The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum being held in Russia on Friday will feature a speech from a surprising world leader: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally that has for decades been the second-largest recipient of American aid in the world.
Egypt has been an important partner in the Middle East for the United States since 1979, when it broke with its Arab neighbors to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Successive U.S. administrations have seen Egypt, with its strategic location on Israel’s borders and its control of the Suez Canal, as key to maintaining stability and combating terrorism in the region.
The U.S. government has given Egypt billions of dollars in aid, rarely wavering until this year, when the Biden administration withheld $130 million over concerns about the Sisi regime’s human rights record.
But Egypt was friendly with Russia long before its relations with the U.S. warmed, and still maintains significant ties: Russia supplied nearly 30 percent of Egypt’s tourists and much of its imported wheat before the war, and Russia is building a $26 billion nuclear power plant in Egypt. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. el-Sisi has tried to balance both relationships, refusing to condemn Russia’s actions as strongly as the U.S. has asked.
Though Egypt voted in March for a United Nations resolution against the invasion under American pressure, it has also hedged its rhetoric about the war. Mr. el-Sisi called Mr. Putin to reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to cooperation soon after the U.N. vote, and Egypt has said for months that it would attend the St. Petersburg forum.
In a speech this week, Mr. el-Sisi referred to the invasion as the “Russia-Ukraine crisis,” pointedly refraining from singling Russia out, and said that Egypt prioritized “the language of dialogue and peaceful solutions.”
Egyptian public opinion also skews toward Russia. Many Egyptians are happy to see Russia challenging the United States and its allies, drawing on deep lingering resentment over the American invasion of Iraq and the West’s support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
The Egyptian fence-straddling has not gone unnoticed by the U.S., which has in the past signaled displeasure about Egypt’s closeness to Russia, and once threatened to impose sanctions over Egyptian deals to buy Russian aircraft. But it was unclear on Friday whether the U.S. had exerted pressure on Mr. el-Sisi not to speak at the St. Petersburg forum.
From Egypt’s perspective, it cannot afford to alienate either country, especially at a time when Egypt’s economy has been buckling under the stress of inflation, foreign investment pulling out and wheat supplies drying up.
The U.S. and its allies have argued that it is Russia’s invasion that has damaged the Egyptian economy.
“Regardless as to what Russian officials might say regarding cooperation with Egypt, they cannot explain away the hardships this war of aggression is causing in Egypt,” the Group of 7 ambassadors to Egypt said in a joint opinion essay this week. “Nor can Russia distract from the financial consequences of Putin’s war of aggression which threatens the prosperity and livelihoods of Egyptians.”