The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Since 2014, Sisi and Putin have brought Egyptian and Russian interests into closer alignment. While Egypt wants to maintain its strategic relationship with the US, it desires to diversify its sources of support. It is in Israel’s interest that America maintains its influence in Egypt, and that the common Egyptian and Russian effort in Libya will prevail over Turkey’s influence.

Introduction

In February 2014, Egypt’s leader Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi – still military chief and not yet president – flew to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The noticeably amicable talks came as relations between Egypt and the United States, its longtime backer, were showing signs of significant strain. The visit marked the beginning of an era of increasingly close ties between Cairo and Moscow.

Still, although Egypt and Russia have moved forward in sensitive areas – including arms deals and contracts for civilian nuclear facilities – since 2014, it would be wrong to conclude that Sisi is trying to phase out American support. Instead, Sisi’s moves should be understood as a calculated message to Washington, and a nuanced attempt to increase its leverage over the US while maintaining and even improving ties. This comes against the background of tensions in recent years.

The actions of the US administration during the 2011 January revolution – mainly President Barack Obama’s statements against Hosni Mubarak and the US reaction to the overthrow of his successor Mohamed Morsi – were perceived by the military leadership as an act of disloyalty to an ally that faithfully served US regional interests. This sentiment could be witnessed in the deteriorating official discourse about the US, and the conspiracy theories about America helping the Muslim Brotherhood rise to power that raged in the public discourse.

Moreover, Egypt’s diversification of its sources of support is also linked to common interests with Russia on key issues about which Cairo’s perspectives somewhat diverge from Washington’s – stabilization in Syria (where Sisi’s views differ from those of his Saudi and American allies), and active support for Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, an issue of some importance for Israel.

This article outlines the downturn in US-Egypt relations since 2011, the strategic cooperation with Russia that has developed since Sisi’s February 2014 visit to Moscow, and what these mean for US-Egypt relations and for regional stability. It examines these issues in the context of the competition between the US and Russia. While Egypt may draw tactical benefits from the Russian connection, the prospect does arise (as the Turkish case has demonstrated), that Egypt’s policies could lead to a backlash in Washington – despite Trump’s friendship towards Sisi – and push the US to increase its pressure on Cairo to halt its arms deals with Russia.

The Brewing Crisis: Egyptian Turmoil and US Policy

Washington’s goodwill has been central to Egyptian policy for nearly five decades. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s strategic decision to move from the Soviet to the US orbit, make peace with Israel, and embrace the Infitah (“openness”, moving away from state socialism) policy at home, caused a rupture with Moscow, a longtime ally.  By the end of the 1970s, as the peace process with Israel gained steam, the US was providing significant military and economic assistance to Egypt. Since then, bipartisan support for aid to Egypt has become a fixture of U.S. policy. Subsequent administrations, as well as Congress, saw it as an investment in regional stability, rooted in close ties with the Egyptian military and vital in maintaining the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.1

What gave rise to a more nuanced attitude, in both Cairo and Washington, were questions of political legitimacy and democracy. When he came into office in 2009, Obama sought to forge a new relationship with the Arab world. He believed that moves like his June 2009 speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University – in which he sought a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect” – would undermine the appeal of anti-Western sentiment and violent extremism. He also believed that Arab democracy and social change can and should be part of the answer, and that non-violent political Islam (i.e., the Brotherhood) was therefore a legitimate player.2 This set the stage for the re-evaluation of the relationship, on both sides of the water.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians took to the streets to demonstrate against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Within weeks he stepped down, and power was handed over – with popular consent – to a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Against the advice of many senior advisors, Obama embraced the protesters’ demands for Mubarak’s speedy removal from office. The warning to the Egyptian military that aid would be cut off if they activate emergency procedures to restore order was seen by the military leadership in Egypt as an act of betrayal against a long-standing ally. This soon led to tensions.

