CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's foreign minister sought to downplay speculation of a major shift in his country's foreign policy, saying during a top-level Russian visit Thursday that Moscow was too important to be a substitute for the United States as Cairo's key ally and backer.
The remarks by Nabil Fahmy came after talks with his visiting counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who is leading the Russian delegation to Cairo.
"We look forward to cooperation with Russia in multiple fields and that is because of Russia's significance in the international arena," Fahmy said at a news conference. "We look forward to strong, continuous and stable relations with Russia. We seek to energize a relation that is already in existence."
When asked whether Russia would replace the U.S. as his country's chief ally, Fahmy said Egypt was not looking for a "substitute for anyone."
"Russia's weight is too heavy to be a substitute for anyone," he said.
The Russian visit comes as Egypt's relationship with the United States — Cairo's main foreign backer and benefactor since the 1970s — has become increasingly strained in the wake of the popularly-backed coup that deposed an elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt was Moscow's closest Arab ally for two decades, starting in the 1950s, with the Soviet Union throwing its weights behind the late nationalist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 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.
But in 1972, then-President Anwar Sadat threw out thousands of Soviet military advisers and realigned the country's foreign policy, taking his nation closer to the United States soon after the 1973 Mideast war.
Also, Egypt's relations with the Soviet Union took a marked turn for the worse after Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but relations have steadily improved in recent years, with hundreds of thousands of Russians vacationing in Egypt every year.
The Russian delegation in Cairo is Moscow's highest-level visit in years and also includes Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, whose presence has set off rumors of an arms deal in the making.
Fahmy said he, Lavrov, Shigu and Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdelk-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the July coup that ousted Morsi, would jointly meet later Thursday.
The United States last month froze a big chunk of its annual $1.3 billion military aid to Egypt. The move angered the Egyptians and prompted speculations in the local media that Egypt intended to sign a multi-billion dollar weapons deal with Russia. But there has so far been no official word from Cairo or Moscow on such a deal.
The Interfax news agency recently quoted an unidentified official of the state Rosoboronexport arms trader as saying that there are no plans to sign any contracts during the Cairo talks.
It said Egypt has shown interest in purchasing Russian air defense missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons. But it quoted an unnamed official dealing with arms trade as saying that no big deals are expected in the near future as Egypt currently can't afford it.
At the news conference, Lavrov said Russia stands to gain from the return of stability to Egypt, a reference to the turmoil roiling the country since the ouster in the 2011 uprising of staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.