How El-Sisi’s Republic Day visit marks the beginning of a new era in India-Egypt ties
The personal understanding established between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi can be expected to provide a further fillip to bilateral ties in the foreseeable future
The invitation by India to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the Chief Guest to India’s 74th Republic Day celebrations is a huge shot in the arm for India’s relations with Egypt, a significant and influential country of the Arab World which straddles across both West Asia and the African continent. In addition, Egypt is strategically located to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. The symbolism of President El-Sisi’s presence at India’s Republic Day coupled with the bonhomie and rapport with India’s leadership particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a strong indicator that ties between the two countries are destined to take off rapidly in the very near future.
President El-Sisi’s visit became even more special as it is the first time that any Egyptian Head of State has been invited to be the Chief Guest at India’s R-Day celebrations, as also, because the two countries are celebrating 75 years of the establishment of their diplomatic ties this year.
Relations between India and Egypt are age-old and historical. Both countries have evolved from vibrant and ancient civilizations. In more recent times, India and Egypt under the leadership of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and president Gamal Abdel Nasser respectively (along with president Josep Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and president Sukarno of Indonesia) were the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement in the cold war era. Relations between the two countries were so close in the 1950s that India is reported to have clandestinely supplied arms to Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956!
Ties between the two countries stagnated for about 30 years during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak (1982-2011) in Egypt apparently due to a misunderstanding on some seating placement during his visit to India for the Non-Aligned Summit in 1983. Mubarak’s next visit to India came 25 years later in 2008 although Rajiv Gandhi (1985), PV Narasimha Rao (1995) and IK Gujral (1997) visited Egypt during this period. Mubarak’s 2008 visit was followed soon by the visit of PM Dr Manmohan Singh in 2009 for the NAM Summit. The chain of high-level visits continued thereafter with the visit of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Bilateral relations received a significant fillip with the ascension to power of President El-Sisi in 2014. He visited India in October 2015 for the India-Africa Forum when he met then president Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi. Prior to this, he had met Prime Minister Modi in September 2015 on the margins of the UNGA in New York. He visited India again in 2016 for a State visit. The two leaders also met in September 2017 on the margins of the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China.
El-Sisi’s visit as the Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day is his third visit to India and fourth by an Egyptian Head of State without a return visit to Egypt by India’s president or prime minister. Prime Minister Modi was scheduled to visit Egypt in March 2020 but the visit could not take place owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. During his visit, President El-Sisi invited Prime Minister Modi to visit Egypt. It is most likely that notwithstanding PM Modi’s preoccupations with the domestic elections, G20 and SCO presidency, etc, he will find the time to visit Egypt during the current year or early next year. It also needs to be remembered that El-Sisi is most likely to visit India again in September this year for the G20 Summit, for which India has invited it as a guest country.
In addition to the visits and meetings at the highest level, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav visited Egypt in recent months. From Egypt, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Amr Talaat also came to India.
The growing strength of India-Egypt ties was visible during the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. During the destructive second wave of Covid-19 in India, Egypt shipped 30 tons of medical supplies and 300,000 doses of antiviral Remdesivir injection. In a reciprocal move, India approved shipment of 61,500 metric tons of wheat to Egypt in May 2022, despite India having banned wheat exports following the climate change-induced heatwave that hampered grain production. Egypt, which is a huge net food importing country and heavily dependent on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, faced a severe shortage of food grains after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
President El-Sisi was accompanied by a high-level delegation, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Electricity and Renewable Energy, Planning and Economic Development and Communications and Information Technology, as well as senior officials of the Egyptian government.
One of the most significant outcomes of the visit was the upgradation of bilateral relations to the level of ‘Strategic Partnership’ covering political, security, defence, energy and economic areas. Decision was taken during the visit to further strengthen bilateral relations in political and security cooperation, deeper economic engagement, stronger scientific and academic collaboration, as well as wider cultural and people-to-people contacts.
The two countries reaffirmed their commitment to multilateralism, the principles of the United Nations Charter, international law, the founding values of the Non-Aligned Movement, and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. This indicates the convergence of position of the two countries regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
While expressing satisfaction at the strong bilateral economic engagement and the fact that bilateral trade registered a significant growth of 75 percent in 2021-22 to reach a figure of $7.26 billion from around $4 billion a year earlier, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the leaders expressed their determination to reach a level of $12 billion within the next five years by diversifying the trade basket and focusing on value addition.