In February 2012, the interim Egyptian government announced that 19 Americans – including the son of a cabinet secretary – would be put on trial, facing five years in prison for working for American NGOs that offered support, funding and election monitoring for Egypt’s transition. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured the Egyptian administration behind the scenes, and the case was eventually moved from criminal court to one that handled misdemeanors. Things only deteriorated from there. On September 11, 2012, in response to an American satire film that denigrated Muhammad in the eyes of many Egyptians, protestors stormed the US embassy and tore down the American flag. Security forces didn’t prevent the attack.

To understand Sisi’s perspective on U.S. policy once he took power, it is important to recall that the Obama Administration legitimized the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi to the presidency in 2012. This was hailed as the first democratic elections in Egypt since the Free Officer’s Revolution in July 1952, and the first freely elected president ever. While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lobbied to convince Washington that Morsi represented a major threat to US interests in the region, and that the Turkish-Qatari alliance backing the MB was a destabilizing factor in the Middle East, there were key players in Washington who thought otherwise. This in turn was bound to cause some tensions in US-Egyptian relations.

The Obama Administration’s support for the Arab Spring uprisings was marked by internal disagreements over attitudes towards the Brotherhood. Questions were raised over the nature of political Islam’s threat to regional partners and US interests, the wisdom of fidelity to autocratic allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the likelihood of achieving democratic change in Egypt and the region. A significant school of thought argued that the MB should be seen as the antidote to the likes of al-Qaeda – which only exacerbated the fears of those Egyptian forces who feared the consolidation of MB power.

On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military took over the country in a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood regime headed by Morsi, who was removed from office and arrested. The military made its move exactly one year after Morsi won the presidential election. It crushed the opposition, culminating in the August 14 killing of as many as 1,000 demonstrators in the Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyyah quarter, and mass arrests of MB leaders and activists. The Egyptian courts would later outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood organization, freezing its assets and prohibiting affiliated groups.3

Obama condemned the military intervention and called for the restoration of democratic order. He ordered his administration to review US aid to Egypt, although Washington was careful not to define the overthrow of Morsi as a coup, because of the legal consequences it would entail (under US law the government must suspend foreign aid – $1.3 billion a year in this case – if an elected leader is ousted in a coup).4

Again, deep divisions ran through the US government as it struggled to settle on a policy.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes contended that if the White House fails to acknowledge the coup and ignores reality, it will risk losing its credibility. But others in the administration welcomed the return to military rule. Secretary of State John Kerry argued that Morsi’s removal was not a coup but was a case of Sisi bowing to public will and acting to save Egypt (there were, indeed, huge anti-Morsi demonstrations on June 30, 2013). He maintained that if the US defines it as a coup it will lose any leverage it has, and other countries will fill the void. The military and the State Department agreed that Egypt was too important to jeopardize, and that Russia and China would be the ultimate winners if the US broke ties with Sisi government.5

Despite airing public criticism, the Obama Administration ultimately decided to work with the new regime, with important restrictions. Although the US didn’t cut foreign aid, it did decide to suspend deliveries of F-16 jet fighters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, as well as $260 million in aid to the Egyptian army. Washington also called off the biennial “Bright Star” joint maneuvers between US forces and their Egyptian counterparts.

The State Department declared that the freeze was not permanent and would only remain in effect until a democratically elected civilian government emerged through free and fair elections. Cairo seemed rather unfazed by the move, bolstered by $12 billion from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, as well as by Saudi King Abdullah’s commitment to match any aid withheld by Washington.6

The suspension of aid was seen by Egyptian authorities as interference in its domestic affairs, more evidence that America was not to be fully trusted, had compromised Egypt’s national-security interests and could even endanger the regime’s stability. Egypt’s foreign affairs spokesman lashed out at the American decision, charging publicly that it “raises serious questions about US readiness to provide stable strategic support to Egyptian security programs amid threats and terrorism challenges it has been facing.”7

A clear sign of Egypt’s displeasure came on 22 July 2014, when Kerry was humiliated by being searched with a hand-held electronic scanner in front of the cameras before entering a meeting with Sisi, now president of Egypt.8 The incident sent the message that Egypt doesn’t fully trust its main supporter, and wasn’t afraid to express its displeasure.

