By Ziad Akl
This paper will examine the perspective of political elites and regimes in Egypt, Libya and Syria that have either accepted or sought an alliance with Russia and grant access to its presence in the region.
The post-revolutionary context prevailing over several countries in the region, such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, has created new political opportunities for global powers.
Meanwhile, Russia’s recent expansionist policies signalled a political goal that Russia might be pursuing concerning its role in such a key yet vulnerable area.
Perhaps the biggest and most frequently asked question is whether what Russia is doing is mere seizure of political opportunity due to changing regional contexts, or an actual change in Russian policy towards the region that will eventually lead to a shift in its long-term regional policies.
In order to answer this question, this chapter will examine the perspective of political elites and regimes in Egypt, Libya and Syria that have either accepted or sought an alliance with Russia and grant access to its presence in the region.
The nature and practised patterns of those polities have a lot to do with allowing room for Russian presence. Simultaneously, there is a bundle of mutual interests between the Russian vision and that of post-revolutionary political elites in the region, particularly in Egypt, Syria and Libya.
Analysing the nature of those elites in the context of their relationship with Russia will add a lot to the cumulative understanding of Russian presence.
What we will try to shed light on in this chapter is how Russian presence was not only motivated by the directions of Russian foreign policy but also by the different motives that regional political elites had in relation to approaching Russia in a post-revolutionary context.
The Arab Spring or the political tensions witnessed in the Southern Mediterranean during 2011 started a revolutionary process of change within the region. Theoretically, revolutions are divided into three phases: revolutionary origins, revolutionary processes and revolutionary outcome.
Each of the three phases is governed by different factors and enjoys a changing set of regional and international alliances. What we are witnessing at the current moment in the region is the phase of revolutionary outcome, whether in Egypt, Libya or Syria.
In other words, in all those cases, revolutionary confrontations have taken place with varying degrees of intensity and aggression, which is the phase known as revolutionary processes.
The factors that shape the outcome of revolutions include the nature, ideology and political ambitions of the post-revolutionary political elites. Different sets of elites make different pacts of alliance, and have different approaches towards activating this alliance.
It is precisely from this angle that this chapter attempts to tackle the issue of Russian presence in the region. While a lot of thought has been directed towards the political agendas of Putin’s Russia, attention must be given to the reasons why post-revolutionary political elites are so willing to cooperate with Russia.
Is there a specific pattern of political elites with whom Russia prefers to deal? What are the mutual motivations and interests for such a cooperation and expansion of Russian influence?
These questions are framed mainly in the post-Arab Spring context and the transformations that it brought about. Russian presence in the region has a tight connection with the change of political and business elites and networks there, in addition to the military conflict zones.
Perhaps Russian presence should be analysed from inside the region to discover more connections to how Moscow thinks.
Signs of Long-Term Russian Presence and Links to Political Elites
Russian presence in the region at the moment is based on mutual interest between ruling elites, and the visions of Moscow towards expanding its influence in the Southern Mediterranean. Understanding how those mutual interests were created needs a preliminary look at Russia’s behaviour towards the region.
Whether instigated by Russian opportunism, Arab willingness or the mere fact of timing, Russian presence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region does not seem to be a passing phase, but rather a long-term strategy.
The combination of military partnerships, infrastructure projects and selecting potential allies in zones of conflict demonstrates that Moscow is planning to link its presence to profound long-term fundamental interests.
In Egypt, Russia signed several military agreements to provide weapons, bought significant percentages of Egypt’s natural gas industry and contracted with the Egyptian government to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant to be used for energy purposes.
In Libya, the faith in General Khalifa Haftar has more than one meaning. Haftar’s value in Libya lies in his control over the most cohesive and at the same time politically legitimate military entity in Libya.
Russia was quick to recognise Haftar’s aspirations for political leadership and for building a strong army. Allying with Haftar demonstrates Russia’s long-term interests in being the number one arms provider for the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the leadership of Haftar.
Simultaneously, it signals Russia’s support for the idea of an ascent to political power by military elites in order to settle conflicts, which in turn raises questions about the role Russia can play in the process of political settlement in Libya, whether positively or negatively.
Russian actions in Syria demonstrate that it is not intervening from a crisis management approach.
