"Egypt is one of the most important polities and economies in Africa, and one of the most important Arab states. A leadership-level push would be important to bring back on-track ties between Cairo and New Delhi," Kabir Taneja, a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told The Quint.
India and Egypt are two countries with which one associates history and culture. Indeed, there are a myriad of similarities between them – both are great historical civilisations, both victims of British colonialism which embraced democracy as they came into their modern avatars, and both founders of the Non-Aligned Movement – which was forged through the bonhomie between the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
There was a renewed push to the bilateral relationship in 2015, after years of a lull, when President el-Sisi attended the India-Africa Summit held in New Delhi. That then set into motion a number of high-level exchanges between both countries.
In line with India's ambitions to become a competitive supplier in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region, it was no surprise that the Narendra Modi government invited President el-Sisi to be the chief guest on India's Republic Day this year.
The significance of the decision can best be exemplified through the words of Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE, who told The Quint that the visit of President el-Sisi on 26 January will mark the "recovery of a very substantial and important traditional relationship."
What is expected to be discussed in the bilateral talks this year, and what will India gain through deepened cooperation with Egypt?
Economic Ties & the Suez Canal
According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India-Egypt trade expanded rapidly to $7.26 billion in FY 2021-22, registering a 75 percent increase from 2020-21.
India was the third largest export market for Egypt, the sixth largest trading partner, and seventh largest exporter to Egypt during this period, as per the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS).
Hence, economic ties are the hallmark of India-Egypt relations, and Modi and el-Sisi are sure to work towards their expansion and identify more areas of economic cooperation during the bilateral talks.
In this regard, it is pertinent to mention the importance of the Suez Canal in Egypt – among the most important trading routes in the world as it connects Europe and Asia.
Around 12 percent of global trade – worth around $700 billion – passes through the canal every year. This includes 10 percent of the world's oil and 8 percent of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
"India gets a lot of energy in through the Suez Canal and a major part of India's exports that goes to European markets goes through it as well. So we have a very direct and abiding interest in the security of the Suez Canal."Talmiz Ahmad to The Quint
Another area of cooperation is energy. Egypt holds huge gas resources in the East Mediterranean, which India has not tapped into since most of its oil and energy needs are met by the Gulf.
"About 70-80 percent of our requirements come from the Gulf, but I see a role for India in not only partnering with Egypt in developing gas reserves, but also in actually acquiring these gas imports from Egypt," Ahmad added.
For Egypt as well, ties with India could produce rich dividends in multiple areas. For instance, Egypt looked towards India for its food security in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, and approved India as an accredited wheat supplier.
Egypt is militarily the most powerful country in the Arab world. Hence, defence is considered to be a major area of cooperation that both India and Egypt will be interested in, as both attach a great deal of significance to their respective defence sectors and provide immense funding for the same.
Defence cooperation between the two countries began with the joint development of the HA-300 aircraft in the 1960s, Mohammed Soliman, director of the Strategic Technologies and Cyber Security Program at the Middle East Institute, told The Quint.
In the modern era, there has been a deepened cooperation which could be tapped into even further.
In September last year, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had visited Cairo to explore prospects for military cooperation after India offered to establish production lines for the Tejas Mk1A light combat aircraft (LCA).
Apart from the Tejas, there are numerous avenues of cooperation in military ties, especially in the naval sector and counter-terrorism.
"For instance, India's shipbuilding capacity can gain significantly with cooperation from countries like Egypt, both on manufacturing and R&D sectors," Kabir Taneja said.
Gaining a Foothold In the WANA Region
Perhaps the most significant geopolitical advantage India could gain through better ties with Egypt is the creation of space for itself in the WANA, or West Asia-North Africa, region.
This will open avenues for furthering diplomatic ties and trade relations with other countries in the region – particularly in the African continent.
According to Mohammed Soliman, Cairo could offer New Delhi's global posture in West Asia and Africa significant depth as a result of Egypt's demographics, geography, civilisation, and positioning at the crossroad of Africa, Europe, and Asia.
"For instance, due to Egypt’s role in the Middle East, North Africa, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, Delhi could leverage its partnership with Cairo to expand its influence beyond Asia into West Asia and Africa and play a larger commercial, military, and diplomatic role."Mohammed Soliman
Security of the Red Sea
As discussed earlier, the importance of the Suez Canal in global trade cannot possibly be overstated. In this regard, India and Egypt could become partners in safeguarding the Red Sea – with the Suez Canal on one end and the Bab al-Mandab Strait on the other.
Until the 'Ever Given' ship blocked the Suez Canal for a period of six days in March 2021, and all but halted a major portion of global trade – which resulted in losses worth billions of dollars, the security of the canal had been taken for granted by the global community.
However, the incident brought to light just how important the security of the canal is, and that maintaining it is sacrosanct for the world economy.
The importance of the Suez Canal and the Red Sea is reflected in the geographical configuration it is characterised by.
The countries that border the Red Sea include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti – which houses the naval bases of six countries, including the United States and China. Thus, it is an extremely turbulent territory.
"This is a sure recipe for competition and instability, which is something the international community cannot afford," Ahmad said, adding that the key to the relationship between India and Egypt would be to engage together to ensure the security of the Red Sea.
"I'm not saying we should abandon the Gulf. But the Indian Navy and Indian strategic thinkers must see the Red Sea as a very crucial space for India in the long-term," he asserted.
The Future of People-To-People Contact
Unlike in the Gulf, India does not have a large diaspora of workers in Egypt. There are two reasons for this: firstly, because Egypt is not an oil-rich country, and second, it has a sizeable population of its own and thus does not require expatriate workers.
According to the website of the Indian Embassy in Egypt, there are around 3,200 Indians in the country.
However, as cooperation deepens between the two countries, Egypt could be seen as an economically lucrative destination for Indians.
"If the economic relationship expands over a period of time, there will be more and more Indian presence there. Not necessarily in the shape of workers, but certainly with regard to professionals," Talmiz Ahmad said.
One of the largest areas of cooperation that could facilitate this is technology, including biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other aspects of digitisation.
"Where technology is concerned, you can always bring in other players. For example, the UAE can provide financial support, and Saudi Arabia also may be interested," Ahmad asserted.