Everyone is in the court of Pharaoh Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
It seems that the confrontation between the U.S., Russia and Europe has quietly moved into Egyptian territory, not just because of Cairo’s role in Libya but also to redefine military and commercial influence in the region.
Since Sunday there’s been an ongoing series of meetings between the Egyptian authorities and their counterparts from the U.S., France, Russia, Germany and Britain, a broad consensus supporting the president, who seized power in a coup and has overseen an onslaught of human rights violations.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Washington to meet with the Trump administration and clear the way for a state visit from el-Sisi in March. On Wednesday, he visited with U.S. National Security Director H.R. McMaster with whom he discussed military issues, from Libya to Syria.
McMaster has raised new prospects for cooperation with Egypt, namely an intensification of relations to limit Russia’s new interventionism there. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered Trump’s intentions to Shoukry: to support Egypt economically and to increase aid for the fight against terrorism.
So Trump will send more, then, than the $1.3 billion in military aid that Washington already turns over to Cairo every year. The idea motivating the White House is the strengthening of the U.S. commercial presence in the North African country (mostly investments in energy, pharmaceuticals and automotives and exports of agricultural products and machinery). Exports have seen a sharp decline in recent years, from $6.3 billion in 2014 to $3.5 billion in 2016.
Russia is pounding at the door. In the wake of its military and diplomatic results in Syria, Moscow is trying to apply the same model in Libya. The Egyptian abstention on an anti-Damascus resolution in the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday has again revealed the coziness of Cairo and Moscow. Russia’s support for Cairo’s plans in Tripoli cemented relations.
On top of that, Russia has launched a full-on commercial intervention that’s keeping the Americans up at night. In the last three months of 2016, trade between Egypt and Russia reached $3.5 billion, an increase of 14 percent. It could rise again after the el-Sisi government signed a $60 million deal to import 360,000 tons of Russian wheat.
On Wednesday, 35 Russian companies landed in Cairo, led by Deputy Minister of Commerce Gleb Nikitin. The focus of the meetings was the construction of a Russian industrial zone at Port Said, where energy, construction, railway and pharmaceutical companies will disembark. It’s the starting point of Russia’s plan to open trade routes to Africa.
Then there’s military aid. Moscow on Monday announced it would dispatch 50 Mig-29s to Cairo by 2020, which follows the gift of an RKA-32 corvette (a small warship) in August. The Russian armed forces are training the Egyptians how to use it.
The Europeans are also inserting themselves into the quiet trade war between Washington and Moscow. Brussels has remained silent amid the barbaric crackdown on Egyptian society, watching idly as Italy tried to pressure Cairo for the truth about the torture and murder of a grad student, Giulio Regeni. Around the time the Italian ambassador was withdrawn to Rome, instead of offering solidarity, France swooped in hoping to cash in on Italy’s void. Nothing came of it, but the intra-European trade war continues.
On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Cairo with 30 German companies, meeting with el-Sisi to discuss economic cooperation. Here, too, the numbers are impressive: Germany is the second-largest European trading partner after Italy. Berlin has 3,300 companies in Egypt, with a steady increase in bilateral trade in recent years ($6 billion in 2016).
The U.K., France and Spain also presented appeals. On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson paid a visit to el-Sisi bearing three aid packages: a $150 million loan, 70 partnerships between universities and $50 million for economic development. On Tuesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met with el-Sisi to discuss a further increase in bilateral military cooperation that’s unprecedented. And on Thursday, 35 Spanish companies arrived.
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