CAIRO - Egypt's army chief headed to Russia on his first trip abroad since his ouster of the Islamist president, amid reports of a Gulf-funded $2 billion arms deal in the making with Moscow that would significantly expand Russia's military influence with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The trip by Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also boosts an image of international clout for the military commander, who is widely expected to announce his candidacy to run for president in elections next year. The military issued a photo of el-Sissi on his way to board the plane for Moscow in civilian clothes - a blue blazer and tie - a rare picture of him out of uniform.
The high-profile visit to Russia comes at a time when Egypt's relations have soured with its longtime ally and military patron, the United States, over el-Sissi's removal of President Mohammed Morsi. El-Sissi ousted the elected president in July after massive protests against the Islamist leader, and Washington later suspended some of its annual aid of more than $1.5 billion, most of which goes to the Egyptian military, as a show of disapproval.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty underlined that the Moscow visit is not intended to be "against anyone, but is to diversify partners."
Still, it appeared in part a signal to Washington that Cairo has multiple options - and it burnishes el-Sissi's reputation as willing to stand up to the Americans. The pro-military media in Egypt have been fueling public anger against the United States, 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.
In the press and in posters waved by his supporters, el-Sissi has already been compared with army officer-turned-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's nationalist leader of the 1960s and 1960's and a dramatic figure who aligned the country with the Soviet Union.
El-Sissi's call on Moscow comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shogiu visited Cairo three months ago.
According to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram, el-Sissi is to conclude a $2 billion arms deal funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Gen. Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyptian army general who maintains close contact with the military, also said the deal would be finalized in Moscow. Military officials declined to comment.
In November, Russia's Interfax news agency said that Egypt has shown interest in purchasing Russian air defense missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons.
Egypt was Moscow's closest Arab ally for two decades starting in the 1950s, when Nasser turned from U.S. support to win the Soviet Union's backing of his ambitious drive to modernize the Arab nation 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, which was a mega project to control floods, provide electricity and water for irrigation.
Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat reversed the alignment. He broke with Moscow, expelling Soviet military advisers and turning down offers of military support while preparing for the 1973 war with Israel. After he signed the 1979 peace deal with Israel, Egypt became the second biggest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel.
Earlier this week, Egyptian Chief of Staff Gen. Sedki Sobhi said during a visit to 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," he said in remarks published by the newspaper Emirate Shield.
During the Russian delegation's visit three months ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, who accompanied el-Sissi on Wednesday, sought to downplay speculation of a major foreign policy shift.
At the time, he said the visit was only an "activation" of existing ties and a sign of cooperation between the two countries "in multiple fields."
The reported arms deal in the works also underscores how the oil-rich Arab nations of the Gulf have thrown their weight behind el-Sissi. Long opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, they strongly backed the military's ouster of Morsi and pledged more than $12 billion in grants and loans to the interim government installed by the military.
Mustafa al-Ani, head of the UAE-based think-tank Security and Defense Studies at the Gulf Research Center, said the arms deal and other Gulf aid aim to insulate Egypt and the interim government from U.S. pressure.
"Whether el-Sissi is elected president or any other, the Gulf will not let Egypt in the middle of the road and will protect it from US pressures and any other pressures like those from Turkey or any other Arab countries," he said.
Though he has not yet announced his candidacy, el-Sissi is expected to sweep the vote during the upcoming 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. Yet the subsequent expansion of security crackdown not only on Islamist supporters but secular-leaning critics, raised concerns about human rights and freedom of expression.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said Egyptian authorities have detained an Egyptian employee of the embassy for nearly three weeks without charges. The employee, Ahmed Aleiba, was arrested on Jan. 25, when hundreds were detained in a crackdown on protests marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the spokesman Moufid Deak said. He would not elaborate on the circumstances of the arrest.
Since Morsi ouster, Egypt has seen a wave of militant attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and beyond, including in Cairo, and has been hit by bombings and suicide attacks that have targeted police and military, leaving scores dead and wounded.
On Wednesday, three policemen were killed by unidentified gunmen in a drive-by shooting on a highway east of the capital, Cairo.