By Nicola Nasser*
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Egypt's Army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Feb. 13, 2014
(image by REUTERS/Mihail Metzel/RIA Novosti) DMCA
The recent two-day first official visit in forty years by an Egyptian defense minister to Russia of Egypt's strongman Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, accompanied by Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, was indeed an historic breakthrough in bilateral relations, but it is still premature to deal with or build on it as a strategic shift away from the country's more than three-decade strategic alliance with the United States.
The US administration sounds not really concerned with this controversy about an Egyptian strategic shift as much as with the Russian President Vladimir Putin's welcome of al-Sisi's expected candidacy for president.
"Egypt is free to pursue relationships with other countries. It doesn't impact our shared interests," said State Department deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, on this February 13.
The United States, which has been waging, by military invasion and proxy wars, a campaign of "regime changes" across the Middle East, was miserably hypocritical when Marie Harf invoked her country's "democratic" ideals to declare that her administration "don't think it's, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr. Putin to decide who should govern Egypt."
However, Pavel Felgenhauer , writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor on this February 13, described the visit as a " geopolitical shift" that "could, according to Russian government sources, "dramatically reorient international relations in the Middle East'." The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on the following day described it as an "historic breakthrough" in Egyptian-Russian relations and a "transformation in the strategic compass of Egyptian foreign policy from Washington to Moscow."
The main purpose of al-Sisi's and Fahmy's visit was to finalize an arms deal reportedly worth two to four billion US dollars, al-Ahram daily reported on February 13. The joint statement released after the meeting of both countries' ministers of defense and foreign affairs in Moscow on the same day announced also that the Russian capital will host a meeting of the Russian-Egyptian commission on trade and economic cooperation on next March 28.
This is serious business; it is vindicated also by the arrival in Cairo on this February 17 of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, Lieutenant General Victor Bondarev, heading a six-member team of his commanders, on a four-day visit, according to the Egyptian Almasry Alyoum online the following day.
Egypt is the biggest strategic prize for world powers in the Middle East. "Egypt -- with its strategic location, stable borders, large population, and ancient history -- has been the principal power of the Arab world for centuries, defining the movement of history there like no other," Germany's former Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer wrote on last July 26. No wonder then the flurry of speculations worldwide about whether Egypt's Russian pivot is or is not a strategic shift.
In the immediate proximity, this "new concern" has been " preoccupying Israel's strategists in recent weeks. They are beginning to worry about the high momentum" with which Putin is capitalizing on America's "hands off policy" in the Middle East, according to DEBKAfile report on February 16. Al-Sisi's trip to Moscow, which "put him on the road to the independent path he seeks" has "incalculable consequences" the report said, adding that "he is investing effort in building a strong regime that will promote the Nasserist form of pan-Arab nationalism, with Egypt in the forefront." "This policy may well bring Egypt into collision with the state of Israel," the report concluded.
Nonetheless, two former Israeli cabinet ministers of defense, namely Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Ehud Barak voiced support for al-Sisi. The first publicly supported his bid for presidency. Barak said that "the whole world should support Sisi." However, their voices seem to fall on deaf ears in WashingtonD.C., or sounds like it.
Both men's support is consistent with Israel's instructive official "silence" over the developments in Egypt, which is still committed to its thirty five --year old peace treaty with the Hebrew state. "Israel's main interest," according to Israeli officials and experts, quoted by The New York Times on last August 16, "is a stable Egypt that can preserve the country's 1979 peace treaty and restore order along the border in the Sinai Peninsula," which extends 270 kilometers (160 miles) from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea Israeli resort of Eilat.
Within this context can be interpreted Israel's closed eyes to the incursion of Egyptian tanks and warplanes into what is designated by the treaty as a "demilitarized" "Area C" of Sinai.
The Litmus Test
Herein is the litmus test to judge whether al-Sisi's eastward orientation and his supposed "Nasserist" loyalties indicate or not a strategic shift that trespasses the Israeli and US red line of Egypt's commitment to the peace treaty.