CAIRO — Egypt’s military announced on Wednesday it will host Russian troops for war games along the Mediterranean coast, the latest step in the two countries’ rapprochement and another sign of Moscow flexing its muscles in the Middle East.
The drill, due Oct. 15-26 in the coastal city of El-Alamein and dubbed “Guardians of Friendship,” will include “elite units” from both sides. Russia’s defense ministry said it would be the first ever joint paratrooper exercise for the two and would involve armor being dropped from planes.
Egypt has increased cooperation with Russia under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who ousted his elected but divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013, with several projects, including a preliminary agreement to build a nuclear power plant.
Meanwhile, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has revived its military presence in the region to levels not seen since the Cold War, intervening with an air campaign to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad against opposition forces trying to oust him, and the extremist Islamic State group.
It’s unclear how the joint exercises in El-Alamein would be interpreted by some of Egypt’s main backers — including the United States, which provides some $1.3 billion in annual military assistance, and Saudi Arabia, which has helped prop up el-Sissi’s rule with billions in key loans and grants. Egypt still needs several billion dollars in loans as a condition to meet an IMF bailout package to get the economy back on track.
El-Sissi has splashed out on big-ticket military hardware, from naval vessels to advanced fighter jets from the French and Americans. He has largely contained violence on Egypt’s mainland, although an insurgency in a far corner of the Sinai Peninsula flared after he led the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, with an IS affiliate forming in Sinai.
Soldiers and police officers in Sinai are frequently killed by roadside bombs and snipers in the area, while the army says it kills dozens of militants every month.
The insurgency risked upsetting ties with Russia last October, when IS militants brought down a Russian passenger plane in Sinai, killing all 224 on board. Russia suspended flights to Egypt and has yet to return them, waiting for better security measures to be implemented first.