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Egypt military chief heads to Moscow in rare visit

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12 2014 8:55 a.m. MST

In this image released on the official Facebook page of the Egyptian Military Spokesman of the Armed Forces, Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, second right, and Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, center background, prepare to depart to Moscow from a military airport, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. El-Sissi headed to Moscow on Wednesday amid reports of a $2 billion arms deal in the making that would significantly expand Russia's military influence with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

The Official Facebook Page of the Egyptian Military Spokesman of the Armed Forces, Associated Press

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CAIRO — Egypt's army chief headed to Russia on his first trip abroad since his ouster of the Islamist president, amid reports of a Gulf-funded $2 billion arms deal in the making with Moscow that would significantly expand Russia's military influence with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

The trip by Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also boosts an image of international clout for the military commander, who is widely expected to announce his candidacy to run for president in elections next year. The military issued a photo of el-Sissi on his way to board the plane for Moscow in civilian clothes — a blue blazer and tie — a rare picture of him out of uniform.

The high-profile visit to Russia comes at a time when Egypt's relations have soured with its longtime ally and military patron, the United States, over el-Sissi's removal of President Mohammed Morsi. El-Sissi ousted the elected president in July after massive protests against the Islamist leader, and Washington later suspended some of its annual aid of more than $1.5 billion, most of which goes to the Egyptian military, as a show of disapproval.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty underlined that the Moscow visit is not intended to be "against anyone, but is to diversify partners."

Still, it appeared in part a signal to Washington that Cairo has multiple options — and it burnishes el-Sissi's reputation as willing to stand up to the Americans. The pro-military media in Egypt have been fueling public anger against the United States, depicting Washington as a supporter of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood and even accusing the Americans of conspiring with the Islamists against Egyptian national security.

In the press and in posters waved by his supporters, el-Sissi has already been compared with army officer-turned-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's nationalist leader of the 1960s and 1960's and a dramatic figure who aligned the country with the Soviet Union.

El-Sissi's call on Moscow comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shogiu visited Cairo three months ago.

According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, el-Sissi is to conclude a $2 billion arms deal funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Gen. Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyptian army general who maintains close contact with the military, also said the deal would be finalized in Moscow. Military officials declined to comment.

In November, Russia's Interfax news agency said that Egypt has shown interest in purchasing Russian air defense missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons.

Egypt was Moscow's closest Arab ally for two decades starting in the 1950s, when Nasser turned from U.S. support to win the Soviet Union's backing of his ambitious drive to modernize the Arab nation and create a well-armed military at the height of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Egyptians partnered with the Soviets to build the High Dam, which was a mega project to control floods, provide electricity and water for irrigation.

Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat reversed the alignment. He broke with Moscow, expelling Soviet military advisers and turning down offers of military support while preparing for the 1973 war with Israel. After he signed the 1979 peace deal with Israel, Egypt became the second biggest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel.

Earlier this week, Egyptian Chief of Staff Gen. Sedki Sobhi said during a visit to UAE that Egypt is "open in its military relations with all superpowers" and wants to diversify its arms sources, "from different military schools, Eastern and Western."

"Relations with any country are not a substitute to those with any other country," he said in remarks published by the newspaper Emirate Shield.

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