How Russia Outfoxed Washington in Egypt
Policy + Politics

How Russia Outfoxed Washington in Egypt

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the Egyptian military continued in Cairo Tuesday, where more than 900 have died and thousands have been injured.

As the United States continued to dawdle in its response to the crisis, rivals like China are expressing support for the military regime. Most troubling are new signs of support from Russia, which has been trying to win allies in Africa for years. Moscow has pledged support for the Egyptian military regime, and has reportedly even offered military assistance.


What transpired in Washington yesterday was indicative of the U.S. response since the coup last July. Early Tuesday, senators were told that the $1.5 billion in foreign aid the United States is giving Egypt this year had been cut off. By the afternoon, the Obama administration said this was not the case.

An aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, who was behind the original report, told The Fiscal Times the senator still believed the aid was cut off.

"As we noted yesterday, the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee was told that the transfer of military aid was stopped, that this is current practice, not necessarily official policy, and there is no indication of how long it will last," the aide said in an email.

Now that Egyptian security forces have arrested Mohammed Badie, the cleric who is the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, the violence is only expected to get worse. They are also reportedly planning to release Hosni Mubarak, the dictator deposed in 2011 during the Arab Spring.


Some are speculating that Mubarak’s release is a sign that he could once again take control of the country. But even if that’s not the case, his release sends a bad sign to the Egyptian public, the majority of whom are standing by and watching the violence unfold.

"Mubarak being released has serious symbolic implications. It may be a red flag that maybe we’re getting back to where we were before," said Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University and a board member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. “Torture in prisons… 19 former generals appointed to governorships and a general running the country. These things are not indicating that a civilian democratic government is on its way in."

As Washington remains in a holding pattern, more countries are expressing support for Egypt’s military, including embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah.

But the loudest supporter of the military takeover has been Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already publicly expressed support for the coup. And according to a series of less-noticed reports, ties between the Russian government and the Egyptian military are growing. With an established power’s backing, the Egyptian military might be emboldened to hold onto power.

"There is an argument to be made that [Gen. Abdel Fattah] Sisi is telling the truth, that the military doesn’t want power - that it’s just here to stabilize the situation," Aziz said. "It’s in the realm of possibility that they may keep the promise, but history is not on their side. It would be a significant deviation from Egyptian history.”

The most mysterious and significant sign of Russian support for Egypt came on the day that President Obama cancelled a meeting with Putin. Later that day, the reputable English-language news service The Egypt Independent posted a story saying that Putin had called a rare session of Russian parliament to put the Russian military "at the Egyptian military's disposal.” It also reported “Russia will arrange for joint military exercises with the Egyptian army.” The story was taken down later that day (it lives on in Web forums).

Then reports emerged that the Egyptian military was sending a diplomatic mission to Russia. At the same time, Russia has teamed up with the United Arab Emirates - a country that also supports the Egyptian military - in calling for an end to violence.

Putin has long expressed his desire to increase Russian presence in Africa. He’s already backed Syria. If he backs the new regime, he’ll buy allies with a country that controls one of the world’s most important shipping routes. But what might be most important to Putin is he outmaneuvered Washington in the process.