CAIRO — Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a universally acknowledged but unannounced presidential candidate in Egypt, received an early endorsement Thursday from President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Sissi was in Moscow on a visit widely seen as the latest in a series of carefully choreographed steps from general to president, and even before the two leaders met, his wardrobe had already dominated the news. Photographs of the field marshal striding forward in a civilian suit instead of his customary military uniform filled both the state and private media: a more presidential look.
The trip also served to demonstrate his strength at home and abroad by delivering a message to Washington about Egypt’s independence.
Sissi’s stated purpose was to negotiate a deal to buy Russian weapons with money donated by the Persian Gulf sponsors of the new military-backed government, reportedly as much as $2 billion. Such a purchase would send a signal that the Egyptian military was not solely reliant on the United States, which normally gives Egypt about $1.3 billion a year in military equipment and services but has suspended certain shipments in response to the military ouster last summer of its first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Obama administration has said it would resume full shipments when Egypt takes steps toward democracy, and in the meantime Egypt is eager to show the United States that it has alternative allies if Washington proves too difficult.
The Soviet Union was Egypt’s major military patron during much of the Cold War, before President Anwar el-Sadat switched allegiances with the Camp David peace accords. But US officials have said they are not worried about a new Russian-Egyptian alliance, in part because Egypt is deeply dependent on Washington for spare parts and upkeep of its existing equipment.
But Putin, who has been looking to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East, was eager to welcome his visitor and encourage his ambitions.
“I know that you, Mr. Defense Minister, have decided to run for president of Egypt,” Putin told Sissi, according to news reports. “I wish you luck both from myself personally and from the Russian people.”
Sissi told Putin, “Our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological cooperation between Egypt and Russia. We hope to speed up the cooperation.”