In the face of these tensions, the military leadership settled on a strategy of diversifying Egypt’s military, economic, and diplomatic partners, while maintaining the vital ties with the US. The challenge was how to maintain US foreign aid, advanced weaponry acquisitions, and particularly the delivery of maintenance and follow-on American equipment upon which Egypt’s army and air force depend, as well as hold major annual military exercises, while shifting toward closer strategic cooperation with Russia.

Sisi Goes to Moscow

Cairo thus formulated a strategy that aimed to limit its dependency on the US by expanding diplomatic, military and economic ties with an array of partners. The ruling military group didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of January 2011, handing the regime’s fate over to Washington and its misguided interpretation of democratic values. Sisi, like Mubarak, chose stability over democracy, using a range of oppressive measures to eliminate opposition and block foreign interference and influence in domestic affairs.9 The regime sought to rearrange Egypt’s alliances within an increasingly multipolar Middle East while maintaining American foreign aid and crucial military support.

Sisi’s first official visit of Russia in February 2014 marked the beginning of Cairo’s strategic dialogue with the Kremlin. For the Egyptian military leadership, the lessons from the American role in Mubarak’s downfall, and Washington’s contribution to the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule, couldn’t be ignored.

Putin’s support for the future Egyptian president wasn’t conditioned on any moral values and came with no judgment on domestic affairs. The Russian president effectively endorsed the defense minister for president and saw him as a potential long-term strategic ally. For Moscow, Sisi’s visit was an opportunity to rekindle relations – and while there was little prospect of a return to the USSR’s historic position in Egypt, anything that could be perceived as reducing American influence and prestige was consistently welcomed by Moscow. Putin gave el-Sisi a black jacket with a red star on it, which he wore during the trip. The picture circulated in the media and emphasized the message that the two leaders had a personal connection, and that the relationship between the countries was headed toward significant upgrades. 10

Putin’s reciprocal visit to Cairo in February 2015 shaped the strategic framework between the countries that has been in place ever since. The visit demonstrated publicly the chemistry between the leaders and included a special screening of a film about the history of Egyptian-Russian relations. The two then dined atop the Cairo Tower, and Putin presented Sisi with an AK-47 rifle. Egypt was clear in its desire to renew strategic relations with Russia and emphasized their common history. Putin expressed his vision of deepened economic and military cooperation. Moscow sought to exploit Egypt’s need for arms in the wake of America’s reaction to the military coup and the oppression of Morsi supporters (in Russia, the MB is listed as a terrorist organization). The visit ended with a Russian commitment to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, and to provide technological training and research. This agreement creates Egyptian dependency on Russia for a very long time, as the lifetime of a nuclear reactor is over 50 years. The agreement served to cement plans to strengthen military ties and broaden their scope. The leaders also agreed to establish a free trade zone and a Russian industrial area near the new Suez Canal.11

The agreement came together because of mutual strategic interests – Moscow and Cairo shared a pressing need to boost their economies and to break out from the looming economic crisis. They also sought to reduce their economic reliance on the Western financial system – Russia because of the international sanctions regime following the annexation of Crimea, and Egypt because of growing international criticism of its human rights record. The fledgling relationship (and a parallel outreach to China) also signaled to Washington that Egypt could create new military and economic cooperation, and that the US needs to reconsider its policy. Russia, for its part, showed the West that it was not isolated, and that Russia – despite its limitations, especially economic – is still a power that should be reckoned with on the international stage.

