President Vladimir Putin of Russia gazed levelly into the eyes of his guest, Field Marshal Abdullah Fatah al-Sisi, and spoke strongman-to-strongman. “I know that you, Mr. Defense Minister, have decided to run for President of Egypt,” Putin said.
That seems to be what Sisi is telling people—though even open secrets can be denied. Last week the Egyptian military specifically denied a report in Kuwait newspaper quoting Sisi as saying he was, indeed, running. It’s been two weeks since the Egyptian Armed Forces announced a “mandate” for their boss to stand for president, his posters are everywhere in Cairo, but apparently he’s waiting for just the right moment. If it did not come in Moscow, at least he would bring home an endorsement. “This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people,” Putin said. “I wish you luck on my own behalf and that of the Russian people.”
It was a meeting of minds, and a throwback to bygone days. Back in the Cold War, Egypt was one of the countries that could profitably play Washington against Moscow. The two were closely matched in their epic global competition and paid for the allegiance of a developing nation with lavish disbursements of military aid, which did double duty — lashing the client to the side of the donor while arming it against the rival.
For decades, Egypt was armed by the Soviet Union. But when President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, his reward was an annual outlay from Washington averaging $2 billion, or $70 billion in total.
But a portion of the current disbursement has been held back by the Obama administration, in hopes of guiding the generals’ behavior in the wake of the July 3, 2013 coup that ejected the elected Islamists led by President Mohammed Morsi, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama’s slight infuriated the Egyptians and brought Putin’s foreign minister to Cairo in November—and Sisi to Moscow this week. There, around a polished table in the Kremlin, the strongmen are negotiating an arms deal reports put at $2 billion.
But the Cold War is over, and there is the small matter of the bill. Russia expects to be paid for its air defense system and other materiel, and Egypt is pretty much broke. Morsi never took the International Monetary Fund loan that was dangled last year, because taking it would have required his government to sharply raise the price of bread and gasoline (by removing inefficient and market-distorting but extremely popular subsidies). The interim government backed by the generals has also avoided the IMF, relying instead on some $12 billion from well-oiled patrons in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia.
The Russian business newspaper Vedomosti reported in November that the Saudis will also finance the arms deal, according to AFP, though Egypt is also asking Russia to extend a “corresponding loan,” according to the head of Russia’s state industrial holding company. That would make for an complex debt structure indeed, if only because the Saudis and the Russians support opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. But perhaps business is business.
Whether Egypt needs another $2 billion in military hardware is another question — one that Sisi might be expected to face in an election campaign, should he actually announce his candidacy in a public forum. The country’s economy is appreciably worse off than it was under President Hosni Mubarak, who was forced out by the throngs in Tahrir Square three years ago Tuesday.