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As Egypt woos Russia, Sisi and Putin eye a mutually beneficial political agenda

Celebrations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to Egypt in more than a decade aren’t just a reflection of Egypt’s hospitality — rather, they’re part of the Egyptian government’s heavy-handed courtship of a key political ally.

Billboards welcoming Putin adorned several Cairo highways ahead of his arrival on Monday for a two-day visit. “Welcome” was written in Arabic, English and Russian atop photos of Putin’s face on each poster and billboard. No other visiting president has received such a warm welcome.

Various fronts have hailed Putin’s visit. In particular, the state has enthusiastically framed the meeting as an important opportunity for Egypt to strengthen its political and economic position ahead of the economic stimulus conference slated for mid-March in Sharm el-Sheikh.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi praised Putin as an “outstanding person” in an interview with the Russian news outlet TASS on Sunday.

Egypt and Russia “have a mutual understanding of various regional problems, such as anti-terrorism efforts,” Sisi said, adding that “we have similar views on bilateral cooperation between our states.”

Egypt is interested in cooperating with the entire world, Sisi continued, “and with this connection, we must exert our maximum efforts to reach our goals and make our dreams come true.”

“And even more importantly, your president shares the aspirations of our people, and spares no effort to make progress in this direction,” Sisi asserted.

“Putin has done much for Russia in the past 15 years. He has confronted many challenges, but he is a strong man,” Sisi said. “Russia has done much for Egypt. We believe in it, and want your country to live in prosperity and security.”

The Egyptian media has paid special attention to Putin’s visit, with the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper dedicating a two-page feature on Putin, extolling him as the “hero of our times.” The Arabic-language reportage detailed Putin’s political and military career, as well as his private life and personal traits.

Al-Ahram describes Putin as “well aware of the pathways of politics and a master of its vocabulary, as reflected in the verbal debates that he has participated in.” The piece waxes lyrical about Putin’s “glowing intelligence” and his “special abilities” to fight separatist movements, terrorism, corrupt businessmen and biased media, as well as his noble rejection of the “marriage between power and money.”

Also in Al-Ahram, columnist Nourhan al-Shiekh welcomed “Russia’s great Ceasar,” while state and privately owned televisions channels alike spared hours of their coverage to discuss the visit’s importance.

On Monday, Egyptian military jets surrounded Putin’s plane when it entered Egyptian airspace and guided it safely to the tarmac at the Cairo International Airport, where Sisi was waiting to personally greet the Russian president. 

After his arrival, Putin was scheduled to meet 60 public figures at the Cairo Opera House on Monday evening, according to the state-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar. He is also slated to visit the Cairo Tower, as well as a number of Egyptian factories that were built by the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, the new Suez Canal project and some touristic and historical destinations.

To mark the occasion, Putin gave an interview to Al-Ahram, which has launched a media partnership with the official Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya.

In the interview, which was translated into English and published on the official Putin administration website, he praised the efforts of the Egyptian people and their government to regain internal stability after former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013.

“We respect the Egyptian people’s will as expressed in the constitutional referendum and the presidential election,” Putin told Al-Ahram.

The Sisi and Putin administrations have both garnered a troubled international reputation. Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record pushed the European Union to rebuke the government for its crackdown on journalists and political activists, and also prompted Europe to withdraw from monitoring the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Egypt-US relations also took a turn for the worse after the Egyptian state slammed the US government’s perceived support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.

As a result, some analysts believe that strengthening ties with Russia is crucial for Sisi’s administration, and would help the president cement his position domestically and abroad as a defender against Western policies.

A long-anticipated military deal between Egypt and Russia worth US$3.5 billion — which would be financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — could act as a strong message to the US that Egypt is willing to diversify its sources for arms. The US has consistently leveraged its military aid to Egypt as it pressures the latter to take steps against human rights violations and toward democracy.

Russia is poised to supply the Egyptian military with Mig-29 fighter jets and Mi-35 helicopters, as well as other equipment the Armed Forces says it needs to combat the growing jihadist insurgency in Sinai.

Sisi and Putin also share common views on counter-terrorism strategies, as well as their firm position against the Muslim Brotherhood. Anna Borshchevskaya, an adjunct fellow with The Washington Institute, wrote that Russia suspects the Brotherhood of aiding radical Islamist militants in the Caucasus.

Borshchevskaya also underscored the fact that both countries are battling stagnating economies.

“Russia has entered a deep recession due to both plunging oil prices and Western sanctions sparked by the March 2014 annexation of Crimea. In Egypt, poverty and unemployment are high amid threats from terrorism and violent domestic opposition. It is therefore unclear whether Putin’s visit will amount to concrete steps or just talk,” Borshchevskaya said.

But despite the challenges, closer relations would certainly prove mutually beneficial for both men. As Sisi tries to show the US and Europe that he can find help elsewhere, says Borshchevskaya, Putin can leverage the visit to prove that he is still a “strong global leader.”

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