A more dramatic demonstration soon came elsewhere in the region. In September 2015, Russia deployed forces to Syria to rescue its ally Bashar al-Assad from military collapse. As Russia’s Middle Eastern strategy unfolded amid increased involvement in Syria, Turkey, Libya, Egypt and the Gulf countries, it sought to present a distinct and reliable alternative to US influence. The Obama Administration eventually restored military aid to Egypt in March 2015, but that didn’t change Sisi’s strategy. The events surrounding the UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2334, during which Kerry effectively acted in a manner which painted Egypt as less caring for the Palestinians then Malaysia and New Zealand, added little to the trust between Cairo and Washington.

Even the Trump Administration, which Egypt viewed far more favorably than Obama’s, put on hold $195 million in military aid and cut $96 million in economic aid in August 2017, largely in response to congressional pressure over human rights issues and Egypt’s military ties with North Korea. This further affirmed Cairo’s belief that the US wasn’t a reliable partner because of the deep cultural and political differences. Diversifying strategic supporters was a matter of national security for Egypt, but   was also a matter of national pride to show that the country can’t be taken for granted and is beholden to no one.12 “The strategic cooperation between Russia and Egypt opens a new chapter for the relationship between the countries,” said Sisi’s spokesman, emphasizing the importance of encouraging Russian investment in the country.13 On the sidelines of the G20 in 2019, Sisi emphasized that “Egypt aspires to deepen the relationship with Russia in all areas.”14

Boosting Strategic Ties with Russia

In February 2015, Egypt finalized a $3.5 billion arms deal with Russia, paid for with the Saudi aid. The deal marked the first change in Egyptian policy as part of its realignment strategy.

It was a nuclear pact that was the cornerstone of the new strategic relationship. The decision to construct the el-Dabaa nuclear plant in the Matrouh governorate was not new, as the Egyptian government had been trying to advance the project since the 1980s, with little success. The initial agreement was finalized in November 2015, under which Russia agreed to build and finance Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Russia committed to build and operate the four third-generation reactors, including fuel supply, used fuel, training and development of regulatory infrastructure. 15

The overall cost of the project was estimated at $28.75 billion. The Russians loaned 85% of the cost with repayments stretching over 22 years, starting from 2029. This demonstrated Russia’s motivation to close the deal. The project was an opportunity for Moscow to regain long term influence and leverage over Egypt’s leadership. The nuclear agreement opened the door for increasingly close relations between military and political leaders on both sides. The continuing negotiations, the construction process, the ongoing maintenance of the plants, and research and development represents an opportunity for continuous long-term strategic engagement and leverage.

In the energy sector, Russian oil giant Rosneft bought a 30-percent stake in Egypt’s Zohr gas field for $1.125 billion in 2017, becoming a key player in developing one of the largest Mediterranean gas deposits.16 The move was part of Russia’s response to the US-supported EastMed natural gas pipeline, a project involving Israel, Cyprus and Greece, with some Egyptian involvement.  Russia sees the EastMed as a strategic threat to its position as Europe’s natural gas supplier. In addition to strengthening its ties with Turkey and using various levers to pressure the EastMed partners, the Zohr purchase is a central part of Russia’s efforts to shore up its position as a dominant player in the natural gas arena.17

Egypt and Russia signed a 50-year agreement to build a Russian Industrial Zone (RIZ) in the new Suez Canal Economic Zone in May 2018. The zone is slated to be built on an area of 5.25 million square meters at a cost of $7 billion, meant to increase trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. It is scheduled to be completed in 2021, and will include four separate industrial zones complete with docks along the canal. To date, Toyota has signed a $160 million deal to use storage facilities there, and Dubai World is also expected to make a significant investment in the project.18

Cairo assessed it will attract up to $70 billion in investments and create 35,000 jobs. For Moscow, facing ongoing US and EU sanctions, the project would provide a hub from which to export goods to overseas markets – especially to the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.19

In October 2018 Egypt signed a strategic partnership agreement with Russia, which Sisi described as a new chapter in relations between Moscow and Cairo. The agreement encouraged the deepening economic, security and military ties between the countries. 20

Russia’s goals in the strategic partnership are clear. It seeks to break free from international isolation imposed after its takeover of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. The partnership would also grant Russia influence over the Suez Canal, through which about 13% of world trade by volume passes. It would have a say over contracts with major corporations and become a major player in business done along the canal.  Russia would also have a stronger hand in Libya, given Egypt’s proximity to Russian mercenaries and proxies fighting there, a country with important gas and oil assets and a strategic location in the center of the Mediterranean.

