Mixed perceptions of Russia in Egypt
Unlike during the Soviet era, when Moscow used to support all revolutions and national liberation movements around the world, this time Russia did not offer any direct support to the revolutions and rebel movements in any of the Arab countries.
Moscow kept silent until the outcome of events, including possible regime change became known; as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. As for Bahrain and Yemen, Russia chose to remain neutral and was very slow to give any reaction at all. This stance changed to become more favourable toward the Libyan leader and is even more evident now with the Syrian regime.
At the same time, Russia kept open channels of communication with the rebels, in an attempt to achieve the greatest possible degree of balance, and to maintain the integrity of its position.
Russia has seemed eager to preserve the domestic and regional stability in the Arab countries, and to maintain diplomatic and economic relations with these states, regardless of who came to power in the end.
Syria as a cornerstone
The Russian position regarding Syria is based on a clear distinction between the importance of the regime in Damascus implementing real reforms and the need to preempt any Western intervention which Moscow thinks would have disastrous consequences, not only for the unity of Syria, but for the stability and security in the entire region.
Moscow sees no contradiction between the two. According to Russia’s point of view, supporting Assad’s regime is not targeted against the rebels, but aimed at countering American and French attempts to “fuel a civil war”.
Moscow claims it is seeking stability in the Middle East and sees Syria as a "cornerstone" in the security of the region. Russia fears that an outbreak of a civil war or destabilization in Syria will have reverberations in neighbouring countries, especially in Lebanon.
In this context, Russia has provided clear political, diplomatic and military support to Assad’s regime, while asking the Syrian leadership to call a halt to the violence and carry out fundamental political and social reforms.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has even warned that Moscow might change its stance and that “a sad fate awaits” Bashar Assad if he fails to initiate a dialogue with the opposition and start implementing reforms.
On the other hand, Moscow has categorically dismissed American and European calls for Assad to step down, and vetoed several UN Security Council attempts to adopt a resolution condemning Syria for its use of violence to suppress the demonstrators.
Arab reaction: varied
Official and popular Arab reactions to the Russian position have varied greatly. This could be attributed to the deep divisions and double standards that characterize the Arab positions, particularly in the Gulf States.
While the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervened to crush the revolution in Bahrain, strongly backed Ali Abdullah Salih against the rebels in Yemen, supported the survival of Mubarak's regime in Egypt, and gave refuge to Ben Ali after he fled Tunisia, they have taken a different stance on Libya and Syria.
Hence, the GCC states and a number of other Arab countries have welcomed the Russian position - which was in line with their own inclinations – with only one exception: Syria. Russia has backed Bashar Assad’s regime in spite of Western and Arab pressure.
However, this difference of opinion has not resulted in any official Arab denunciation of the Russian position on Syria. The Arab states seem to appreciate Russia's neutral stance in general, and Moscow’s position not to intervene in the internal affairs of Arab countries.
Anger on the streets of Syria
In terms of public opinion, Russia's attitude to the Arab Spring has not elicited much interest; except for the controversy regarding Syria.
Russia’s popularity on the streets of Syria has fallen. The credibility Russia gained by supporting the Arab positions on Palestine, Iraq and Sudan has been lost through its support for the Syrian regime.
This led to the outbreak of demonstrations on September 13, 2011 in some Syrian cities under the slogan "Day of Anger against Russia", to condemn Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime and for blocking international sanctions against Damascus.
Demonstrators shouted anti-Russian slogans, like: “Do not support the killers”, “Do not kill the Syrians with your position” and “The regime will disappear but the people will remain”.
Another thing which never happened before in the Arab world, even during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was that the demonstrators were burning the Russian flag in the cities of Homs and Daraa.
Outside Syria, popular Arab reaction to the Russian position is split.
While the rebels are calling on Moscow to support their counterparts inside Syria and to stop supporting al-Assad and his regime, a large share of citizens and the elite look upon Russia's position as "respectable".
They appreciate that Russia, unlike other Western countries, has not sought to intervene in the internal affairs of Arab countries in order to pursue its own interests at the expense of people’s security and stability.
This tendency has gained momentum, as Egyptian public mood has shifted toward greater stability. The first year of the revolution has been exhausting for people who have suffered socially and economically from the revolution.
Vladimir Putin’s return
Putin's likely return to power does not rank very high on the list of Arab priorities, but many of the Arab regimes would indeed welcome it.
They view Putin as the architect of Arab-Russian relations. He played a key role in pushing Arab-Russian cooperation to unprecedented levels after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In his two terms as Russian president, Putin made a series of highly-important visits to the Arab region and succeeded in relaunching Moscow's relations with its traditional allies on new grounds. The foremost of these allies are Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria.
On top of that, Putin achieved unprecedented improvements in Russia's relations with the Arab Gulf States, particularly with Saudi Arabia, after many decades of stalled relations. He managed to find mutual interests which Arab countries are keen to maintain and develop with Moscow.
On the popular front, with the exception of some revolutionary young people who support demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg via Facebook, the majority of people or even the elite do not seem too preoccupied with the Russian presidential elections. They are more concerned with their own rapid economic, social and political development.
"The United States is the favourite foe of the Arabs, while Russia is the hated friend," remains the most telling saying about the position of Russia in the Arab world and the Arab world's impression of Russia.
Nourhan el-Sheikh is Professor of Political Science, Cairo University.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.