Ahmadinejad in Cairo

Morsi opposes Assad regime, while lining his pockets.

Last August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran that the Syrian regime had “lost legitimacy.” "We must announce our full support for those who demand freedom and justice in Syria,” he said. His speech was so inflammatory that his Iranian hosts stormed out of the room.

It could therefore be assumed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo this week will be extremely uncomfortable. Syria is high on the agenda and it seems Bashar Al Assad’s closest ally could be at loggerheads with Cairo. Egypt is, after all, a product of a revolution similar to Syria’s. Its government enjoys support from Sunni Gulf states, who are actively working to bring down Assad and weaken his support from Shi’a Iran. The recent $10m Egypt received from Qatar indicate Morsi’s government can not afford to have its loyalty questioned on this issue.

Yet there is more that concerns Morsi than revolution, and Qatar is not the only state that has been offering loans recently. In the same month that Morsi spoke at the NAM summit, he turned down a US request to inspect the cargo of Iranian ship. It was travelling to Syria through the Suez Canal and suspected to be carrying arms. In fact, while Morsi publicly calls for Assad to step down this week, he will be helping Syria circumvent EU and US sanctions. Funding for the Syrian regime comes from crude oil exported to Asian markets via Iran. It gets there by travelling through Egypt's Suez Canal.

Ismael Darwish of the Syrian Economic Task Force (SETF), which acts on behalf of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, says that before the Syrian uprising in March 2011, oil accounted for nearly half of all Syrian exports in value and around 25% of all Syrian government revenues. Now, daily production of Syrian crude oil is estimated by the regime to be around 140,000 barrels per day; all under government control, according to Darwish. In March last year, Reuters reported Syrian oil exports to China via Iran, gave Bashar Al Assad’s regime a “financial boost worth an estimated $80m.”

Iran tries to conceal the movement of its ships by disrupting ship tracking systems and sailing under various names and flags. They are trackable only by their unique IMO number. The Iranian ship, the TOUR 2, has flown under the flags of  Malta, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and Togo. Previously registered under three shell company owners in three different countries, the ships  beneficial owner is the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). It has made at least three circuits between Iran and Syria via Egypt, calling at Syrian ports last March and July. Most recently, the TOUR 2 departed from Iran to load crude oil in December 2012 and sailed through the Canal northwards on 30 December.

Another Iranian ship, the BAIKAL, which was until recently travelling under the Tanzanian flag, also departed from Syria in December 2012 and sailed through the canal on 30 December.

Egypt claims that it is under no obligation to stop Syrian oil tankers, but turns a blind eye to international commitments that may require it to do so. November 2011 Arab League sanctions, for example, require it to halt “ financial dealings and trade agreements with the Syrian government.” The Irano Hind Shipping Company, which owns the TOUR 2 has been sanctioned by the UN. Member states are required to freeze Irano Hind’s assets. Egypt still lets the TOUR 2 pass.

Despite Morsi’s grandstanding on foreign affairs, domestically, his country’s situation limits him.  Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled by more than half since January 2011, reaching $13.65bn. The state struggles to import food and petroleum products. Recent protests in Egypt can not be disassociated from anger people feel that their lives are worse under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Suez Canal is one of the greatest sources of revenue for Egypt. A loss of profit from the canal would be a great blow.

With a crippled economy and divided state, the Egyptian president’s hand in these Syria negotiations is weaker than he would have us believe. As well as offering to “dialogue” on Syria this week, Iran’s premier offered Egypt “a big credit line.” Meanwhile, the situation of Syrians, deemed essential earlier this year, has fallen by the wayside.
 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign ahead of a meeting in Cairo on 5 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times