A meeting of minds in Cairo: Billion-dollar arms deal on table as Putin and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seek closer trade links and alliance against 'terror'

Vladimir Putin will have much to talk about with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and will recognise a kindred spirit in an autocratic nationalist ruler buffeted by Western criticism, writes Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk
Monday 09 February 2015 22:44 GMT
President Sisi welcomes Vladimir Putin to Cairo on Monday night
President Sisi welcomes Vladimir Putin to Cairo on Monday night

Vladimir Putin arrived in Egypt last night for talks with his Egyptian opposite number on new roubles-only trade deals, the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of guns and tanks, and quite probably a new “anti-terrorist” alliance of the kind Russia already boasts in Syria.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi personally escorted Mr Putin from Cairo airport to an Egyptian Opera House performance of extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Verdi’s Aida, a combination of Tsarist bourgeois fantasy and ancient Egyptian myth that might reflect the characters of both men.

Egyptians walk past posters celebrating the arrival in Cairo yesterday of Vladimir Putin for a two-day official visit

Their first meeting on Tuesday will be partly ceremonial but will by all accounts go well, for the Russian president has exhibited a dark contempt for all things “Islamist” and finds common cause in ex-Field Marshal, President and national “Saviour” al-Sisi.

After crushing Muslim fighters in Chechnya, Mr Putin supports Bashar al-Assad’s ferocious war against the "Islamic State" in Syria and will be more than happy to put his arm around the chubby Egyptian whose courts have been sentencing Muslim Brotherhood members to the scaffold by the hundred. Mr Sisi has met Mr Putin before, in Moscow, and a Russian leader known for his cynicism can only enjoy meeting a military autocrat who was elected president after staging a successful coup d’etat against a previously elected president. Even the old Soviet Union could never quite achieve this.

Not that the age of “fraternal relations” felt that far away in Cairo. Al-Ahram, the Egyptian government’s most obedient newspaper, ran a full-page encomium on the Russian president at the weekend – “Putin, hero of this era”, ran the grovelling headline – which might have welcomed Khruschev when he visited in 1964. In true politburo fashion, the Sisi government swamped central Cairo streets with posters of their Russian guest, each carrying “Welcome” in Arabic, Russian and English. But the world should not imagine Egyptians to be as lickspittle as the posters or the Al-Ahram headline imply. For in Cairo, they call Mr Putin the “Tha’aleb” – “The Fox” – not just because Arab children love animal stories, but because the Russian president’s high cheek bones and narrow eyes remind them of an animal which can outwit a larger and more blundering creature of the forest.

The latter’s role has been ably filled by the United States, whose flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood before Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011, its sultry embrace of the Brotherhood’s president Mohamed Morsi, and its stilted expressions of condemnation after Mr Sisi’s anti-Morsi coup, have opened Egypt’s doors to Mother Russia for the first time since the late Anwar Sadat chucked Soviet military personnel out of the country in 1972. The beauty of it all is that both leaders want the same thing – to emerge with a new ally after suffering the slings and arrows of Western criticism for their bloody behaviour. The Egyptian president oversaw the shooting massacre of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters in 2013. The Russian president oversaw the bloody occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine a year later. They will have much to talk about.

President al-Sisi his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin attended a concert at the Egyptian capital's Opera House on Monday night

They can discuss Washington’s delayed weapons deliveries to Egypt, for example, its withholding of military aid, and the collapse of the so-called “strategic dialogue” between the US and Egypt with which Messrs Sadat and Mubarak used to preen themselves. Why, there’s even talk of Mr Putin wanting to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, something which even Mr Mubarak regarded with a mixture of financial concern and well-founded scientific fear.

As Western sanctions on the Putin regime took effect last year, Egypt offered to increase agricultural exports to Russia by 30 per cent. Bilateral trade, Mr Putin told Al-Ahram, was now $4.5 bn per annum.

More important right now, Moscow’s estimated $3.5bn arms deal last year and a new bilateral trade agreement to be settled in roubles rather than dollars – a proposal Mr Putin made in the ever-servile Al-Ahram – provide a suitable foundation for a new “anti-terror” treaty between Russia and Egypt. Since Mr Sisi has turned his back on the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies in Gaza, Israel will have no complaints. And since Mr Putin has demonstrated he has no qualms about the brutalities committed by his Syrian ally, a few thousand broken bodies in the Egyptian Islamist camp are not going to keep “the fox” awake at night.

Mr Sisi will remember that Bashar al-Assad himself sent a congratulatory telegram to him when he crushed the Brotherhood, and Mr Putin will be content if he can bring Egypt into a triple Cairo-Damascus-Moscow alliance against “terror”; given the flurry of self-congratulatory but largely undeserved praise which the US is heaping on itself for bombing Isis, the Russian leader might well appear a more dependable partner in the war against “terror” than Washington.

Russia and America have always suffered an addiction to obedient military rulers; and Mr Putin, who only retired from the KGB with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel – against Mr Sisi’s Field Marshal status – understands all too well how a “deep state” works. Patriotism, nationalism and corruption are a potent blood group for autocratic survival in the Arab world.

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