Middle East, the US was already putting plenty of stones in Egypt's path, preventing the country from achieving its objectives, including military needs, in various fields. 

As Washington Institute analysts Aliz Dizboni and Karim El-Baz point out, one of the reasons behind the US-Egypt rift is precisely this lack of US arms supplies. 
Egypt is a major military power, the largest in Africa, and is notable for its large ground force with a fleet of around 1,000 American Abrams M1 tanks, which share the flag with former Soviet T-62s, T-55 Ramses and some more modern Russian T-80s. 

Tanques Abrams egipcios participan en ejercicios en la base militar Mohamed Naguib, el 15 de noviembre de 2018 AFP/KHALED DESOUKI
AFP/KHALED DESOUKI Egyptian Abrams tanks take part in exercises at the Mohamed Naguib military base, November 15, 2018.

The Egyptian arsenal is a mirror image of the country's international relations game, stocked with pieces from France, Italy, Germany, the United States, Russia and the defunct Soviet bloc. However, as Aliz Dizboni and Karim El-Baz point out, the Egyptian armed forces' problem lies in its air force.

Egypt's fleet of American F-16s, upgraded to block 40 and 52 standards and comprising the backbone of the Egyptian combat air force, would be the least capable F-16 fleet in the world for real air-to-air combat. This is mainly due to the export veto that the United States has exercised over Egypt since 2013. In that year, the State Department halted the export of state-of-the-art military equipment to Egypt, citing human rights violations in the country. This left Egypt's F-16s with no missiles other than the older Sparrow air-to-air guided missiles with Cold War technology, which prevent Egypt from having air superiority over its neighbours, or even matching them. "The reasons behind this veto are not that it might be a threat to Israel. Egypt is a partner with Israel, and I don't think it is a fear in this sense," notes Sánchez Díaz. "Egypt is Israel's main partner in controlling Gaza. Egypt does need this weaponry to deter Ethiopia and the threat of the Grand Renaissance Dam", adds the UFV professor.

The Trump administration, in an attempt to reverse these decisions of the Obama administration, promised Egypt in 2018 a batch of thirty F-35 fighters, the latest generation, for which governments from all over the world are making representations to the State Department in the hope of obtaining permission to import them. Trump's promise failed to gain traction, either because the US Deep State acted against him or because it was a bluff to the Egyptian government. 

Un avión de combate F-16 pilotado por la Fuerza Aérea egipcia durante un entrenamiento de reabastecimiento de combustible en vuelo AFP PHOTO / US AIR FORCE / STAFF SGT. AMY ABBOTT
AFP PHOTO / US AIR FORCE / STAFF SGT. AMY ABBOTT An F-16 fighter jet flown by the Egyptian Air Force during in-flight refuelling training.

This is the main reason why Egypt is turning to Russia for its arms, in particular to acquire Sukhoi-35 (Su-35) fighters, which has aroused Washington's reluctance. In addition to the Su-35, Egypt also sought solutions through the French Rafale, which it already has in its air force, but the US pushed for the MICA missiles, with a range of 80 km, rather than the more modern Meteor. 

The US threatened Egypt with CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions for its purchase of Russian military hardware, an encroachment on Egyptian sovereignty, according to the Al-Sisi government's statement in response. Yet another rift between Cairo and Washington. 

The response to war:  

In this context of deep and dependent relations with Russia, it was to be expected that Egypt would not take an openly critical and firm stance against Putin after the start of the war. Egypt's ambiguous stance is largely similar to that of many Arab countries, with the exception of those that attended the US-organised consultative meeting in Ramstein in April - Morocco and Tunisia, for example. Russia's penetration of the MENA region affects almost equally all Arab countries. 
In the first days of the war, a communiqué from the G7 (France, Germany, Italy, Canada, the United States, Japan and the European Union) through its delegation in Cairo pushed the Al-Sisi government to take a decision. Pressure from the West caused the Egyptian representative to the United Nations to raise his hand in the General Assembly vote on 2 March, endorsing condemnation of the invasion. This position was not repeated for the 7 April resolution that excluded Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, in which Egypt chose to abstain.

