Syria cooperation highlights progress in Egypt-Russia relations as hurdles remain

Phone calls between high-ranking Egyptian and Russian officials have brought the two countries into accord on the Syrian crisis, according to an Egyptian government source, in what is one of several breakthroughs in ongoing Cairo-Moscow diplomatic discussions.

The government source, who is involved in Egyptian-Russian diplomatic relations, says communications between the two countries were at their peak prior to the mid-April joint airstrikes carried out by the United States, United Kingdom and France against government facilities in Syria. Talks centered on possible approaches to the conflict, to be taken in the event that the then-potential tripartite strikes were carried out, which would ensure that Islamist groups do not reap any political gains.

Egyptian-Russian cooperation was and remains mainly an exchange of information aimed at curbing Saudi Arabian and Turkish-backed militias that were deployed to Syria to “overthrow” President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to the source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

The alliance falls in line, the source adds, with Cairo’s position on the situation in Syria: Assad remaining in power is the best available option, despite Cairo’s reservations on certain aspects of the way he’s managed the conflict. Tellingly, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s speech at the Arab League summit in Dhahran in mid-April was free of any condemnation of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta — the stated reason for the tripartite airstrikes — as much as any endorsement of the strike.

An Egyptian diplomatic source spoke to Mada Masr earlier in the year of “understandings [that are] underway between Cairo and Moscow in the upcoming period regarding Syria. There is a high-level exchange of information, opinions and political projections regarding possible scenarios for the future of Syria, which guarantee the preservation of state institutions and mitigate the possibility that its territorial integrity may be undermined, something Cairo believes must be avoided.”

Although Syria is a key determining factor in the development of Egyptian-Russian relations, the resumption of air travel between the two countries also constituted a breakthrough, one that only materialized after several postponements following Putin’s brief visit to Cairo in mid-December. The visit only spanned a few hours, and no resolutions to any pending issues were announced. And, unlike Putin’s 2014 visit to the Egyptian capital just months into Sisi’s first term, the 2017 visit was not celebrated with comparable grandeur.

A Russian diplomatic source, who spoke to Mada Masr following the December visit, says that Putin was not able to sign a final, binding agreement allowing both countries to use each other’s military bases. “This, of course, would not include Russia’s bases back home, but only Russian bases in the Middle East,” the source said at the time. The  matter was the subject of ongoing high-level talks, according to the source.

As Russia becomes increasingly embroiled in Libya, Moscow’s desire to rebuild its economic relationship with the country stands as a strong motive for joint Egyptian-Russian cooperation, according to the Russian diplomat. The special economic relationship between Libya and Russia granted the latter extensive gas and oil concessions prior to the end of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime.

“Putin’s visit to Cairo,” says the Russian diplomat, “was not expected to extend longer than it did. It didn’t really produce a lot of significant outcomes.” The uneventful nature of the trip was, according to him, connected to “a serious subsidence in Russia’s confidence in the future of what could have been described as a strategic partnership between the two countries four years ago. The reason is that Moscow feels that Cairo is not keen to fulfil all the requirements of such cooperation, or perhaps not thoroughly ready for it, considering the obligations that come with its relationship with the US, or due to the lack of consensus within official Egyptian institutions on the relationship with Russia.”

But after flights between the two countries resumed in April, the matter of air travel, along with the Syrian crisis, reduced the strain on Russia’s confidence in its relations with Egypt.

The first Russian flight arrived in Egypt on April 12, after a 30-month suspension. Air travel between Egypt and Russia was suspended in the aftermath of the 2015 downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport, killing all 217 passengers and seven crew members on board.

According to the Russian source, Putin explicitly told Sisi in December that Russia would not concede “even one item from the package of security measures” it requires at Egypt’s airports for the resumption of flights, as Russia  “doesn’t believe [such a concession] to be possible in light of several technical security assessments undertaken by one delegation after another.”

