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Russia and the Multipolar Tug-of-War over the ‘Arab Yugoslavia’

By Andrew KORYBKO (USA)

Russia and the Multipolar Tug-of-War over the ‘Arab Yugoslavia’

Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world, and correspondingly, it has always been a heavyweight in regional affairs. For nearly the past half century, from 1974 to 2013, the country was firmly under the command of the US, hampering its ability to craft an independent foreign policy. Since overthrowing Morsi, however, al-Sisi has embarked his country on the path of foreign policy diversification, even going so far as to cultivate ties with Russia. It is through this re-established Russian-Egyptian friendship that one of the most significant windows for positive regional transformation exists, and if Russia can successfully tug Egypt away from the US’ grasp and towards the embrace of the Multipolar World, then the country would take on the role of the ‘Arab Yugoslavia’.

New Friends are Silver and the Old Ones are Gold

Al Jazeera reports that the Soviet Union was Egypt’s “closest ally” under the rule of Nasser, extending from 1956 until 1970. This relationship embodied cultural, military, and economic ties, and the Aswan High Dam that provides half of Egypt’s electricity was built with Soviet assistance, creating a long-lasting physical monument to the two countries’ historic friendship. Despite this, the US’ courting of Sadat, Nasser’s successor, absolutely flipped the regional geopolitical calculation, turning Egypt from a Soviet ally to an eager American client state. Being built on money, this was not a genuine alliance and was destined to be upended one way or another. Ironically, it was the US’ own foreign policy follies that pushed Egypt away from this politically neo-colonial relationship and into the Multipolar System.

The Biggest Betrayal

America’s silver friendship with Egypt came to light during the 2011 Arab Spring events. In reality, this was a theater-wide Color Revolution engineered by Washington to retain hegemony over the entire region. Most of the leaders were getting old and had been in power for ages, meaning that they were ripe to either pass away or be removed by one way or another. This was especially true with Mubarak, who was reviled by a strong segment of the population that could easily be corralled into publicly organizing against him if the social infrastructure was properly arrayed.

The US decided to seize the initiative and instigate this regional transformation on its own in order to control the process of leadership transition. They sought to use the transnational Muslim Brotherhood in the same fashion as the Soviet Union used the Communist Party in order to bring a cabal into power that was under their sway, and this mission was a long time in the making. The US’ betrayal of Mubarak thus amounts to one of the riskiest foreign policy gambits of the post-Cold War era, and unsurprisingly, it failed when the people of Egypt counter-revolted and overthrew Morsi in July 2013.

Yugoslav Dreams

In the past year, Egypt’s foreign policy has undergone some interesting twists and changes. Although seeming somewhat erratic to the untrained eye, if looked at in the context of the Multipolar World, one can see Egypt beginning to recover an element of its formerly independent policies and try its hand at political positioning within the global system. If taken to its intended conclusion, this attempt signifies that Al-Sisi envisions his country as a 21st-century Yugoslavia in the Mideast.

The Russian Realignment

Working with regional power Saudi Arabia and also trying to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine is one thing, but once Egypt started sending feelers to Russia, a Great Power on the ascendance, this is when its multipolar orientation plans became serious and extra-regional. After all, the Saudis, Israelis, Americans mostly work hand-in-glove in the Mideast, so there is scant difference between them besides jockeying for various patrons and seeking to reap the positional benefits (which, however, cannot be understated in Egypt’s case).

In November, Egypt’s Foreign Minister visited Moscow, during which he stated that his country would like to return ties to “the same high level that used to exist with the Soviet Union”. Whether or not such an intense reorientation occurs to the degree that was stated, the fact that this goal was stated is hugely symbolic. Egypt, as was noted in the previous source, had relatively fallen out of favor with the US ever since the coup against Morsi, so this showed that Cairo is learning how to manuever within the Multipolar World to gain assistance from non-Western and Western-affiliated (Gulf) states. Al-Sisi even paid his first foreign trip abroad to Russia, showing that he is serious about playing his hand at this Yugoslav game.

 Firearms for Friends:

Vladimir Putin meeting with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Sochi on August 12, 2014.

Vladimir Putin meeting with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Sochi on August 12, 2014.

One of the most interesting developments to transpire is that Russia and Egypt are now on the cusp of a $3 billion arms deal (mostly dealing with air power) that will be financed by the Saudis and Emiratis. This shows the complex political depths that Egypt has gotten itself in to by allying with the Gulf states, and some analysts suspect that it is acting as a diplomatic proxy between Moscow and the Gulf. What can also be seen from this is that Russia and Egypt, regardless of who is paying for it, want to take their friendship to a higher military-technical level. Russia sees its arms trade with Egypt as the first official step in rebuilding the friendship that was stymied during the Cold War, and Egypt is readily agreeing to this.

