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Seemingly miffed with U.S., Egypt courts Russians

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 6:39 p.m.

CAIRO — Egypt edged further away from its traditional place within the U.S. sphere of influence on Thursday, hosting Russia's foreign and defense ministers in the highest-level talks between the two countries in years.

The visit, which included discussions on strengthening military ties and diplomatic efforts on Syria, challenged the U.S. position as Egypt's primary benefactor and was seen as a diplomatic swipe at Egypt's increasingly estranged Western ally.

Russia, a stalwart supporter of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has stepped up its role in the Middle East in recent months, taking action where Washington has been reluctant to engage and brokering the deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

Expanding ties with Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, would give Russia an even firmer foothold in countries that once relied mainly on their alliances with the United States.

“We are not replacing one party with another,” said Badr Abdelatty, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman. “We want to strengthen the independence of our foreign policy. We want to diversify. And Russia is a very important global power.”

Sergei Shoigu's visit to Cairo was the first by a Russian defense minister since the 1970s, when then-President Anwar Sadat ejected thousands of Soviet military advisers in an effort to curry favor with the West.

Egypt's commanding general, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, said Shoigu's presence would help launch “a new era of constructive, fruitful cooperation on the military level.”

In addition, the arrival of two Russian warships at Egyptian ports in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea in the past week marked the first joint naval maneuvers between the two countries in years.

U.S.-Egyptian relations have been tense since July, when Egypt's military ousted Mohamed Morsy from the presidency in a popularly backed coup.

A subsequent crackdown on Morsy's supporters, including the violent dispersal of a mass sit-in in Cairo that killed hundreds, prompted the Obama administration to halt about a third of its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt. The United States also withheld delivery of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tank kits and Harpoon missiles.

A flurry of recent media reports in Egypt and Russia suggested that the two countries were negotiating a multibillion-dollar weapons deal, which would demonstrate Egypt's ability to procure advanced weapons systems without U.S. help.

Although no deal was announced on Thursday, Abdelatty, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: “Of course Egypt will be cooperating militarily with Russia.”

Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense industry think tank in Qatar, called the talk of an arms deal “a bit of saber rattling.”

“But it doesn't mean it won't happen,” Stephens said. “If the Americans don't respond positively to this, then we'll see some problems. Then we'll see some pushing forward for the deal.”

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