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What does timing of Lavrov’s visit to Cairo mean?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov concluded his visit to Cairo April 6, during which he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The two discussed several issues, mainly the war on terror, the situation in Libya and the return of Russian tourism to Egypt.

Speaking about bilateral relations between Russia and Egypt, Lavrov stressed his country’s commitment to implement development projects in Cairo, which it launched under the Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation Agreement signed between the two countries in October 2018.

Also, Lavrov asserted that the competent authorities in Russia are taking the necessary measures to resume flights between Russian cities and Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada. Flights had been suspended after a Russian plane crashed on Oct. 31, 2015, immediately after its take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, killing all 224 passengers.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart April 6 that the two discussed the latest developments on the situation in the Middle East, mainly the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the situation in Syria and attempts to reach a political settlement as well as the situation in Libya, amid the recent military and political crisis between the governments of eastern military commander Khalifa Hifter and the prime minister of the internationally recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj.

Shoukry also noted that the two countries agreed to promote stability and fight terrorism, as Russia voiced support for Egyptian efforts in this regard.

Russia is implementing major projects in Egypt, mainly the construction of El Dabaa nuclear power plant and the Russian Industrial Zone east of Port Said in the new Suez Canal Economic Zone. The railway sectors in Russia and Egypt are also cooperating through a deal reached in September 2018 to produce and import 1,300 new passenger railway wagons.

Trade exchange between Egypt and Russia amounted to $5.1 million in 2018, Khaled Youssef, head of the Export Development Authority, said during his participation in the fourth International Arabia Expo in Moscow April 11.

Nourhan al-Sheikh, a professor of political science at the University of Cairo who specializes in Russian affairs, told Al-Monitor that Lavrov’s visit to Cairo is part of the comprehensive partnership agreement between the two countries and requires mutual visits occasionally to discuss common issues.

Sheikh said that the timing of the visit is important because both countries have ties to important regional issues such as the situation in Libya and Sudan and the Palestinian cause.

She noted that the talks tackled coordination regarding the scheduled Russia-Africa Summit that will most likely be held in Sochi next fall. She added that Egypt should be well-prepared for the summit, in light of its chairmanship of the African Union that started on Feb. 10 for a year, since Russia is interested in economic coordination with Africa. Egypt has an opportunity to be Russia’s gateway to Africa, especially through possible coordination between the two countries in the field of manufacturing weapons that can be exported to Africa. Egypt might also be a transit route for Russian airplanes en route to Africa, according to Sheikh.

Egypt and Russia have strong military relations because of Russia’s development of Egypt’s air defense. In 2016, Russia provided the Egyptian naval forces with a new maritime piece, Molnia P-32, while the two countries signed cooperation protocols on joint military trainings.

In regard to the resumption of flights, Sheikh said it is in the interest of Cairo and Moscow to restore tourism and ensure the security of these trips for Russian tourists.

Tarek Kholy, secretary-general of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, told Al-Monitor over the phone that Egyptian-Russian relations are undergoing quick developments on all levels.

On the Syrian file, Kholy said that Russia and Egypt’s cooperation was obvious through their brokerage of several truces on Syrian territories such as the truces in the northern countryside of Homs and eastern Ghouta. They also have a common perspective regarding the situation in Libya.

Resumption of direct Russian flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada is a political decision that stems from Russia’s belief that the situation in the region — not just in Egypt — is reassuring, Kholy added.

According to the State Information Service, in 2015, Russian tourism brought Egypt $2.5 billion in revenues, accounting for 33.8% of the total tourism revenues of $7.4 billion. Meanwhile, the number of tourists to Egypt dropped by 54.9% during the first half of 2016, according to statistics by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

Former Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Gamal Bayoumi told Al-Monitor that the timing of talks between Egypt and Russia is important, as it indicates that Egypt will restore its position as a hub for political deliberations, especially with the crises in Arab countries such as Libya and Palestine. He added that bilaterally, Egypt and Russia are regaining their special relationship that offers huge economic and political support for Egypt.

The Libyan situation deteriorated early April after the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army led by Hifter launched an offensive in the Libyan capital Tripoli, where the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, headed by Sarraj, is based. More than 147 people have been killed and 614 injured since then, the World Health Organization reported April 16. Meanwhile, Hifter is facing international pressure to withdraw his forces from Tripoli.

Russia did not announce support for either of Libya’s warring parties, although it did block a UN Security Council statement urging Hifter to stop the advance on Tripoli on April 7. Lavrov told Al-Ahram in the wake of his visit to Cairo April 6 that Russia and Egypt are coordinating efforts to solve the situation in Libya through a comprehensive national dialogue. He noted that there is a common vision between the two countries in this regard.

Meanwhile, Sisi reiterated Egypt’s support for fighting terrorism and extremist militias to ensure security and stability for Libyans during his meeting with Hifter in Cairo April 14.

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