CAIRO – Making his second visit to Egypt since 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Cairo on Monday for talks with his Egyptian counterpart on the two countries' rapidly expanding ties and regional issues.
Egypt's general-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has visited Russia three times since the ouster of his Islamist predecessor in 2013. After taking office, el-Sissi has bought billions of dollars' worth of Russian weapons, including fighter jets and assault helicopters.
The two countries are also in the late stages of negotiations over the construction by a Russian company of Egypt's first nuclear energy reactor.
Last month, Russia approved a draft agreement with Egypt to allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases, a significant leap in bilateral ties and evidence of Moscow's expanding military role in a turbulent Middle East.
Putin flew to Cairo after a brief and previously unannounced visit to a Russian military air base in Syria, according to Russia's Tass news agency. The air base has served as the main foothold for the air campaign Russia has waged since September 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad against armed groups opposed to his rule.
Egypt's currently close ties with Russia harken back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo became Moscow's closest Arab ally during the peak years of the Cold War.
Egypt changed allies in the 1970s under the late President Anwar Sadat, who replaced Moscow with Washington as his country's chief economic and military backer following the signing of a U.S.-sponsored peace treaty with Israel. Egypt has since become a major recipient of U.S. economic and military aid.
In what would have been unthinkable during the Cold War, Egypt has under el-Sissi been able to maintain close ties with both Russia and the United States.
Egypt, however, has not been able thus far to persuade Russia to resume its flights to Egypt, suspended since October 2015 when a suspected bomb brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. Egypt has since spent millions of dollars to upgrade security at its airports and undergone numerous checks by Russian experts to ascertain the level of security at the facilities.
The suspension of Russian flights has dealt a devastating blow to Egypt's vital tourism industry. Britain, another major source of visitors, has since the Russian airliner's crash also suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort in Sinai from which the Russian airliner took off shortly before it crashed.
"Your Excellency: When will Russian tourism return to Egypt?" read the front-page banner headline in a Cairo daily loyal to the government, in both Arabic and Russian.
There have been speculations that el-Sissi and Putin might during the visit finalize and announce a deal on the construction of the nuclear reactor on Egypt's Mediterranean coast after months of wrangling over technical and financial details.
Egypt and Russia have already initialed an agreement for a $25 billion Russian loan to finance the construction.