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Middle East

Putin backs Egypt army chief’s run for president

Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, on February 13, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI / POOL / MIKHAIL METZEL)

MOSCOW/CAIRO: Russian President Vladimir Putin Thursday wished Egypt’s military chief victory in the nation’s presidential vote, even though he has yet to announce his bid – a strong endorsement signaling Moscow’s desire to expand its military and other ties with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Putin appeared to be capitalizing on a growing move by Gulf nations – particularly Saudi Arabia – to move the Middle East off its traditional reliance on the United States.

The United States scolded Putin for the endorsement, assuring that a warming of relations between Cairo and Moscow wouldn’t harm the “historic” ties shared between Egypt and the United States, which have soured in recent months.

“Of course we don’t endorse a candidate and don’t think it’s, quite frankly, up to the United States or to Mr Putin to decide who should govern Egypt,” said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf. “It’s up to the Egyptian people to decide.”

Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Moscow comes amid reports of a $2 billion Egyptian arms deal with Russia to be funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is part of Egypt’s shift to reduce reliance on the United States.

“The United States’ influence is steadily waning in the region for several years,” said Gamal Abdel-Gawad, a political analyst at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Traditional allies like the Saudis are becoming more and more suspicious, and U.S. credibility in the region is at stake.

Without naming the U.S., the Kremlin criticized what it regards as American interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Russia’s ties with the U.S. have been badly strained by disputes ranging from Syria’s civil war, to missile defense plans in Europe, to Moscow’s human rights record.

“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Putin said at the start of his meeting with Sisi. “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 didn’t mention his presidential ambitions in brief opening remarks, but emphasized his focus on ensuring security, saying that the country’s military is capable of providing it.

The 59-year old Sisi, who rose to prominence after the ouster of elected Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, is popular among a large segment of Egyptians and is widely expected to announce a candidacy for presidential elections that are likely due in late April.

Putin’s statement could be a reflection of widespread predictions in Egypt that the infantry officer will win a landslide in the presidential vote. It also reflected the Russian leader’s intention to forge close relations with Egypt under Sisi.

Putin is known to have been less than warm toward Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has been a model force for Islamist groups across much of the world in the last 50 years or more.

“Putin and Sisi have a lot in common ... and both share a negative view of the Brotherhood,” said Abdullah al-Sinawi, a prominent Cairo-based analyst known to be close to the military.

Sinawi said Sisi wanted to send a signal to Washington, while Putin was eager to acquire a new ally in the Middle East. “Putin wants to have a foot in Egypt instead of an expected loss on the Syrian side.”

“Egypt needs an international entrusted ally that would balance relations with America. Egypt will be open to other centers of power without breaking the relations with the U.S.”

Last month, the U.S. Congress approved a spending bill that would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.

Russian and Egyptian ministers issued a joint statement that “condemned foreign interference in domestic affairs of any country and called for solving all existing problems and crises exclusively by peaceful means and broad all-inclusive dialogue” – an apparent jab at the U.S.

Russia has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering in other countries’ affairs. It has used vetoes at the U.N. Security Council to block U.S.-backed resolutions that would impose sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Moscow also has clashed with Washington over Ukraine, accusing the U.S. of meddling in its political affairs during its months of anti-government protests.

Saudi Arabia, long America’s closest Arab ally, has become increasingly frustrated with U.S. policies in the Mideast region, and some see the reported Gulf-financed Egyptian arms deal with Russia as a sign of that.

Saudi Arabia firmly backed Sisi’s removal of Morsi, and it and other Gulf nations have since funneled Egypt’s military-backed government billions of dollars in loans and grants.

Separately, Egyptian authorities ordered new trials for 242 supporters of the Brotherhood, the latest in a series of mass tribunals against backers of the ousted Islamist president over protests and violence.

Thousands have been arrested in a crackdown on Morsi’s supporters since his ouster in July. Recently, authorities have announced a string of trials of low-level Brotherhood members, each with dozens of defendants.

In the latest cases, the officials said Thursday that 170 Islamists in the southern city of Assiut were charged with storming and burning government installations.

Another 72 in Beheira province, northwest of Cairo, will be tried on charges of attempted murder, illegal protests and acquisition of firearms.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s prosecutor-general ordered an inquiry into a complaint accusing the country’s top satirist Bassem Youssef for mocking the military and Sisi. Youssef was back on air Friday ridiculing the sweeping nationalist fervor that gripped Egyptians after the military ouster of Morsi and the subsequent euphoria surrounding Sisi, amid his expected run for president.

Youssef and his show “El-Bernameg” were suspended last fall after his private broadcaster CBC said he had violated its editorial policy and contractual obligations, and that he upset Egyptian sensibilities by attacking “symbols of the state.” Egyptian government and presidential officials said the decision was a private issue between Youssef and the station.

In his latest show, aired on Saudi-owned MBC Egypt network, Youssef jabbed at Egyptian fashion and cooking shows, some of which seem to go out of their way to mention Sisi in the programs. He made a joke about street vendors selling clothes “autographed by Sisi” and a popular chef attempting to bake a birthday cake for the military commander.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 14, 2014, on page 1.

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