Arriving in Tel Aviv after a trip to Cairo, Defense Secretary Mattis praised the U.S.-Egyptian military-to-military relations as a solid bedrock. Just the night before, Egypt freed a U.S. aid worker, Aya Hijazi, who had been held on charges of child abuse for three years. On the surface, relations between the United States and one of its strongest Arab allies could not be better. Egypt however, was planning a similar summit just a month later with America’s greatest geo-political foe, Russia, who had just weeks before announced that it would make good on its pledge to deliver MiG-29 fighters to the North African nation. Egypt’s ties with Russia go beyond diplomatic niceties, it is a deeply beneficial relationship that comes at a challenging time when the United States and Russia are perhaps locked in a deeper struggle than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Egypt’s collusion with Russia signals a troubling return of Cold War politics to the Middle East, one that will divide the region further.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, by courting both the U.S. and Russia, is enacting an old Cold War strategy developed by his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Nasser and his Free Officer’s Movement overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, he radically changed the direction of the country that had previously been dominated by the British. Nasser called his new foreign policy “non-alignment” and emphasized a neutral stance toward both world power blocs. The practice of non-alignment was similar to that of milking two cows but buying neither. Egypt would collect aid and investment from the U.S., signal that they may side with them in the Cold War, and the Soviet Union would respond with their own aid. Eventually the non-alignment policy failed and Egypt swung fully to the Soviet camp. Only years later did Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, realign the country toward the West.
Present day, Russian President Vladimir Putin is pursuing a foreign policy aimed at reasserting Russia’s position on the world stage and reestablishing links with former Soviet allies. In the Middle East this strategy has been particularly aggressive. Russia launched an air campaign against the Syrian opposition and worked closely in tandem with Iran and their Revolutionary Guard Corps. Russia gained access to a powerful alliance encompassing not just Iran and Syria, but also Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shia militias in Iraq. The strategic value of the region however meant that this swath was not enough.
Sisi watched the reintroduction of Russian influence in the region closely as it correlated with a moment when he was feeling particularly isolated. President Obama’s temporary suspension of aid over the 2013 coup and America’s lighter footprint in the region left Egypt with what seemed like tenuous backing from the her main Western ally. Adding to their woes, a rift between Egypt and Saudi Arabia grew over Sisi’s refusal to be drawn into the Saudi’s intervention in Yemen and the slow pace of Egyptian economic reforms until Saudi Arabia suspended vital oil shipments to Egypt in November 2016.
An alliance with Russia would fix both problems, providing Sisi with a global power backer at a time when he was feeling isolated both at home and abroad and an economic partner to boost Egypt’s troubled economy. Quickly Sisi embarked on a series of measures to assert both his and Russia’s shared agendas. His first trip abroad as leader of Egypt was to Moscow where he convinced Putin to supply him with $3 billion in weapons and five million tons of wheat while Egypt would send food exports to Russia to make up for a Russian ban on European food imports. Militarily he acted to shore up Putin’s allies in the region, deploying a detachment of troops to Syria, both to shore up fellow strongman and Russian ally Assad, and by hosting Russian Special Forces launching operations in Libya to support General Khalifa Haftar. Sisi was not alone in wooing Russia, but like Turkish President Erdogan and the Syrian Kurdish YPG, he hasn’t distanced himself from the United States. Rather he has taken a page from Nasser’s playbook and begun collecting benefits from both America and Russia. In the midst of improving Russian-Egyptian relations President Trump is expected to improve ties with Sisi and has promised addition support to aid in Egypt’s fight against militants in the Sinai Peninsula.
The policy of milking two cows did not work during the Cold War and it will not work now. Sooner or later Sisi, along with other regional actors, will need to choose between the United States and Russia. The choice will only further divide a region already pitted between Sunni and Shia, secular and Islamist, Arab, Turk, Kurd, and Persian and will signal a continuation of the instability and war that has been raging across the region for years.