President Vladimir Putin arrived on Monday in Egypt as Russia seeks to expand its reach in the Arab world’s most populous country at a time when Cairo-Washington ties remain frayed.
Putin’s first visit to Egypt in a decade comes after a 2011 popular uprising that ousted ex-strongman Hosni Mubarak, whom he leader met on his previous trip in 2005.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed Putin on arrival at Cairo’s international airport where the two leaders held talks for half an hour, officials said.
From the airport they proceeded to Cairo Opera House in the capital’s central district of Zamalek for a cultural evening.
Putin is a key non-Arab backer of Sisi, who faces harsh US criticism for his deadly crackdown on dissent since Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the then army chief in July 2013.
Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed and thousands imprisoned in a subsequent crackdown.
Experts say Putin’s visit is also aimed at showing that he is not isolated internationally, despite the crisis in Ukraine.
“The leaders will pay special attention to ramping up trade and economic ties between the two countries,” the Kremlin said ahead of the visit.
– Egypt-Russia accords –
They will hold formal talks on Tuesday and sign several agreements after which Putin and Sisi will hold a joint news conference, Sisi’s office said.
They are also expected to discuss Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Russia had hosted Sisi’s predecessor Morsi during his one-year presidency, despite banning the Islamist’s Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist group” in 2003.
But Russia was also one of the first countries to endorse Sisi’s presidential bid last year.
Posters of Putin were put up on Cairo’s main roads greeting the Russian leader in Russian, Arabic and English.
Sisi himself visited Russia when he was defence minister soon after ousting Morsi amid deteriorating relations with Washington, and followed it up with another trip in August 2014 as president.
At their meeting last summer at Putin’s summer residence in Sochi, the two discussed Russia supplying weapons to Egypt, which is fighting an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed scores of policemen and soldiers.
Moscow has sought to secure a larger slice of the Egyptian arms market after Washington suspended some weapons deliveries in the immediate aftermath of Sisi’s crackdown on Morsi supporters.
– Arms purchase plan –
Cairo also hosted the Russian defence and foreign ministers in November — the first such visit since the Soviet era — for discussions on an Egyptian arms purchase plan.
At the time, Russian media said the two sides were close to signing a $3-billion (then 2.2 billion euros) deal for Moscow to supply missiles and warplanes including MiG-29 fighters and attack helicopters.
However, in recent months Washington has warmed to Cairo again and resumed its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, also delivering Apache helicopter gunships to fight jihadists in Sinai.
Ties between Egypt and the United States still remain far from what they were before Morsi’s ouster, with Washington criticising Sisi’s regime for repressing Islamist as well as secular dissent.
“Putin continues to take advantage of ambiguity and contradictions in Western policies toward the Middle East,” said Anna Borshchevskaya of The Washington Institute For Near East Policy.
As long as Washington criticises “Egypt’s democratic backslide… it keeps open the door for Putin… to gain influence in Egypt at the expense of US interests,” said the expert on Moscow’s policy towards the Middle East.