On 24 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in Egypt, on his first-ever official visit to the country. It is also the first bilateral visit paid by an Indian prime minister to Egypt since 1997.
If nothing else, this testifies to the warming ties between the two countries, who by dint of their history, economy, and socio-cultural set-up, should be natural allies. With a thriving middle class, both are regional powers looking to widen their footprint beyond their regions.
One of the major foreign policy achievements of the Modi government has been its outreach to the Middle Eastern region. Egypt is militarily the strongest Arab country as well as the cultural capital of the Arab world. But its unique position – geographically in North Africa – makes it an important African country too. And the Suez Canal through which Indian cargo and freight moves from the Indian to the Mediterranean Sea, imputes special significance to ties with the country.
Understanding this, the government has been deepening its ties with the land of the Pharaohs. During his prime ministership, both in the first and current terms, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi has paid two bilateral visits to the country and a third one as part of the India-Africa Forum.
Sisi was the Chief Guest at this year’s Republic Day parade, and India-Egypt ties were elevated to the level of a strategic partnership during the visit. There have been several high-profile visits between the two countries, with both the Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh, and the External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visiting Egypt in the recent past. In Cairo, El-Sisi conferred on the Prime Minister Egypt’s highest civilian award - “Order of the Nile”.
Trade & Industry: Potential Growth of Indian Markets
Engagements in three sectors currently underpin bilateral relations.
First, trade and investments, including engagement in the Suez. Egypt’s strategic location between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean offers it a vantage point for trade and commerce. At the same time, the Egyptian economy has been facing a dire crisis, for a variety of reasons. Bilateral trade between Egypt and India – the world’s fifth largest economy – has been picking up, amounting to USD 5.175 billion from April 2022 to January 2023 with USD 3.473 billion of Indian exports and USD 1.702 billion of Indian imports.
India was Egypt’s fifth-largest trading partner in the period from April 2022 to December 2022. Indian companies have made a combined investment exceeding USD 3.15 billion – valuable for the crisis-hit Egyptian economy – and Egypt wants further investments.
Egypt is also keen to have India investing in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.
The Suez Canal connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and almost one-fourth of India’s trade is conducted through the Suez. India is one of the top destinations that oil passing through the canal is headed for. President Sisi had pitched for it during his engagement with Indian businesses in Delhi and recently a delegation led by Waleid Gamal Eldien, Chairman of the Suez Canal Economic Zone was in India.
According to Eldien, Egypt is prepared to offer India an exclusive industrial and logistics hub cluster, which will serve as a strategic gateway for New Delhi to expand its market reach.
From here India could reach markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Since Russia has two ports and China has the economic zone, India should obviously seize this offer.
Indian products have long been popular with Egyptians, and India is in a position to offer much in numerous sectors – IT, pharmaceuticals, green and renewable energy, textiles, and so on. Indian investments and businesses in Egypt will widen the Indian footprint there. India has also helped with Egypt’s food security by allowing exports of wheat there.
A Growing Defence Cooperation
Defence and counter-terrorism are two other planks on which relations hinge.
Ties got a major thrust with the visit of then Defence Minister of Egypt Sedki Sobhy to India in 2017 and the reciprocal visit by then India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Cairo in 2018, where both sides explored possibilities of the joint production of defence equipment, as Cairo is focussing on local production and technology transfer.
This found reflection in the joint statement issued this year during President Sisi’s visit to India. Since, cooperation has been growing in leaps and bounds, with air and naval joint exercises between the two sides, including in the eastern Mediterranean, where Egypt and Turkey have been embroiled in a row, and exchange visits between Indian and Egyptian officers to their respective defence academies. The first-ever India Air Force-Egyptian Air Force Joint Tactical Air Exercise, ‘Desert Warrior’, was held in late October 2021. Earlier this year on the eve of Sisi’s visit to India, both sides also participated in the first joint exercises between their special forces “Exercise Cyclone” in Rajasthan.
Egypt has evinced interest in acquiring Tejas Light Combat aircraft as well as helicopters and missiles from India. Setting up manufacturing bases in Egypt, almost at the centre of the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region, will enable India to set up a defence export hub there. Egypt houses the region’s largest military base, ranked thirteenth globally in terms of military strength.
As the defence architecture of the region changes – the receding US role, a growing Chinese role, as well as resurgent political Islam spearheaded by some states in the region – it makes sense for India to integrate itself into it, as the region constitutes India’s extended neighbourhood, and is vital to it; given the millions of Indian expatriates living there, and from where India sources the bulk of its energy requirements.
India has been implementing this as seen in its defence cooperation with countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia, firm partners of Cairo.
As Modi articulated in his address during Sisi’s India visit “At one side of the Arabian Sea is India and on the other side is Egypt. Strategic cooperation between the two countries will help in promoting peace and prosperity in the entire region…… We have decided that under the India-Egypt Strategic Partnership, we will develop a long-term framework of greater cooperation in political, security, economic and scientific fields.”
By coordinating positions on global and regional issues, both countries can work jointly in other strategic areas like Africa and the Indian Ocean.
A third plank on which hinges bilateral relations is counter-terrorism.
In Cairo, with President Sisi by his side, Prime Minister Modi said that both India and Egypt were “worried about the spread of terrorism happening around the world” and they are “unanimous” that terrorism is the “most serious security threat” to humanity. “…..concerted action is necessary to end cross-border terrorism”.
Terrorism is an issue that the Modi government has relentlessly focused on at every available platform. And Egypt is no stranger to the menace. Former President Anwar Sadat had been a victim of it. Since 2014, Egypt has fought a protracted battle against the Sinai Province (SP) branch of ISIS on its own territory.
As Egypt marks the twelfth anniversary of the “Arab Spring” this year, which for a while unleashed the forces of radicalism and extremism in the country, it can not not be aware of the dangers of these forces.
That is why the issue found mention in the joint statement issued during his visit to Delhi and now again in Cairo.
That is why it was surprising when earlier this year, during the G20 working group meet on tourism in Srinagar, Egypt stayed away. True, Egypt is not a member of the G20 and has been invited as a guest country during India’s G20 Presidency, which Modi said “reflects our special friendship”. Given that tourism is a mainstay of the Egyptian economy, currently undergoing a major crisis, it was all the more expected that it would attend the meet, as well as signalling burgeoning bilateral ties. We do not know what compelled it to stay away.
Egypt, by and large, has been appreciative of India’s sentiments on Kashmir. But for countries truly sincere in battling terrorism, especially those battling insurgency on their own territory as Egypt is, it is imperative to support India’s approach to Kashmir where the greatest impediment to peace and prosperity has been terrorism. India should impress this: a sincere commitment to counter-terrorism demands the support of India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)