Why Sisi is treading the middle ground in Russia's war on Ukraine

Analysis - Egypt Ukraine
4 min read
Egypt - Cairo
24 March, 2022
Analysis: Egypt is approaching Moscow's invasion with caution as it seeks to balance relations between the West and Russia amid a looming food crisis at home.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is under pressure from world powers to take a clear stance on Russia's war in Ukraine as his country reels from the consequences of the invasion domestically.

Initially, Egypt had been reluctant to take a political position and called for “diplomatic solutions and dialogue”.

This prompted G7 and European Union ambassadors to Egypt to release a statement on 1 March to pressure Egypt to be more decisive.

One day later, Egypt and 140 other countries voted in favour of a United Nations resolution that demanded Russia end its hostility against Ukraine.

"Since Sisi took power following a military coup in 2013 he has established friendly relations with Washington's rivals China and Russia"

Nevertheless, Egypt’s permanent UN representative in New York Osama Abdel-Khalek later clarified Cairo's motives and voiced concerns over economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

By doing so Egypt attempted to maintain a middle ground in its ties with Moscow.

“It’s like Egypt was sending signals to both parties, the West and Russia, that it had been maintaining strategic relations,” foreign relations expert Ahmed Maher told The New Arab.

“If Egypt takes sides with one party against the other and that party wins, the country’s interests will be gravely harmed.”

On 9 March Sisi called Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to urge diplomatic solutions to the crisis, reflecting the significance of Cairo's bilateral ties.

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Stuck in the middle 

Since Sisi took power following a military coup in 2013 he has established friendly relations with Washington’s rivals China and Russia.

“Since Sisi took office, he gave up the country’s dependency on the US, seeking other alliances and [attempting] to deal with them on an equal footing. Such a policy resulted in opening doors for Egypt to buy arms from other countries,” Maher argues.

Egypt has purchased multibillion-dollar advanced arms from Moscow and Beijing ignoring repeated US threats. 

At the same time, the country’s vital tourism sector depends on Russian and Ukrainian tourists who flock to Red Sea resorts.

Moreover, Russia has been working on building Egypt’s El-Dabaa nuclear power plant, a $26-billion-project.

While Sisi has also maintained good relations with the EU, especially France and Germany, balancing these relations is becoming more difficult given the current global polarisation triggered by Russia's war.

Egypt has purchased multibillion-dollar advanced arms from Moscow. [Getty]

As for the US, Egypt annually receives $1.3 billion in military aid and Washington and Cairo have high-level security cooperation and joint intelligence sharing, especially after Sisi’s recent role in mediating fighting between Hamas and Israel.

US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021 but only initiated a phone call with Sisi in May that year after Egypt brokered a truce in the Gaza Strip.

During his electoral campaign, Biden had stated that he would not be offering Sisi, Trump's 'favourite dictator', any more blank cheques.

But these proved to be empty threats with relations turning into ‘business as usual.’

Most recently the top US general for forces in the Middle East said the US would provide Egypt with F-15 aircraft.

Egypt has interests in Ukraine as a US ally and a member of the EU and would not risk jeopardising these relations. 

“It all depends on how the crisis will end up. At any rate, Sisi will likely keep a neutral track for as long as he can,” political sociologist Dr Said Sadek told The New Arab. 

"After the Russian invasion food prices soared, leading to unease among the poorest in Egypt who depend on staples such as bread and wheat for almost every meal"

Domestic turmoil

In addition to Sisi’s foreign policy dilemma he has also been facing domestic challenges as a result of the war.

Egypt is the world's number one importer of wheat, which is a strategic commodity in the country, and a large portion is supplied by both Russia and Ukraine.

Not only that but Egypt also imports a considerable amount of corn used for animal and poultry feed from Ukraine.

After the Russian invasion food prices soared, leading to unease among the poorest who depend on staples such as bread and wheat for almost every meal.

The hashtag 'the revolution of the poor is coming' trended for days on social media in Egypt.

As a result, Sisi directed the government to combat price hikes and impose huge fines on bakers who oppose prices set by the government. 

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But with the floatation of the Egyptian pound imposed by the Central Bank of Egypt on Monday and the hike in the value of the US dollar there are no guarantees that prices will stabilise, especially since over 60% of products are imported.

The World Bank has warned that a 30% rise in food prices could result in a 12% increase in poverty rates in a country where about a third of the 100 million population live below the poverty line. 

The looming question now is whether the poorest will protest against deteriorating economic conditions, which long preceded the war in Ukraine.

“Typically, opposition forces seize such crises to score points and settle accounts. The media, loyal to the regime, has been adopting the same narrative that any [crisis] has been global, pinning it to the war, not to domestic mismanagement," Sadek told TNA.

"In other words, the official message is: ‘don’t blame the government for any crisis in case it happens'."

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture, and social affairs