Diversifying Arms Suppliers

The renewal of military collaboration between Egypt and Russia – the core of the bilateral relationship – had a historical symbolism that many regional and international players didn’t miss. For most of the Cold War, Egypt’s military was a Soviet client. Every war with Israel was fought with weapons that were predominantly Russian. But today’s strategic context is fundamentally different. The magnitude of the regional and internal challenges jeopardizes the regime’s stability, and further emphasizes Egypt’s need for support. In this context Cairo is not likely to shift from American to Russian sponsorship.

Egyptian political and military leaders insisted that they had no interest in downgrading relations with Washington and acknowledged that Egypt cannot replace its reliance on US weapons. Still, Cairo expressed strong support for diversifying its weapons suppliers. The absence of conditions on purchasing Russian weapons made them even more attractive, as Washington has withheld weapons pending political reform.21

The Egyptian army under Mubarak relied on advanced American equipment, with a smaller set of older Soviet bloc designs that remained in the force. Sisi wanted to alter this balance, without driving the US away. Furthermore, the military tried to avoid a regional strategic disadvantage because of advanced weapon systems that America sold to Israel and other allies but not to Cairo. Egypt has repeatedly been turned down in its attempts to purchase the American F-15 Eagle. Egypt was also denied AIM-120 air-to-air missiles for its F-16s, meaning that the EAF would face a major operative disadvantage in aerial combat against other neighboring countries, such as Israel. 22

Egypt’s began upgrading its aerial warfare capabilities with Russian systems with the $3.5 billion acquisition of the S-300V4 surface-to air missile system between 2015-2017. Cairo also purchased 46 MiG-29M medium weight multirole fighters for $2 billion. These were accompanied by purchases of complementary short-range air defense platforms and advanced long-range air-to-air missiles. Egypt also bought two French Mistral class amphibious assault ships that were originally built for Russia, but whose delivery was cancelled after the Ukraine crisis. In addition to the $700 million deal for the ships, Egypt purchased 46 Kamov Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopters from Moscow, designed for the Mistrals. 23

The US tried to compete with Russia and France by offering Egypt in the beginning of 2018 a Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). The agreement would give Egypt advanced American weapons systems, including GPS and guided missiles. It grants America full access to Egyptian military facilities, communication and infrastructure where CISMOA-related weaponry is stored and used, as well possession of coding devices. The US offered Egypt a CISMOA in the 1990s, but Egypt refused, claiming it would infringe on its national sovereignty. Egypt believed that the agreement would give the US control over the equipment, and access to sensitive security information. In January 2018 the agreement was finally signed, and theoretically it allows Egypt to purchase the advanced weapon systems it desires, such as F15s, precision GPS missiles and more.24

The first military deal to emerge from the CISMOA was approved in November 2018 – ten AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for an estimated cost of $1 billion. According to the Egyptian press, the deal was approved in order to support counterterror efforts in Sinai, to aid in protecting the Multinational Forces and Observers mission in Sinai, and to secure Israel’s border. But it hit a snag. In March 2019, a key senator in the Senate’s appropriation committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, called for the sale to be halted until Cairo pays compensation to American survivors of a mistaken 2015 airstrike that killed 12 in the Egyptian western desert. Sisi’s government didn’t respond to the compensation claim, but Egyptian media expressed its disdain at Leahy trying to connect two issues it saw as entirely unrelated.25 Senior figures in Washington continue to push for cuts to American aid to Egypt. In February 2020, Leahy and Senate colleague Chris Van Hollen urged Secretary Pompeo to withhold military aid to Egypt over the death of dual US-Egyptian citizen Mustafa Kassem. The State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs also pushed for the suspension of military assistance.26

Egypt’s capacity to make major weapons purchases is limited without aid from Gulf allies. Furthermore, the cold war is over, and Russia won’t give away military hardware for free. Still, from the American perspective there are two major concerns in the tightening ties: Russian military access and basing rights in Egypt, and Egypt receiving advanced weaponry that are under congressional sanctions.