There have been media reports about the resumption of Russian charter flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada. However, there is trepidation that this development may be waylaid. Regarding the reports, a source working in the Egyptian tourism industry says, “This is not what is being circulated. We have yet to receive details regarding permissions for Egyptian flights, or even buses, to frequently transport Russian tourists from Cairo International Airport to airports along the Red Sea.” Despite this, Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy affirmed on the sidelines of the Arabian Travel Market Dubai 2018 on April 22 that talks with Russia over the resumption of charter flights will begin in mid-May.

However, the Russian source tells Mada Masr that “Russian security officials have yet to receive answers from the Egyptians to their questions and demands in connection with the aircraft disaster.”

Another matter that holds potential for progress in the bilateral relations is the Russian Industrial Zone project, which was assigned a large stretch of land in Port Said during former President Hosni Mubarak’s time in office. The project, however, has been stagnant. Head of the Suez Canal Authority Lieutenant General Mohab Mamish announced on April 23 that there would be a visit by a Russian delegation to continue what he called the “successful” negotiations toward a final agreement on the project.

The Russian source previously told Mada Masr, however, that Cairo and Moscow’s positions on the project diverged. “The Russian industry and trade minister explicitly declared during closed government meetings that [building] a productive and beneficial zone would require at least 13 years of serious [efforts] and funds. Frankly, I don’t think Russia will prioritize this zone at this time and allocate resources to it, not only on account of the uncertainty surrounding the stability of the security situation in Sinai — which is not far from the area tentatively designated for the project — but also because it has some questions about the legal aspects of investment procedures in Egypt. Additionally, Russia prioritizes investments in former Soviet Union states, where foreign investment affairs are clearer and smoother, dealings with Russia are easy thanks to previously established relationships, and strategic interests of paramount important to Russia lie. That, of course, is not to trivialize the prospects that a functional industrial zone would create for Russia in the Arab region.”

According to the source, there are discussions around new ways to use the area designated for the Russian Industrial Zone. Some of the proposals being considered would exclusively allow Eurasian Economic Union states to invest in the zone. The union includes Russia and five former Soviet Union states, and during the joint press conference held after his official talks with Sisi, Putin proposed that Egypt also join the union.

In addition to Moscow’s hesitation, the Russian source adds that “officials are ill at ease” with “Egypt’s idea of how cooperation in the zone would be handled. It was the plan that the two industry ministries would be the two poles of cooperation. But the Egyptians are now floating the idea that the dealings be between Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry and the Suez Canal Authority, headed by Mamish. While the Russians would be happy to cooperate with Mamish’s authority, they believe that official cooperation should be between equivalent government ministries.”

According to Mamish’s comments, however, the Egyptian government is currently represented in the negotiations by the Trade and Industry Ministry.

Meanwhile, the issue of the Egyptian-Russian Dabaa nuclear power plant remains pending.

“I think Moscow has the impression that considerable sections of the Egyptian bureaucracy that are relevant to the project are not too eager about it, either in view of the cost or for other considerations that can be described, in summation, as eco-political,” the Russian source said.

Egypt’s Electricity and Renewable Energy Minister Mohamed Shaker and the head of Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom signed contracts for the construction of the Dabaa plant, which would be Egypt’s first nuclear power station, during Putin’s December visit, but no final agreements were concluded.

Last week, however, Electricity and Renewable Energy Ministry spokesperson Ayman Hamza announced that a delegation from the Russian company will arrive in Egypt soon to “finalize the preparations for the commencement of construction works,” according to the privately owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

According to the Russian diplomat, Moscow’s keenness on effective action on the Dabaa nuclear power plant is not only about restoring its former reputation as a nuclear technology power, which has yet to recover from the Chernobyl disaster. It is also, he says, that Dabaa is “one of several prospects for nuclear power plants that Russia is pursuing in the Middle East. There are ongoing talks with Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Putin has also signed actual contracts to start building a nuclear power plant in Turkey.”

Asmahan Soliman 

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