CAIRO — Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Cairo on Monday to meet his Egyptian counterpart, with both sides eager to strengthen ties and show both have options outside of the West to pursue their goals.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi greeted Putin, accompanied by several high-level Russian officials and government ministers, on a red carpet as he walked off his plane, flanked by soldiers in full military dress holding rifles with their bayonets aloft.
El-Sissi's office earlier said that the two leaders would sign several agreements on Tuesday, although it did not elaborate on the nature of the agreements. Both have sides have mentioned strengthening military cooperation and trade.
Russian flags and posters of Putin's face hung across the capital. The state-run Al Ahram newspaper ran a weekend profile of him, with photos showing Putin shirtless and holding various weapons, headlined "A hero of our times." From the airport, the two leaders headed to the Cairo Opera House, where the symphony was to play excerpts of "Swan Lake" and the opera "Aida."
The visit, the first by Putin to Egypt in a decade, is largely symbolic, analysts say.
"For Egypt, the exceptionally warm reception for Putin is purposeful theatrics, meant as a message to the U.S. and the West that Egypt maintains a sense of independence, has options and is not beholden," said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation.
The Egyptian economy is still struggling after several years of instability that began with its 2011 revolt, and the government is courting investors. The United States, which provides the country up to $1.3 billion in annual military aid, partially suspended that funding following el-Sissi's overthrow of an Islamist president in 2013 and his subsequent crackdown on dissent.
Russia, under Western sanctions over its support for separatists in Ukraine, has economic problems of its own, compounded by plunging oil prices. The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine aim to hold a summit Wednesday to renew a much-violated September peace plan for the conflict.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday that without a resolution, "Russia's isolation will only worsen, both politically and economically."
Georgy Mirsky, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said the Egypt visit highlighted how Putin was seeking to show how Moscow still had friends around the world, even if it wasn't in a position to support countries with aid as in Soviet times.
"This isn't about trade and economy, no — that doesn't require a Russian president going to Egypt," he said. "For Putin, it's a way to show his people that Russia is not a pariah in the world, that it's not isolated. ... And this is one small step.
"Egypt knows that it can't live without the West, because it needs investment, and it needs money and all kinds of economic aid. Russia is by no means in a position to help Egypt on those fronts, it is in a very bad way itself, and things will certainly get worse before they get better."
El-Sissi visited Russia last August to boost trade and military cooperation. Following those talks, Putin said Russia started supplying weapons to Egypt after signing a memorandum in March, but gave no details.
Egypt was Moscow's closest Arab ally in the 1950s and '60s, when nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser turned away from U.S. support to win Soviet backing for his drive to modernize the country and the military. Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, broke with Moscow and evicted Soviet military advisers.
The Interfax news agency reported Monday that Russia currently has $3.5 billion worth of new arms contracts with Egypt, including fighter jets, helicopters, air defense missiles and other weapons. It said Egypt is one of the first foreign customers for Russia's sophisticated Antei-2500 long-range air defense missile systems.
Russia said it would welcome more imports of Egyptian oranges, potatoes and other agricultural products as it sought to turn to other markets following its ban on the European and U.S. food in retaliation to the Western sanctions. Russia also said it plans to expand grain exports to Egypt, which currently cover 40 percent of Egypt's needs, according to the Kremlin.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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