In November 2017, an agreement was reached between Egypt and Russia that allowed for the use of each other’s airspace and military airbases. The five-year deal, which can be extended by mutual agreement, has raised concerns in Washington. If implemented, it would reinforce Russia’s military presence in the Middle East and create a potential launching pad for wider Russian operations in North Africa.27 It would be another step in Russia’s process of building its military power in the region, as it has already done in Syria and is beginning to do in Libya. Bases in Egypt would allow Russia to dominate the outcome of the Libyan Civil War, and cement ties with Egypt’s powerful security apparatus.

The second issue threatening to spark a crisis between the US and Egypt is Cairo’s purchase of dozens of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes. Egypt turned to Moscow for the Su-35 after being rebuffed in repeated attempts to participate in the F-35 program. The deal was enacted as early as late 2018 with delivery expected to start in 2020-2021, according to anonymous senior officials in the Russian defense sector.28

The US response was swift. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned Cairo of possible sanctions if it moves forward with the purchase. The rebuke was unusual, and the underlying message was clear – arms deals of this sort with Moscow would complicate future security assistance and weapons purchases from the US.29

The Egyptian officials responded that Egypt is an “independent state that does not take orders from any other countries with regard to its foreign and domestic policies”. The Russian response was blunter, as Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s defense committee, stated that the US threats of sanctions is an aggressive attempt to block competition in the arms market, meant to promote Washington’s economic and geopolitical interests.30

America’s Courses of Action

“Could Russia Flip Egypt?” asks Russia expert Anna Borshchevskaya,31 arguing that American policymakers’ blindness may soon rob the United States of one of its key Arab allies. This approach misreads Egypt’s intentions. Cairo is under no illusion that it can or should return to its Cold War posture toward the US. Instead, Sisi and his administration have taken a hard look at the course of US-Egypt relations since the Tahrir Square protests and have recognized that American aid comes with strings attached. Egypt will both have access to more aid and weaponry, they decided, and increase their leverage over the US by drawing closer to Russia.

Despite Egypt’s desire to maintain close ties with the US, Cairo won’t change its strategy of diversifying arms sponsors, and attaining advanced weapon systems that the US refuses to sell, even if it leads to another crisis. The Su-35 deal instead of the F-35 as the EAF’s future warplane is the perfect example of this strategy. It is likely that the Egyptian government will proceed with Russian arms deals as leverage over the US. If it can’t have the F-35, Cairo prefers a manageable crisis with the Trump Administration while gaining the Su-35s, rather than being relegated to regional military inferiority without them. Other factors besides rational interests could influence outcomes here. If the US continues to threaten Egypt, national honor and the popular anti-American sentiment could play a major role in the decision-making process concerning the Su-35.

There also seems to be a genuine closeness between Sisi and Putin. The warming ties are based on a convergence of interests as well and are unlikely to change in the near future. For Russia, they offer a significant boost to its strategy in the Middle East – power projection, increased leverage over key players, renewed arms sales, participation in major oil and gas deals, and a way around sanctions and economic isolation. Egypt is an important piece in this puzzle.  The Su-35 deal can cause a major bilateral crisis, like the Turkey-US controversy over the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense system. It is possible, according to Andrew Miller, National Security Council director for Egypt and Israel military issues in the Obama Administration, that the Egyptian leadership does not see the US threats as credible, based on a long history of US threats and even suspension of aid, but ultimately it has always capitulated.32

America must make a choice. It could reassess its stance toward Egypt and prioritize maintaining its dominance there. This will not only ensure the smooth continuation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty but will also allow the US to restore its monopoly in the arms market and over defense issues. It can do this while preserving the quantitative edge of its other allies in the region.

