ISTANBUL -- In a high-profile meeting in Moscow this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his full-fledged support for Egypt's military leader to run for president, a sign of yet another diplomatic tug of war between Russia and the United States in the region.
The nod of approval for Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi comes amid talks of a reported $2 billion Gulf-funded arms deal with Russia, as Egypt seemingly plays the United States and Russia off each other in a bid for aid. With Washington and Moscow battling for power in the Middle East, Egypt’s talks with Russia could further fuel U.S. foreign policy confusion.
"Putin is signaling that Sissi might be his kind of leader, which is a rebuke and alternative vision to the Western discourse on democracy and human rights in Egypt, and wants Egypt in his camp on those issues," said Amy Hawthorne, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
"The U.S. seeks stability in Egypt more than anything, and is concerned that Egypt's current path will not bring stability," she continued, alluding to Sissi’s relentless crackdown on Islamists, government critics, journalists and academics alike. "This is an obvious difference with Moscow's view, since Putin's method of dealing with dissent and insurgency is very similar to Egypt’s, i.e. harsh crackdown and constriction of political rights."
In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf responded to Putin’s public support for Sissi, saying: "Of course we don't endorse a candidate and don't think it's, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr Putin to decide who should govern Egypt. It’s up to the Egyptian people to decide."
The United States cut off part of its $1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt in October, prompting even more anti-American sentiment and what Russia sees as an opportunity to gain influence. Following the aid cut, top Russian and Egyptian officials began talks in Cairo that reportedly focused on potential arms deals. The long-standing friendship between the two countries had crumbled four decades earlier following a U.S.-brokered peace deal between Egypt and Israel. But now, with Sissi expected to make a bid for the presidency, it seems the two countries are flirting once again.
Yet despite the potential influx of money for Egypt's military, there are still no concrete signs of a deal.
"There is no confirmation of media reports that Gulf countries will finance the arms deal," said Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. "And it is unlikely that they will."
There is still lots of work to be done in repairing the volatile Egypt-Russia romance, particularly with regard to the country's stances on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's totalitarian regime. In-mid June, then Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said Egypt wouldn’t "abandon the Syrian people" in their fight for freedom, called for the implementation of a no-fly zone over Syria, and ordered the Syrian embassy in Cairo to be shuttered. Since the military assumed power in Egypt last summer, it has reopened the Syrian embassy and pro-Assad rhetoric has amplified, yet the country's position still does not align with that of the vehemently pro-Assad Russia.
The United States and Russia are also bucking heads over Syria, as a second round of peace talks comes to an end with little progress made. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama blasted Russia’s support for the regime: "They cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians," he said. "It is not just the Syrians that are responsible; the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution."
El Amrani doubts that Egypt’s tense relationship with Russia will be repaired enough to foster serious arms sales and tip the scales of the U.S.-Russia battle for power in the Middle East. Even if the arms deal does come to fruition, Russia is no substitute for American aid, he said.
"There has been much talk of rapprochement with Russia in the last year," he said. "Even under Morsi, but nothing concrete. Russia will not finance its arms sales to Egypt the way the U.S. does. So not much to come out of this."