Egyptian Defense Minister El-Sisi, whose power essentially makes him the head of state, made his first trip abroad. It wasn’t to the U.S., or even to Saudi Arabia. It was to Russia, where he was photographed wearing a jacket with a red star given to him by President Putin.
This single photograph sums up what has happened since the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled from power in Egypt. The Egyptian government immediately turned to Russia after the U.S. criticized the toppling of the Brotherhood and the subsequent crackdown on the Islamist movement. Egypt’s Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are also moving towards Russia in response to U.S. policy towards Iran.
This change in relations was music to the ears of President Putin, who said in a national address that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the century. When Egypt embraced Russia, the Egyptian Foreign Minister said, “We want to give a new impetus to our relations and return them to the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union.”
Both parties have agreed that they want to return to the days of the Cold War. That agreement was on display when Putin gave El-Sisi the jacket bearing a red star and he publicly wore it.
Putin signaled to the Egyptian delegation that his meeting with El-Sisi isn’t just about selling arms. It’s strategic positioning. He told them, “Egypt is the center of stability in the Middle East.”
The language of the Russian government is clearly designed to contradict that of the U.S. Putin zeroed in on the points of friction between the U.S. and Egypt.
The U.S. opposed the Egyptian military’s toppling of the Brotherhood and almost certainly opposes his inevitable presidential bid. Putin, on the other hand, came as close to endorsing El-Sisi’s candidacy as a foreign head of state can.
“I know that you, Mr. Defense Minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt. I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people,” Putin said.
When Egypt began its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S. protested and called for the release of Brotherhood prisoners. When Egypt banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, the U.S. expressed concern and said the Brotherhood should be included in the political process.
In contrast, Putin’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, said during El-Sisi’s trip that Russia stands behind Egypt’s “fight against terrorism.” Those words are broad, but they were specifically chosen for a reason. That’s the terminology that Egypt uses to define its struggle with the Brotherhood.
The sentiment was echoed by the Russian Agriculture Minister and Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Trade after their meeting. They said the bulk of the discussion focused on assisting Egypt’s campaign against terrorism, a reference to the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
“We will look into new ways with Egypt to fight this dangerous phenomenon,” the Russian official said.
Russian-Egyptian talks will resume on March 28 and a major arms deal, financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is expected to be finalized.
Due to the U.S. administration's policy of supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood instead of the more moderate interim government, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. would rather rely on the Russian red star than American stars and stripes.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.