El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Rusia, Sergei Lavrov, y el presidente de Egipto, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, en El Cairo el 12 de abril de 2021 AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry /
AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on April 12, 2021

"From the beginning of the war, Sisi tried to walk a fine line between Egypt's Western allies, particularly the United States, and Russia. While most countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, Egypt refused to do so," says Khalil Al-Anani, senior analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC in his analysis. Egypt's tepidity was met with a response from Ukrainian diplomacy in Cairo.  As with the other Arab countries, Ukraine called for more serious engagement.

Ruslan Nechai, Ukraine's Chargé d'Affaires in Cairo, delivered a series of demands to the Egyptian government in March. Ukraine asked Al-Sisi for arms, as well as military defence equipment, humanitarian assistance and logistical aid. A response to the war similar to that of European countries. According to Ruslan Nechai, speaking to the specialised media Al-Monitor, "It is in Egypt's interest for the war to end. We need Egypt to offer us humanitarian and medical aid, and to help us with weapons, at its discretion. Egypt's food security depends to a large extent on Ukraine". 

On the Russian side, the media outlet Al-Arab has revealed that articles published in the Russian government-funded media outlet Russia Today directly threaten Egypt and relations between the Al-Sisi and Putin governments. According to Al-Arab, the articles bear the signature of politicians and personalities directly linked to the Kremlin. 
Egypt is not expected to emerge from this situation any time soon. Further into the conflict, the only statements that government officials have devoted to the war have been a call for dialogue between Russia and Ukraine to end the war. But after the end of the first stage of the Russian invasion, the offensive has changed pace and forecasts point to a long war over Ukraine, reshaping the Egyptian scenario for the coming years and forcing the Al-Sisi government to look for alternatives and change its plans. 

Fotografia de archivo, la Fuerza Aérea Egipcia realiza una exhibición aérea en la que se muestran aviones F-16 entregados a Egipto por Estados Unidos REUTERS/ASMAA WAGUIH
REUTERS/ASMAA WAGUIH  File photo, the Egyptian Air Force performs an air display showing F-16 aircraft delivered to Egypt by the United States.

Possible Scenarios for Egypt: 

Sonia Sánchez Díaz dismisses the possibility of the US applying full CAATSA sanctions on Egypt. "It would be a devastating blow to an already badly flawed economy. The Biden administration has to calculate its moves, and I don't think it would be in its interests", explains the Middle East specialist. However, Sánchez Díaz believes that the most likely scenario in the event of a long war is a reconfiguration of the current chessboard. "Egypt will be forced to look for new allies and alternatives for its needs", notes Sánchez Díaz, who also believes that it could be beneficial in the long term for Egypt, which would increase its autonomy and decision-making power. This would not be unique to the country led by Al-Sisi, but also to all the North African countries that Russia has penetrated in recent years. 

In the event of a break-up of the Egypt-Russia partnership, there would once again be a place for the US on the military front, although it is uncertain whether this would be entirely in Egypt's interest if the bans on the sale of advanced technology equipment remain in place as decided in 2013. 

China is shaping up as the other major substitute and remedy for the North African giant. China's arms industry, which is not subject to US CAATSA sanctions, would be perfectly capable of supplying equipment to Egypt. Perhaps not to solve its problem in the air force, which will have enough difficulties operating its new Su-35s in coordination with equipment that is not compatible with them, but in many other respects. 

In the event of continuing along the path of deep cooperation with Russia, Egypt could find itself pushed into a situation of increasing dependence on Moscow, from which it will be very difficult to extricate itself and from which manoeuvring in geopolitics will be just as complicated. This is the least likely scenario because of the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and for the Arab world, which have an interest in keeping Egypt in their sphere of influence, especially with a strong government opposed to the radical Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood.