CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's military chief headed to Russia Wednesday on his first trip abroad since ousting the country's Islamist president, part of a shift to reduce reliance on the United States at a time of frictions between the longtime allies.
Making a rare appearance in civilian clothes, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi struck a presidential look ahead of a likely run for office. His scheduled meeting with Russia President Vladimir Putin on Thursday would boost an image of international clout for the army commander
The high-profile visit comes amid reports of a $2 billion Gulf-funded arms deal in the making with Russia. Funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it underscores how oil-rich Gulf states have thrown their weight behind Egypt's military-backed government.
Long opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, they strongly backed the military's July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and, along with Kuwait, have pledged more than $12 billion in grants and loans to the interim government installed by the military.
This week's visit to Russia comes at a time when relations have soured with the U.S., Egypt's longtime ally and military patron, over el-Sissi's removal of Morsi following massive protests against the Islamist leader. Washington later suspended some of its $1.5 billion in annual aid, most of which goes to the Egyptian military.
Mustafa al-Ani, head of the UAE-based think tank Security and Defense Studies at the Gulf Research Center, said Egypt's turn to Russia was an attempt to counter what he called a U.S. policy of "giving up on Egypt."
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty insisted the Moscow visit is not intended to be "against anyone, but is to diversify partners."
Still, it appeared to send a signal to Washington that Cairo has multiple options, while burnishing el-Sissi's reputation for being willing to stand up to the Americans. Egypt's pro-military media have been fueling public anger against the U.S., 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.
According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, el-Sissi is to conclude a $2 billion arms deal while in Moscow and Gen. Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyptian army general who maintains close ties to the military, confirmed the report. Military officials declined to comment.
El-Sissi's call on Moscow comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shogiu visited Cairo three months ago. In November, Russia's Interfax news agency said that Egypt was interested in purchasing Russian air defense missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons.
Earlier this week, Egypt's chief of staff, Gen. Sedki Sobhi, said during a visit to the 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," Sobhi said in remarks published in the newspaper Emirate Shield.
Egypt was Moscow's closest Arab ally for two decades, starting in the 1950s, when nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser turned from U.S. support to win Soviet backing for his ambitious drive to modernize the country 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, a mega-project to control floods and provide electricity and water for irrigation.
Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, reversed the alignment, breaking with Moscow and expelling Soviet military advisers. After he signed the 1979 peace deal with Israel, Egypt became the second-biggest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel.
El-Sissi's visit to Russia was not announced in advance and he surprised many with his new look — a blue blazer, dark trousers and a tie — as he hurried to board a military jet at the Almaza military airport east of Cairo.
He left behind speculation about when he will announce his candidacy for presidential elections due by the end of April. The military chief has become hugely popular among a large segment of Egyptians who see him as the nation's savior for ending the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, who many accused of dominating power under Morsi.
Still, a deadly security crackdown on Islamist supporters that has left hundreds dead and a subsequent campaign of intimidation and arrests of secular-leaning critics have raised concerns about el-Sissi's tolerance for dissent. The government says it is in a war against terrorism, citing a wave of bombings and suicide attacks that have targeted police and the military, leaving scores dead and wounded.