Egyptian army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials in Russia on Thursday, highlighting the growing military ties between the two countries and Egypt’s apparent pivot away from the U.S.
Russian and Egyptian media carried reports of a likely $2 billion arms agreement between Egypt and Russia, reportedly funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Moscow says it lost tens of billions of dollars in defense contracts after Arab Spring revolts toppled Moscow-friendly governments like that in Libya. Now with Sissi in power, Russia appears to be poised to make some of that back.
If signed, the agreement would also underscore the Gulf states’ support for Egypt's military-backed government.
Speaking to reporters after talks with his Egyptian counterpart on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the two sides "agreed to speed up the preparation of documents that would give an additional impulse to our military and military-technical cooperation."
Relations between Cairo and Washington cooled last year after the U.S. suspended military aid to Egypt following the ouster of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and the crackdown on protests that followed.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in November that Egypt remains a “vital partner” of the U.S., despite the dialing back of military aid. The cuts, he said, were due to legal requirements and did not constitute a “punishment.”
U.S. policy requires officials to suspend military aid if they determine that a “duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
The Egyptian government said on Thursday that it was not seeking to distance itself from the U.S., but was instead working to diversify and add to its list of international allies. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said last year that Cairo would look beyond Washington and keep its "options" open to meet its security needs.
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Putin on Thursday threw his weight behind Sissi's anticipated presidential bid. Sissi, who has not officially announced his candidacy, is expected to run in elections to be held in April.
A Kuwaiti newspaper quoted Sissi earlier this month as saying he intended to join the race, but the general’s office said the report had misquoted him, calling it “journalistic interpretation” and not a “direct declaration” by the leader.
The denial didn’t stop Putin from treating the general’s candidacy as a done deal.
"I know you have decided to run for president,” Putin said at a joint press conference on Thursday. “This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people."
"I wish you luck on my own behalf and that of the Russian people," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services