CAIRO — Much has been made about Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Cairo. There has been speculation since the 2013 coup that Egypt's ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been contemplating a shift in alliances toward Russia. This has been in response to the popular belief in Egypt, propagated by the regime and its media supporters, that the United States had backed the Muslim Brotherhood and that Washington is conspiring with the now-banned organization in its efforts to destabilize Sisi's regime.
The Egyptian government has gone out of its way to play up the significance of Putin's visit. The Cairo streets were lined with posters depicting the Russian president, welcoming him in English, Arabic and Russian. The flagship state newspaper ran a massive spread the day before the Russian leader's arrival declaring him a "hero of this era," while covering the front page with photos of Putin, including one of the Russian president bare-chested.
But in the end, the theatrics of a presidential visit can't mitigate the strategic limitations of relations between Moscow and Cairo. Ironically, the United States is far from the most significant barrier to more robust ties between the two governments. It is in fact Sisi's backers in the Arabian Gulf who pose the most significant challenge to deepening the strategic relationship between the two strongmen.
Putin's policies in the Middle East stand diametrically opposed to the priorities of the Gulf monarchies who finance Sisi and his regime. While the Gulf has been adamant that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad must fall (arguably even more so than the Americans), Putin has provided Assad with large shipments of arms helping to fuel his brutal repression of the uprising against him. Russia's strategic ties to Syria stretch back decades, and its naval base in Tartus is an important strategic asset to the Russian navy.
The Gulf has been leery of Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions and has supported robust pressure on the Islamic Republic to prevent it from being able to produce nuclear weapons. But Russia has advocated a softer and more forgiving approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.
In terms of economics, the Gulf, through OPEC and led by Saudi Arabia, has kept oil supplies in the global market high, affecting a dramatic collapse in the price of oil in an effort to price out new high-cost producers and reserve greater market share for low-cost producers. But Russia needs the price of oil to hover around $100 a barrel for the country's budget to break even. The current per-barrel price is half that.
Moreover, due to an array of economic problems currently plaguing Moscow, Putin is not in a position to deliver any largesse to curry favor in Cairo. The Russian economy is expected to contract by 4% this year, largely due to the drop in energy prices coupled with the impact of Western sanctions on Russian banks.
All talk, no walk
There has been talk of an agreement to conduct bilateral trade in domestic currencies rather than the international standard of trading in U.S. dollars. Again, this is more symbolic than it is significant. Trade between the two countries is fairly limited, and the potential new agreement through which Egypt would purchase gas from Russia would only increase the trade imbalance in Russia's favor more. Ironically, this new bilateral currency agreement would thus penalize Russia more than Egypt, as Russian businesses would be saddled with a disproportionately large stock of Egyptian pounds, which can't be traded or used outside of Egypt.
Neither currency is terribly reliable, which is why international trade often depends on the dollar. The Egyptian pound is undergoing deliberate devaluation while the Russian ruble has been highly unstable over the last few months, losing nearly half its value. While both governments would like to loosen their dependence on the dollar, there are a number of practical reasons why both Egyptian and Russian businesses would not be thrilled with this currency deal.
Putin's visit offered both leaders an opportunity to exaggerate their importance. For Sisi, it was an opportunity to play host to a prominent world leader and to suggest to supporters that his regime is bringing Egypt to a more prominent place in world politics. It also allowed Sisi to further fuel speculation that he was contemplating and prepared for a shift toward Russia, which is widely understood in Egypt to imply greater independence for the Egyptian government.
Putin was given the opportunity to thumb his nose at Washington by securing a warmer welcome by America's longtime ally than any U.S. officials have seen in quite some time. At the moment, Putin believes the United States and Western Europe are interfering in his Eastern Europe sphere of influence, and so this was an opportunity for him to return the favor, in a sense.
In all likelihood, however, Washington will dismiss this publicity stunt in much the same way it has learned to ignore the series of other media spectacles that have emanated from Cairo over the past couple of years. In the end, America's strategic interests in Egypt are not seriously affected by the media-manufactured turmoil between the two countries. Military and intelligence cooperation are largely intact and, despite Washington's public statements criticizing repression in Egypt, it's doubtful that such cooperation will change.
Both Washington and Cairo have media messaging designed to appease their respective publics and so, while the United States continues its decades-long charade of expressing concern over human rights violations, its policy of ignoring such violations in practice will also continue. While it may be regrettable, democracy and human rights have virtually never figured prominently in U.S. foreign policy priorities.
What Egypt and Russia do have in common is that their economic problems severely limit their strategic options vis-a-vis one another. In the end, Egypt can't afford to go without Gulf funding, and Russia cannot afford to replace it.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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