Alternatively, Washington can continue to voice important concerns over human rights and democracy in the region, maintaining limits on military aid, without pushing Egypt too far toward autocratic Russia. Within this framework, it can offer certain cutting-edge systems to Egypt, with demands for access to computer networks and bases for repairs and maintenance. The 2018 CISMOA is one such pact in the encrypted communications realm.

In the context of competition with Russia and China, the US still has the upper hand with a variety of coercive tools at its disposal. One of these tools is the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that gives the president a range of sanctions to choose from, including cutting off access to loans and denying US visas.33 With Egypt, the $1.3 billion in annual foreign aid and the continuing military support strengthen America’s leverage.

The Coronavirus outbreak presents both dangers and opportunities for the United States in Egypt. As China has turned the corner on the outbreak in its country and positioned itself as a global source of medical supplies and aid, it could use the crisis to bolster ties in Egypt as well. On the other hand, if the US decides to extend a hand to Cairo and offer expertise, money, and supplies to help Egypt weather the outbreak, improved ties between the countries could emerge.

Israel has a direct national security interest in America maintaining its influence in Egypt. America supports the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with supervising the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, with funding, equipment, and manpower, in addition to working directly with Jerusalem and Cairo to ensure the force is protected and the terms of the treaty are respected. Through these activities, the US strengthens Annex I, “Protocol Concerning Israeli Withdrawal and Security Arrangements,” which is the heart of the peace treaty. Israel also has an interest in Egypt’s internal stability.

Recently, however, the US Department of Defense has been considering reducing its manpower commitment to the MFO over budgetary concerns and reordering of priorities. 34 Such a move could have long-term implications on the MFO’s ability to maintain the terms of the treaty and even on the demilitarization of the Sinai. Growing Russian influence in Egypt, alongside reduced American presence, could undermine international commitment to the treaty as well in the medium-long term. In addition, a weakening of American levers in the region could damage US-Egyptian coordination over issues like Syria, the Trump peace plan, and the Palestinian issue.

The autocratic and sometimes brutal nature of the Egyptian regime is no secret. But in the Middle East, there are rarely ideal options. Given Egypt’s size, location and military capabilities, it cannot be pushed away by the US without serious repercussions. If the US adopts an overly confrontational policy toward the Sisi administration, it could strengthen Russia’s strategic foothold in the region, and weaken America’s posture in the Middle East, with serious implications for Israel.  Moreover, in the looming confrontation over the future of Libya – given the far-reaching nature of Turkey’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean – Israel’s interests are closely aligned with those of Egypt (and indeed, of Russia). It is important to generate broader understanding of this issue in Washington and at the level of American public opinion.


[1] “Congressional Research Service: Egypt: Background and US Relations”, November 21, 2019.

[2] “Text: Obama Speech in Cairo”, The New York Times, June 4, 2009.

[3] El-Youm el-Sabaa, August 30, 2014.

[4] David Kirkpatrick, “The White House and the Strongman”, The New York Times, July 27, 2018.

[5] David Kirkpatrik, Into The Hands of the Soldiers, (New York, 2018), 241- 245.

[6] Jim Lobe, “US Suspends More Military Aid to Egypt, Arousing Skepticism”, Global Issues, October 10, 2013.

[7]”Cairo condemns Washington for suspending military aid”, Ahram Online, October 10, 2013.

[8] BBC News, “Egypt media applaud tough security check on John Kerry”, 23 July 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28444187

[9] Hamza Hendawi, “In Egypt election, Sisi imposes stability over Democracy”, AP News, March 20, 2018.

[10] Jamie Dettmer, “el-Sisi is the Putin of the Nile”, Daily Beast, February 22, 2014.

[11] Monique el-Faizy,” Sisi and Putin: Peas in an Eastern Pod?” HuffPost, February 20, 2015.

