The Ukraine is hardly the only place where Russia and the U.S. are jousting for influence these days. Though it may lack the intensity of the current stare down over Crimea, Moscow and Washington are also vying for influence in Egypt, long a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
That relationship has been tested by the upheaval since former president Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade tenure was ended amidst the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. Mubarak had long been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, maintaining an uneasy peace with Israel and providing support for operations like the 1991 Gulf War.
Amidst the turmoil, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to increase his country’s influence in the Arab world’s most populous country. On Feb.13, he met with Egypt’s military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sissi to negotiate a $2 billion arms deal. During the visit, Putin endorsed the general’s candidacy for Egypt’s presidency.
The U.S. has long depended on Egypt to move soldiers and equipment to Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. Dozens of U.S. warships are granted priority access to Egypt’s Suez Canal. In addition, more than 2,000 U.S. military aircraft flew through Egypt’s airspace in 2012, according to USA Today.
"Egypt has been a cornerstone for the U.S. military presence in the Middle East," James Phillips, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the newspaper.
After the Islamist Mohammed Morsi won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election in 2012, the U.S. chose to continue its policy of aiding the Egyptian military. Yet when that same military—under Al-Sissi—overthrew Morsi in a July coup, the U.S. was put in a difficult position. Would it side with a democratically-elected leader or its longtime military allies who overthrew him?
The situation was exacerbated by the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. By one estimate, 2,500 people have died and over 20,000 were arrested under the campaign since July, Michele Dunne, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told USA Today. In September, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and froze its finances.
On Oct. 10 the Obama administration said it would cut aid to Egypt in response to the military’s violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. The U.S. withheld F-16 fighter planes, AH-64 Apache helicopters, C-130 transport planes, M109 howitzers, M1A1 Abrams tanks and $260 million in budget support, according to the New York Times.
The U.S. will "continue to hold the delivery of certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, according to CNN. "The United States continues to support a democratic transition and oppose violence as a means of resolving differences within Egypt.”
Some aid, like that which is used in education and in military training, will be sustained in order to maintain a long-term relationship, she added.
However, some saw the reduction as modest. Between the July coup and the U.S. announcement, Egypt received ‘nearly 2,000 tons of critical U.S. military equipment’ according to shipping data obtained by Al Jazeera.
“The U.S. law says it in plain language,” Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, told Al Jazeera. “When there’s a military coup, aid should be suspended. Instead, what we have here is a signal to the Egyptian military that says, ‘full speed ahead.’”
In contrast to the U.S.’s mixed response to al-Sissi’s coup and ensuing crackdown, Putin has been full-throated in his endorsement of the general.
"I know that you, Mr. Defense Minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt,” the Russian president told al-Sissi last month, according to the BBC. “I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people.”
Arms sales typically include training packages, which could require Egyptian officers to visit Moscow more frequently. If the deal goes through, the move could further solidify the relationship between the two powers, according to USA Today.
"Our assistance comes with lectures on human rights and civil-military relations," Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the newspaper. "With Russian assistance, you don't get those lectures.”
It's not just its relationship with the Egyptian government that is a challenge for the U.S. The Egyptian public itself is skeptical of Washington. Sarah El-Masry, who writes for the Daily News Egypt, said the U.S. is broadly unpopular in the country, and that the local media perpetuates this outlook.
“In general the role of the US, and its involvement in the politics of Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries, is looked down upon,” she said in an interview with Global Journalist.
Egyptians appear to view Russia in a different light than the U.S., and generally welcome its overtures, said El Masry. ”People view the growing ties with Russia positively,” she said. “They think that the closeness with Russia means that Egypt would no longer be dependent on the U.S.”