With a rapidly expanding population exceeding 100 million and insufficient domestic agriculture, Egypt is heavily dependent on importing basic food from Europe, about 12.9 million tons of consumable products alone in 2020.
Specifically, Egypt imports around 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. That important detail has contributed to Cairo’s reluctance to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war or to join Western sanctions against Russia.
Last week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the invasion began.
“The presidents discussed further development of the strategic partnership between Russia and Egypt, including major joint projects in nuclear energy and industrial production. Both parties expressed interest in continuing close cooperation in tourism and agriculture,” read the official statement released by the Kremlin. “At the request of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Vladimir Putin explained the reasons for and goals of the special military operation to protect Donbass and spoke about Russia’s efforts during the talks with Ukrainian representatives. The president of Egypt thanked Russia for the efforts to evacuate Egyptian nationals from the conflict zone.”
Prior to the Russian invasion, some 6,000 Egyptian nationals resided in Ukraine. Like other foreigners, many Egyptians have already been evacuated to neighboring states such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Austria.
Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly tried to quell domestic fears of serious wheat import disruptions because of the Ukrainian crisis.
“I assure all Egyptians that we won’t have any crisis at all or be compelled to buy from the international market until the end of this year. I am talking about the citizens’ basic needs concerning the bread loaf, we as the Egyptian state won’t be pressured at all to buy any shipments under the current price surges as we will have a stock that will cover our needs until the end of 2022,” Madbouly stated.
Soraya al-Farra, a professor of political science at Moscow University, believes that Russia views Egypt as an important Middle Eastern partner.
“Russia sees in Egypt a strategic partner in the Middle East. Both countries are keen on preserving and consolidating their ties,” al-Farra told the Al Monitor news outlet.
During much of the Cold War, Egypt was a close Soviet ally and Moscow backed Cairo militarily and politically against Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. However, since the U.S.-brokered Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in 1979, Egypt is considered a close U.S. ally and receives approximately $1.3 billion in annual military aid from Washington.
At the same time, Egypt has prioritized strong ties with Moscow due to increased Russian influence in the Middle East and Washington’s gradual withdrawal from the turbulent region.
Timothy Kaldas, a policy fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, stressed that close relations with Russia are critical for Egypt.
“President Sisi has worked to establish close ties with President Putin in a variety of fields ranging from energy to agriculture to arms. He has also sought to use his relations with Russia and China to assist Egypt to minimize Western pressure on Egypt over its poor human rights record and political repression,” Kaldas said.
While Cairo generally seeks neutrality, Egypt did join the West in voting to condemn the Russian invasion at the United Nations General Assembly last week.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Egypt announced that it would seek to diversify the sources of wheat imports.