Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Egypt and Algeria on March, 20-22. On the eve of this visit, Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director, Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-U.S.-The West, talks about Russia’s relations with Egypt and Algeria.
Both Algeria and Egypt have a long history of cooperation with Russia that goes back to the times of the Algerian National Liberation Front, the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the strong support provided by the Soviet Union to both countries in their difficult anti-colonial struggle. To a large extent and particularly as regards nationalist elites, this historical memory remained untainted by any major crisis, even when, in the case of Egypt, Anwar Sadat made his strategic rapprochement with the United States in the aftermath of the 1973 war with Israel.
The new Russia inherited that past good will which tourism and cooperation in the energy field strengthened further. From Soviet times, Russia also inherited very capable diplomatic and cultural elites fully at ease in Arab culture and Arabic language – an asset the United States badly lacks, which can hamper the formation and implementation of sound policies, as was the case in disastrous Bush Administration decisions related to the Iraq war. It is against this fairly positive background that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov undertakes his visit to Algeria and Egypt.
The democratic change taking place in Egypt and to a lesser extent in Algeria and which has given a significant role to civil society in the shaping of national destiny offers Russia additional opportunities for strengthening cooperation with the two countries. Algerian and Egyptian public opinion, especially the younger generation, does not associate post-soviet Russia with any of the grievances that divide the Muslim world and the West, above all the United States: the Palestinian tragedy, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and increasing Islamophobia. The suspicion that hangs over any Western initiative concerning the Muslim world, even when well intended, renders Western-Muslim World dialogue at the civil society level sometimes very difficult. In contrast, Russia can not only claim innocence as far as possible domination designs are concerned, but can also remind its Egyptians and Algerian civil society interlocutors of the Russian people’s own long and sometimes dramatic path to democracy, and earn their sympathy through this shared experience. As they get down to the laborious task of reconciling the exalting aspirations of revolutionary fervor and the hard demands of objective reality, the emerging democracies of the Arab world can learn from the Russian experience.
All of the above arguments clearly plead for strengthening cultural exchanges and increased cooperation in the field of education, taking advantage of the younger Algerian and Egyptian generation’s hunger for renewal and a better life on the one hand, and Russia’s cultural and educational Arabic speaking elites on the other. For instance, why not consider opening branches of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Cairo or Algeria or both? Why not consider establishing a joint Egyptian-Russian University in Cairo? Investing in the teaching of the Russian language in both countries, both in the formal educational system and in after school learning would be a rewarding decision from a long term perspective, as it facilitates cooperation in tourism, industrial ventures and energy, and this in turn would strengthen Russia’s ties with the two countries.
Tunisia which set the example for democratic change in the Arab world should be included in this new Russian strategic approach to the Arab world, and one would hope that Mr. Lavrov would bear in mind that the winds of change started blowing over the Arab world from the country of the Jasmine Revolution. A special visit to Tunisia by the Russian Foreign Minister is thus called for. He should take with him a significant package of cooperation initiatives in the fields of tourism, art and culture, education, industry, environment, scientific research, and many other fields for which Tunisians are by all accounts better equipped professionally than either Egyptians or Algerians. The success of the Tunisian democratic experience would place Russia on the good side of history, if the Russian leadership contributes boldly to this success.
As for the rest of the Arab world, it is clear that the situation unfolding before our eyes and changing almost every day, sometimes in tragic ways, as is the case in Libya and Bahrain, calls for prudence in judgment and wisdom in decision making on the part of outside actors. Each country of the region has its specific history, social structure and level of economic development. The powerful change that took place in Tunisia and Egypt can not be automatically replicated in the rest of the Arab world, if change is not initiated by the people. Change for its own sake can be regretted, if the result is chaos, violence and regional instability. Added to other sources of tension in the region — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran nuclear issue, the Shiia-Sunni divide — artificial calls for change can result in more harm than good for the people concerned and beyond. The Russian leadership should be careful in stepping into situations that do not reflect a clear will of the people.