The heavy military presence, the weight Russia throws in support of President Bashar al-Assad within conflict settlement negotiations and the investments to further expand the Russian military base in the port of Tartus all demonstrate that Syria is being prepared to be the centre of the Russian presence and influence in the region.
These signs of long-term presence in the region were not only instigated by Russia’s political opportunism but also by the new political elites that reached power in the region after 2011.
It is important to note that there are a lot of common traits and similarities between the kind of political elites that cooperate and build alliances with Russia.
It could be said that the presence of Russia in the region and its connection to political elites is built on three pillars: partnerships in infrastructure mega projects, investing in military projects, and involvement in post-conflict plans.
Patterns of Russia’s Elite Partners
Current political elites in the region have made their way to power through a series of conflicts, either political ones that witnessed mild cases of violence as in Egypt and Tunisia or through unconcluded armed conflicts as in Syria and Libya.
In all those cases, elites came to power after domestic political tension and a change in regional alliances.
Egypt started a strong axis with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Syria relied heavily on Iran and Hizbullah, with almost no communication with Gulf countries and Libya shifted alliances according to the East-West division.
Therefore, there were two factors that affected the post-Arab Spring political elites.
The first was the state of domestic polarisation they witnessed after rising to power as a result of conflict, which meant in turn adopting new policies and strategies and actions.
The second is how those policies and actions caused them to look for new international and regional alliances that are willing to support their current discourse without questioning its origins.
As mentioned before, common traits do exist among the various political elites Russia cooperates with in the region.
Since the political elites Russia is allied with and that sought alliance with Russia in Egypt, Syria and Libya came through polarised contentious confrontations with other domestic forces seeking change, the new political elites all show strong signs of conservatism.
The idea of freedom of expression is much frowned upon in the three countries. It is sometimes seen as a conspiracy to make state institutions collapse, and at other times as acts of chaos that threaten the security of other citizens.
Situating conservatism with new political elites in the region depends largely on the domestic context. For example, both al-Assad and al-Sisi are hardcore conservatives, in the sense that they are both against open institutional democracy, collective action and civil society.
However, the huge difference between the two cases allows each one of them a different set of tools to express and practise this conservatism. While al-Assad uses a military apparatus, al-Sisi relies on a heavily institutional state that allows this conservatism to be spread into society through state institutions.
Another common trait between political elites that Russia allies with in the region is the fact that they are all against progressive political transformation or, in other words, they are elites that would rather maintain the status quo than undergo a structural process of regime change.
This means the idea of change through an institutional political process is not prioritised, either on the Russian agenda or on the agendas of regional political elites.
Militarisation and seeking to bring back the pre-Arab Spring political order are also common traits shared by the political elites in the region that are allied with Russia. The Russians prefer to cooperate with political elites that have military backgrounds.
This can be seen in the case of alliances with al-Sisi in Egypt, Khalifa Haftar in Libya and al-Assad in Syria. Although the Syrian President does not have a military background, he believes in the value of the military and practises strict control over his military institutions.
All the three regimes believe that the events of 2011 were not popular revolutions originating from within domestic contexts but rather a conspiracy aided by foreign intelligence to bring down the state.
Hostility towards collective action is another important point to notice. Either in Syria, Egypt or Libya, political elites do not tolerate the idea of mass mobilisation or peaceful protest; collective action is always labelled as a chaotic act with potential of violence.
In addition, all those countries, which are considered to be in close connection to Russia, have practised various forms of state repression against opposition forces.
Perhaps Egypt, although in conflict, has used very similar tools with opposing forces, a mixture between crude violence and constitutional repression.
In Syria and Libya, as zones of conflict, collective action is usually faced with military confrontation, which has in turn made the cost of political participation very high in both countries. Political elites allied with Russia in the region also share another trait: hostility towards political Islam.
Although Russia has allies that are governed through political Islam, such as Iran, in the Southern Mediterranean, it has preferred to ally with those who opposed the idea of Sunni political entities coming to power, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is a very unique context in each case over how opposition to political Islam is manifested, and how political Islam represents itself in each case.
Ziad Akl – Senior Researcher, ACPSS – Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies.
Source: The Role of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Strategy or Opportunism?