Sisi and Putin: Peas in an Eastern Pod?

02/20/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Egypt should serve as a reminder to Western governments that political interests are not the only driving force in shaping international alliances.

When Putin visited his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo last week, much was made of the economic and military ties being forged between the two nations. While there were significant developments that could be beneficial to both countries, what draws the two nations together lies far deeper than anything discernible from a shared photo-op.

The histories of the two lands bear striking similarities that continue to shape their populations' national identities. Each country was repeatedly invaded by outsiders over millennia; each had modernizing rulers that brought in alien but transformational ideas from the West; each eventually had a strongly nationalistic revolution that formed the basis of its modern view of itself; and each is the dominant nation in its region. As a result, both Egyptians and Russians have a superiority-inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West--they rely on Western ideas, goods and money, and at the same time chafe at that reliance.

The leadership of both nations can be remarkably bombastic, all the more so when floundering. Both the Egyptian and Russian populations find solace and dignity in a strongman leader--exhibit A in each case being Putin and Sisi themselves. And both nations dabbled with democracy after political upheaval, but then decided they preferred a more authoritarian hand at their helm.

In many ways, Sisi and Putin are versions of one another. They both have backgrounds in intelligence, Sisi's in the army and Putin's in the KGB, and they are both viewed by many (and likely themselves) as saviors who rescued their nations from chaos. To see them together, it becomes clear that they share an understanding that goes beyond historical and cultural similarities.

During Putin's visit to Eygpt last week, the two appeared to be in the throes of a full-on bromance. Sisi met his Slavic counterpart at the airport before whisking him off through streets festooned with posters of the Russian leader's face. They began their evening together at the Cairo Opera House, where they shared a special screening of a film about the history of Egyptian-Russian relations. The two then dined atop the Cairo Tower, enjoying a dazzling view of the Nile and the twinkling city lights below.

Putin was not devoid of his own sweeping gesture: he presented Sisi with a Kalashnikov AK-47.

But the visit was about far more than gifting and dining. The next day the two got down to business and emerged from their private meeting with some substantive developments to announce. For starters, Russia pledged to help build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, where power shortages plague the populace, and to provide training and research. The two nations also plan establish a free-trade zone, and Russia said it will build an industrial city near Egypt's new Suez Canal development.

Both nations are in dire need of an economic boost and, equally saliently, both would like to be able to reduce their reliance on Western money, Russia because it is suffering under international sanctions and Egypt because it has been bristling at criticisms of its human rights record, as well as what it perceives as U.S. support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Engagement between the two countries allows Sisi to demonstrate to the U.S. that he has other options for military and financial aid and Putin to show the West that he is not isolated, despite the cold shoulder he's getting from Europe.

The West has had nothing but trouble in trying to bring both Russia and Egypt to heel, and with Greece now threatening to tilt East, it appears the Occidental-Oriental chasm is growing even wider, a gap that could threaten Western influence in the Middle East. As powerful a force as realpoitik may prove to be -- for now, Egypt remains reliant on U.S. and European support, and can only take its love affair with Russia so far--the West, and the United States in particular, would do well to take into account the cultural factors that affect its global partners.

The U.S. has long held that Egypt is of the utmost strategic importance in securing American interests in the region. Last week's visit from Putin, paired with a new deal to buy fighter jets from France, shows that, while Egypt may not be able to escape the ties that bind it to the United States, Sisi is intent on reducing Egypt's reliance on the U.S. As of now, none of the Nile-side nation's flirtations pose a serious threat to its dependence on American hardware, but the U.S. would do well to take the events of last week as an early warning that it will take more than guns and helicopters to keep Egypt sweet.