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.
In the case of Egypt, the post-30 June regime builds its legitimacy over ridding the country of a possible civil war and a threat of mass terrorism that was about to happen due to the Islamic stream, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is indeed true that opposition against the Mohamed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012 and 2013 was paramount, and millions of Egyptians took to the streets in June 2013 to demand Morsi’s ousting.
However, the regime that came on the heels of those events found its enemy in political Islam on the grounds of violence and terrorism. Court rulings and legislation were issued, labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist entity, and several security crackdowns were exercised on the group’s leadership and activities.
While some Western powers like Germany and the United States (US), for example, saw that criminalising the Muslim Brotherhood and excluding political Islam from the public sphere is a deviation from democracy, Russia was more than willing to open its arms to the post-30 June regime, which in turn looked for new allies within the international framework.
The case of Libya is different in how it materialised. Russia’s preference for conservative, militarised elites that want to bring back the pre-Arab Spring order and combat progressive political change fitted General Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar emerged as a leader of a cohesive military force in essence, combating extremism, terrorism and armed groups in the Libyan East. Here it is important to note that political Islam in the Libyan East after the division was not institutionalised and was a counterpart in many episodes of extremist violence.
On the other hand, the Libyan West has seen a quasi-institutional presence of the Muslim Brotherhood through political parties and some control over various militias.
Concerning the international community, Haftar was for a long time excluded as a legitimate representative of the Libyan state. Several sessions of dialogue took place, specifically the ones leading to the signing of the Skhirat Agreement in December 2015, in which Haftar did not participate due to the lack of consensus over his legitimacy within the international community.
This situation of tension with the international community was repeated with al-Assad and al-Sisi, which means that Russia uses the phase of “option reduction” (the phase where regimes have fewer options with regards to international alliances due to instability, violence and lack of security) experienced by regimes after domestic political tensions to build new alliances and partnerships on its own terms.
Al-Assad’s approach towards political Islam is quite different from the models seen in Egypt and Libya. Syria had a special significance for political Islam due to the armed conflict that developed on a sectarian basis.
The Syrian regime and its hostility to political Islam is more related to operational realities in an armed conflict rather than a politically contentious environment. Al-Assad’s resistance to revolution and demands for change, specifically from the Sunni Islamic bloc and its military arms, has made the list of his international allies grow thin.
Meanwhile, the military capacities of al-Assad’s regime were becoming inefficient in the face of the US armed opposition. This situation made Russia closer to al-Assad in comparison to the US and the European Union (EU).
Preventing the radical and violent consequences of terrorism in the name of political Islam was Russia’s main justification for intervention in Syria. Moreover, combating the rise of Sunni Islamic powers in Syria is against the interests of Iran, and Iranian-Russian relations are very much valued in the Kremlin.
These examples seem to demonstrate that Russia has pre-requisite criteria for the elites with which it forms alliances in the Southern Mediterranean and, at the same time, Russia exhibits a set of behaviours that motivate new political elites in the region to cooperate with Russia.
In general, opposing political Islam, being against progressive political change and having a military background or a stronghold over the army seem to be very crucial to the Russian decision-making process towards the region.
Russia’s Flexible Approach
Directly related to the pattern of Russia’s foreign policy towards the region is its flexibility towards policies concerning zones of conflict.
Russia has successfully challenged the international community in the Syrian case and, at the same time, pledged its allegiance to al-Sisi while his legitimacy in the international community was still under question.
Similarly, it has hosted Khalifa Haftar as a legitimate representative of the Libyan state while other international venues did not. Therefore, Russia uses the vulnerable legitimacies of post-conflict regimes to seize political opportunities and secure its presence.
Russia’s opportunism and the political willingness of regional elites are among main pillars upon which Russia built its policy on its presence in the region in the post-Arab Spring context.
Russia suspended its tourism activities with Egypt after a Russian passenger plane exploded after leaving Egypt’s Sharm el Sheikh airport on account of a possible terrorist operation.
Although tourism is an integral part of Egyptian-Russian relations, the political alliance was not affected. This is an example of Russian opportunism that uses multiple tools to instil its power in the region.
While opting for the existing political elites, Russia uses mutual interests as a card to pressure its partners, whereas, through this partnership, Russia does not tolerate any violation of its interests.
In turn, this means that Russia constantly demonstrates its leadership in the connection between the region’s political elites.
If we take Libya’s case, for example, Russia has maintained interaction with both Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar and has received both in Moscow.
All events indicate that Haftar is Russia’s man in Libya but that does not mean aggressing against al-Sarraj or cutting relations and interactions with him.
Therefore, Russia interacts in the region with political elites through choosing allies that get special support, like al-Sisi, Haftar and al-Assad, but at the same time it does not defy the will of the international community or the decisions of the UN Security Council, or the general balance of powers between political elites that witness times of conflict or transformations.
In other words, maintaining equal communication with multiple parties is a demonstration of Russian opportunism, specifically in zones of conflict and political tension.
The complex relation between Russia and the West is another factor that evolves within the context of its relationship with political elites. During the Russian proximity with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt in the post-30 June phase, the Egyptian regime was under heavy attack from Western countries after the revolution.
The coup/revolution dichotomy was very then active. In addition, the crackdown on several foreign funding organisations working in Egypt at the time, and stigmatising them, created more tensions within the scene.
Russia then showed a lot of support for the Egyptian post-30 June regime, and Putin displayed a very friendly manner to the then Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi where the legitimacy of the post-revolutionary regime was being internationally questioned.
In Syria, the very same approach was adopted by Russia, where utter support to al-Assad came during a mass attack on the regime’s
violations from the international community. In the midst of the conflict in Libya, Russia received Khalifa Haftar on one of its military ships crossing the Mediterranean through the coasts of Libya. On that occasion, Haftar had a videoconference call onboard of the ship with Russian Defence Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Finally, in post-revolutionary contexts, new political elites bring about and facilitate the rise of future elites, whether professional, bureaucratic or business. Business and economic cooperation with the Southern Mediterranean region is of paramount importance to the Russian state.
This means that Russia is not only interested in forming alliances with political elites in the region but it also wants to secure domestic elite alliances within the countries to ensure the realisation of Russian interests.
The long-term projects that Russia is interested in throughout the region require business elites that will work in close collaboration with Russian investment representatives. For example, in Egypt, the military with its different branches will be partner in many infrastructure projects implemented by Russia.
At the same time, new business elites in the region must be in accordance with political elites, which is a pre-condition that Russia seeks in its partnerships in the Southern Mediterranean.
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?