Both leaders welcomed the expansion of Indian investments in Egypt, which is currently more than $3.15 billion. This is an area which provides significant opportunities to the Indian business to explore emerging economic and investment opportunities in Egypt. Egypt is trying to drum up foreign investment as it tries to manage a severe dollar shortage that has led to a sharp depreciation of the Egyptian pound. Last year Egypt had sought help from energy-rich Gulf allies and the International Monetary Fund after the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine exacerbated its underlying challenges. Cairo has also been seeking to forge political and trade ties beyond its traditional alliances with the United States and European powers including in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Egypt has welcomed the flow of more Indian investments particularly in the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCEZ) and has promised to offer attractive incentives and facilities. President El-Sisi addressed a business event and invited the Indian business community to explore new and emerging business opportunities in Egypt. He sought Indian investments, particularly in sectors such as infrastructure, petrochemicals, energy, agriculture, healthcare, education, skills development and IT. It is reported that Egypt is positively considering allocating a special area of land for Indian industries in the SCEZ. A significant advantage in such an arrangement would be that Indian companies would be able to supply their goods and services from the SCEZ to Africa on a duty free basis as Egypt enjoys a zero duty structure with African countries. This would be a huge shot in the arm for India as it seeks to enhance its diplomatic, political and economic engagement with the Global South, particularly with Africa.
Defence cooperation has in recent years emerged as a significant area of bilateral cooperation. During Rajnath Singh’s visit to Cairo in September 2022, contours of India-Egypt defence and security cooperation were discussed. The two countries then signed an MoU to bolster defence cooperation. Egypt also expressed interest in purchasing India’s Indigenous ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft PM Modi and President El-Sisi resolved to explore new initiatives to intensify military-to-military engagements. They expressed satisfaction at the accelerated interaction between their Armed Forces through exchanges in training, joint exercises, transits and high-level bilateral visits. The participation of the Indian Air Force in the first ever ‘Joint Tactical Air Exercise’ in Egypt in October 2021 and in the ‘Tactical Leadership Programme’ of the Egyptian Air Force in June 2022 has led to a better understanding between the two Air-Forces. The two sides resolved to deepen cooperation in this area “especially by exchanging technology between defence industries, widening the footprint of military exercises, and exchanging best practices. They emphasised the need for co-production in the defence sector”.
Terrorism was another area where there was broad convergence of views between the two sides. The two leaders “called for ‘zero tolerance’ for terrorism and for all those who encourage, support and finance terrorism or provide sanctuaries to terrorist and terror groups — whatever their motivation may be”. They gave a strong call for joint international action to eradicate “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations including cross-border terrorism”. They condemned the use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool and “efforts, including by States, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries”.
Other areas that received considerable attention included capacity development, agriculture, space, cyber-security, promoting the values of peace, tolerance and inclusiveness to fight terrorism and violent extremist ideologies, a multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, ensuring more robust global supply chains, enhanced preparedness and access to healthcare, renewable energy, particularly green hydrogen, science and technology, education and skills development, people to people contacts, culture, tourism, etc.
Five MoUs in the fields of cybersecurity, Information Technology, culture, youth Affairs and on broadcasting were signed between the two countries. Commemorative Postal Stamps to mark 75 years of establishment of India-Egypt relations were also exchanged between the two sides.
A 144-member band and marching contingent from the Egyptian armed forces also joined battalions of the Indian military and police in the parade.
Egypt is a significant actor in West Asia and an influential voice in the Arab world, located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. India is cognizant of the geopolitical and geo-economic importance of Egypt in the region. Egypt is also mindful of the growing political, strategic and economic influence of India in Asia and the world. Considerable untapped potential exists for further expanding and diversifying bilateral relations.
President El-Sisi’s visit, the discussions held and the agreements signed can prove to be a watershed moment in India-Egypt relations. The personal understanding established between PM Modi and President El-Sisi can be expected to provide a further fillip to bilateral ties in the foreseeable future.
The writer is an executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. Views expressed are personal.
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