 The Tourist Lifejacket:

What casual followers of Russia’s Mideast diplomacy typically do not know is that Russian tourists significantly contribute to Egypt’s economy, in some instances even acting as an economic lifejacket during civil unrest. Through these means, Russian tourists have become a valuable source of human diplomatic and economic capital that can be harnessed by Moscow to further increase ties with Cairo. As a matter of fact, it is expected that 3 million Russian tourists will visit Egypt by the end of this year, continuing to show the value of this type of human diplomacy, even if the participants are not cognizant of the larger role they play in political affairs. This economic link is what kept ties alive between Russia and Egypt throughout the 2000s, thereby functioning even as a diplomatic lifejacket for both parties and possibly setting the stage for cross-civilizational interest in one another and cultural cooperation in the future.

The Sanctions Spoiler:

With relations between Russia and the West bottoming out, Egypt now has the chance to play a part as one of the many non-Western sanction spoilers that can enter the Russian market. This would be a testament of its commitment to Multipolar politics and thumbing its nose at the US. Talks are already underway to increase Egyptian agricultural exports to Russia by 30%. The larger picture here is that the Russian counter-sanctions against the West are meant to stimulate the country’s macroeconomic development away from the West and towards the emerging multipolar centers of power, as is seen by China, Turkey, and Latin America rushing in to fill the Western product void, for example. With Egypt now joining the bandwagon, it is sending yet another strong signal to the West about the independence of its foreign policy.

 Towards a More Perfect Union:

Going along the tangent of Russia’s non-Western economic vision, Egypt is also in negotiations with the Eurasian Union to create a free trade zone. This would be a symbolic smack in Uncle Sam’s face if there ever was one, especially considering the previous billions in aid that was given to the country, but it is unlikely that the Saudis would take this too kindly since they have the long-term goal of bringing the country into the GCC. Regardless of what happens, just the fact that Egypt and the Eurasian Union are even considering cooperation, and that al-Sisi and Putin are speaking about it in Moscow and publicly releasing the information, shows that there is more to it than meets the eye. It may be part of Egypt’s new Yugoslavian pivot game, where it tries to play great benefactors off against one another for its grand gain, but it is doubtful that Putin, the most powerful man in the world, would waste his valuable time on someone or something that cannot amount to a tangible gain.

Concluding Thoughts

Al-Sisi’s latest visit to Moscow shows that the Egyptian-Russian relationship is moving back to the swing of things and that Cairo is playing its multipolar cards. Even though it still retains a privileged position with the US military and has received $20 billion in aid from the Gulf Kingdoms, Egypt is moving quickly towards Russia as a means of creating a triangular balance between these three actors. When comparing this current state of affairs to that in 2010 under Mubarak, the US has clearly lost its monopoly of influence over Egypt. In this fashion, al-Sisi truly strives to become the 21st-century Tito, adroitly moving between Washington, Riyadh, and Moscow to place his country in the best position possible. If Egypt can continue its transformation into the ‘Arab Yugoslavia’, the prospects for a truly Multipolar World will strikingly increase, and Russian cooperation is the rocket fuel to expediting this evolution.

Andrew Korybko is the American political correspondent of Voice of Russia who currently lives and studies in Moscow, exclusively for ORIENTAL REVIEW.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Gulam Says:

    I liked Mr. Korybko’s assessment that America’s relations with their “client” states are built entirely on money issues. After all the business of America is business, not friendship.Iraq under Saddam and Russian influence was one of the most prosperous Arab countries boasting the best cultural, education and health systems in that region. Saddam, like Tito of Yugoslavia, managed to keep the country unified but it is really sad to see the plight of both countries today – horribly divided.
    I fear that the same is soon to happen with Pakistan – a client state of America whose politician/ landowners, military brass and religious groups are being dangled on US/ western/ NATO strings. The fate of Pakistan would’ve been very similar to Yugoslavia and Iraq had it not been it’s nuclear prowess which the US has been trying very hard to strip for the past two decades. Pakistan was saved by the death of Richard Holbrooke – the architect of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Holbrooke’s mission was to be the architect of Pakistan’s disintegration.
    Wherever the US has exerted its influence, that country has made no progress but in fact it has descended into chaos. Iran has learnt the lesson very well after overthrowing Pahlavis in 1979. Their politicians are not corrupted.

  2. Red Storm Says:

    to gulam:Richard Holbrooke isn’t the architect of anything.that’s not how it works.Iran is a ‘rotten apple’ ready to fall to anyone’s hands.

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