CAIRO (AP) — In an echo of the Cold War, Egypt gave the red carpet welcome Thursday to senior Russian officials aiming to expand Moscow’s influence through military and economic cooperation with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The flirtation underscores how U.S.-Egyptian relations have soured lately over the Obama administration’s criticism of the July 3 military coup. And although Egyptian officials say the one-time Soviet client is not turning away from the United States, the military-backed government is clearly signaling it has options.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy sought to downplay speculation of a major foreign policy shift, describing the visit by Russian’s foreign and defense ministers as an “activation” of existing ties and speaking positively of cooperation between the two countries “in multiple fields.”
But the fact that the visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shogiu came weeks after the United States froze millions of dollars in military aid is significant.
Tensions are high between Egypt and the U.S. — its chief foreign backer and benefactor since the 1970s, since the ouster of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, and the subsequent crackdown on his Islamist supporters that has left hundreds dead and thousands arrested.
Lavrov and Shogiu were greeted with an honor guard and met at defense ministry headquarters by Egypt’s powerful Defense Minister and military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. El-Sissi, who led the coup that ousted Morsi, wore his trademark uniform and sunglasses and was joined by his top commanders for talks with the Russians.
Throughout the day, state television broadcast black-and-white archival footage of Soviet and Egyptian leaders meeting in the 1950s and 1960s, the two decades that saw the two nations forge a strategic friendship at the height of the Cold War and Egypt’s wars with Israel, Washington’s closest Middle East ally.
“We seek to energize a relationship that is already in existence,” Fahmy told reporters later after meeting with Lavrov.
Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter, described the meeting as “historic.”
He stressed Russia “would like to see a stable Egypt with a prosperous economy and an efficient political system,” and he endorsed a transition-to-democracy plan put forward by the military the day it ousted Morsi.
The political blueprint envisages a nationwide referendum on an amended constitution before the end of the year and parliamentarian and presidential elections by winter and summer of 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to patch up things with the Egyptians during a visit to Cairo earlier this month, but the partial suspension of military aid, which covers the delivery of tanks, helicopters and fighter jets, appears to have hurt the interim government’s pride.
It was unclear whether any arms deals would result from the visit.
Russia’s Interfax news agency recently quoted an unidentified official of the state Rosoboron export arms trader as saying that there are no plans to sign big contracts during the Cairo talks.