MOSCOW -- De facto Egyptian leader Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi on Thursday got an endorsement from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his as-yet undeclared candidacy for president, but there was no immediate indication that a previously discussed $2-billion arms deal has been completed.
Sisi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy made a rare high-level visit to Moscow in an apparent bid to “diversify” Cairo’s diplomatic allegiances. Egypt enjoyed close ties with the Soviet Union during the 1950s and ‘60s, but for the last four decades has been dependent on U.S. aid and collaboration in developing its defense capabilities.
However, since Sisi led a military coup to depose elected President Mohamed Morsi amid massive unrest in Egypt last summer, the Obama administration has withheld much of the annual $1.5 billion in military assistance traditionally supplied to Cairo.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Egypt in November, signaling the Kremlin’s interest in rekindling the relationship that foundered during the height of the Cold War. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke off ties with the Kremlin in the 1970s and expelled Soviet military advisors, and relations remained cool throughout the 30-year leadership of President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted three years ago in the Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian rule.
Putin’s reception of Sisi and Fahmy seemed intended to send a message to the West that the Kremlin still has influence in the Middle East’s most populous country and appears ready to supply Sisi’s interim government with air defense systems and other military hardware that Cairo had previously looked to Washington to provide.
The Russian arms deal in the works is reportedly to be financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which together with other Arab nations around the Persian Gulf have promised $12 billion in aid to Egypt in support of the military-orchestrated ousting of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which grew powerful during his yearlong term in office.
In the excerpts of the Kremlin meeting aired by Rossiya-24 television, Putin and Sisi expressed their mutual admiration and interest in boosting economic and military cooperation after the Kremlin leader wished Sisi success in the forthcoming presidential election.
Putin described the relationship between Egypt and Russia as one of “long, traditional and in the full sense of the word historic partners” and based on “the undeniable sympathy our peoples have for each other,” according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.
“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Putin said. “That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people I wish you success.”
Sisi hasn’t formally announced his candidacy for the election expected in April, although Egypt’s top military body has endorsed him for the office. Speculation about his intended run was also enhanced when Sisi made a rare appearance in civilian clothing for the Wednesday flight to Russia.
“Permit me to express my deep personal admiration for you,” Sisi told his host at the meeting in an ornate government residence outside of Moscow. “The Egyptian people greatly value your economic and security assistance.”
After an earlier meeting between the Egyptian and Russian foreign ministers, Lavrov told journalists that the two countries have agreed to “speed up the preparation of documents that would give an additional impulse to our military and military-technical cooperation.”
Egyptian military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the November meeting in Cairo had produced an agreement on how to enhance military-technical cooperation as well as collaboration in the fight against terrorism.
The news agency also quoted retired Egyptian Gen. Hossam Soualem as saying that Russia has pledged to supply Cairo with 24 MiG-29 fighter jets, air defense systems, the KORNET anti-tank missile complex and Ka-25, Mi-28 and Mi-25 combat helicopters.
Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.