[12] Gregory Afandilian, “Putin in Egypt as the United Stated Retreats”, Arab Center Washington DC, December 19, 2017.

[13]  “Russia and Egypt Agree upon a Comprehensive Partnership and a Strategic Cooperation Agreement,” Almadayeen.net, October 17, 2018 (Arabic).

[14] Editorial, “The Egyptian President Confirmed Egypt’s Aspirations to Deepen the Relationship in all Areas,” Al-Shuruk, December 27, 2020.

[15] “Nuclear Power in Egypt”, World Nuclear Association,  January 2020.

[16] “Roseneft closes a deal to buy 30% stake in Egypt’s Zohr gas field”, Ahram Online, October 9, 2017.

[17] Nour Samaha, “US-Russia rivalry in the Middle East is now spilling over into the Mediterranean Sea”, Euroactiv, August 19, 2019.

[18] Patrick Werr, “Suez Canal Economic Zone to set up investment arm”, Reuters, November 17, 2019.

[19] Shaul Shay, “Russia and Egypt signed a “comprehensive cooperation and strategic partnership agreement”, IPS publications IDC, October 2018. See also – Boris Zilberman and Romany Shaker, “Russia and Egypt are Growing Closer”, The American Interest, June 6, 2018.

[20] Samuel Ramani, “Sochi summit highlights growing Russia-Egypt ties”, Middle East Institute, November 5, 2019.

[21] David Schenker and Eric Trager, “Egypt’s Arms Deal with Russia: Potential Strategic Costs”, The Washington Institute, March 4, 2014.

[22]  “After Decades Refusing Egypt the F-15, U.S. Demands Cairo Terminate Plans to Acquire Russia’s Su-35,” Military Watch Magazine, April 10, 2019. https://militarywatchmagazine.com/article/after-decades-refusing-egypt-the-f-15-u-s-demands-cairo-terminate-plans-to-aquire-russia-s-su-35. See also – Defense Industry Daily, All Over Again: Egypt Looks Beyond the USA for New Arms, April 7, 2016.

[23] Taha Sakr, “Black Shark attack helicopters to arrive in Egypt”, Egypt Independent, June 4, 2017. See also – Defense World Net, “Egypt to buy 46 Kamov Helicopters for Mistral Carriers”, December 31, 2015.

[24] David M. Witty, “Egyptian Armed Forces Communications Agreement with the US and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge”, MECRA, October 2, 2019.

[25] Jessica Donati and Jared Malsin,” American survivor of Egyptian attack on tourists aims to halt Boeing sale”, WSJ, April 1, 2019.

[26]  Jack Detsch, Robbie Gramer, Colum Lynch, “After Death of U.S. Citizen, State Department Floats Slashing Egypt Aid,” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/31/egypt-us-military-aid-middle-east-trump-sisi-congress-death-mustafa-kassem-american-citizen-detained/

[27] “Russia disclosed details of an aerial military agreement with Egypt”, BBC Arabic, November 30, 2017.

[28] “Russia to supply 12 Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt for $2 billion”, Defense World Net,  March 18, 2019.

[29] Nick Wadhams, “US Warns Egypt of Sanctions Over Russian Warplane Purchase”, Bloomberg, November 2019.

[30] Taha Sakr, “Egypt’s arms deals are sovereign issue, not subject to foreign interference or opinion: Senior official”, Daily News Egypt, November 16, 2019.

[31] Anna Borshchevskaya, “”Could Russia Flip Egypt?” The National Interest, June 21, 2018. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/could-russia-flip-egypt-26367

[32] Paul Mcleary and Arie Egozi, “US Threatens Egypt with sanctions for Russian arm deals”, Breaking Defense, November 19, 2019.

[33]  Ibid.

[34] Seth J. Frantzman, “Concern sparks over US military commitment to observer force in Sinai,” The Jerusalem Post, March 18, 2020.


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