On 24 June, as three Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI aircraft flew over the UAE airspace, the UAE Air Force MRTT aircraft assisted in refuelling them inflight, enabling them to undertake nearly six hours of non-stop journey on their way to Egypt to participate in the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP). This month-long programme, which is taking place at the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) Weapon School in Egypt and also involves Egyptian Air Force F-16s, alongside Mi-29s and Rafele aircraft, involves cross-training between the aircrew of both the countries, mutual exchange of training and operational knowledge via classroom sessions, as well as flying missions.
Away from the media glare, India and Egypt have been steadily deepening bilateral relations, particularly in defence.
The India-Africa Summit of 2015 may be considered a watershed moment in bilateral ties, when Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi visited India.
The first-ever India Air Force-Egyptian Air Force Joint Tactical Air Exercise, ‘Desert Warrior’, was held in October 2021. India’s Air Chief Marshal, VR Chaudhari, visited Egypt from 28 November to 2 December 2021 and attended the ‘Egypt Air Power Symposium’.
Recently, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Abbas Helmy Hashem, the Egyptian Air Force Commander, visited India, during which time he held meetings with top Indian officials.
Away from the media glare, India and Egypt have been steadily deepening bilateral relations, particularly in defence. There is, of course, nothing unusual about this partnership. What is unusual is that it has taken so long for these two ancient countries but modern republics to forge such a partnership. Both are ancient civilisations, modern nation-states, with British colonial experience. With a thriving middle class, both are regional powers looking to widen their footprint beyond their regions. 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 move from the Indian to the Mediterranean Sea imputes special significance to ties with the country.
2015 Summit: A Watershed Moment
But while ties between India and Egypt had blossomed in the heydays of the non-aligned movement (NAM), with their leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser being founder members of the NAM, their paths detracted in later years due to a variety of factors.
The India-Africa Summit of 2015 may be considered a watershed moment in bilateral ties when Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi visited India to participate in the summit, imparting the current momentum in bilateral ties. In 2016, Al Sisi visited India for a second time, when both countries reached a first-ever agreement on maritime transport in order to step up cooperation in the seas not only in terms of maritime commerce but also in transit of naval vessels.
This visit was reciprocated the following year by a visit to Egypt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since then, trade, counter-terrorism, defence, cyber security, agriculture and IT have emerged as major fields of cooperation.
Currently, bilateral trade volumes between the two countries amount to $3.8bn, with Egypt’s exports to India increasing by 63%. India has become the largest export destination for Egyptian products. According to Ajit Gupte, the Indian Ambassador in Egypt, bilateral trade between Egypt and India has expanded by 80% in 2021 and is likely to reach a record high this year.
The 'WANA' Region
“Egypt and India are progressively emerging as ideal strategic and economic partners, with potential cooperation in defence, security, counter-terrorism, industrialisation, pharmaceuticals, and food security. India exempted Egypt from its recent wheat ban, and the two nations expanded their cooperation in pharmaceuticals,” says Mohammed Soliman, an Egyptian analyst who is currently a manager at McLarty Associates, a global strategy firm based in Washington, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
But it is in defence that the India-Egypt relationship is gaining major traction currently. Ties got a major thrust with the visit of then-Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Cairo in 2018, where she met her Egyptian counterpart General Mohamed Ahmed Zaki Mohamed. They deliberated on expanding naval cooperation between the two countries and explored possibilities of joint production of defence equipment. Since then, there have been 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. India’s Air Chief Marshal, VR Chaudhari, visited Egypt from 28 November to 2 December 2021 and attended the ‘Egypt Air Power Symposium’.
A month before that, India’s INS Tabar frigate and Egypt’s Alexandria frigate conducted their second joint naval drill in the Northern Fleet’s operations zone in the Mediterranean Sea.
More recently, last week, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Abbas Helmy Hashem, the Egyptian Air Force Commander, visited India, during which time he held meetings with top Indian officials, including VR Chaudhari, Chief of the Naval Staff Adm R Hari Kumar, and Chief of the Army Staff General Manoj Pande, where they discussed ways to enhance defence cooperation.
“Cairo and New Delhi are interested in strengthening their collective defence cooperation by expanding military-to-military engagements, launching joint exercises, and increasing the joint defence industry cooperation. For example, India has offered to set up production facilities for the manufacturing of light combat aircraft (LCA) as well as helicopters, as Cairo focuses on local production and technology transfer."
Analysts point out that 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.
Why a Strong Defence Relationship Is Only Natural
Defence and counter-terrorism cooperation between India and Egypt are a matter of course. Major geopolitical shifts concerning the region have necessitated the search for diversification of foreign policy and search for new partnerships. The US, once a net security provider for the region, is now pivoting to the Indo-Pacific. The Ukraine conflict has distracted Russia, which was re-emerging as a major player in the region after its military intervention in Syria. And Russia, as all evidence shows, will remain focused on Ukraine for some time in the future.
Pakistan, which once provided security and defence services for the Gulf countries, is no longer seen as capable of doing so. This has resulted in a realignment of strategic partnerships in the region, paving the way for a continued normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world with the Abraham Accords of 2020, something that began with Egypt in 1979.
With West Asia as its extended neighbourhood and India’s centuries-old ties with the region, it is inevitable that she will have to step up to play a bigger role there. Soon, Prime Minister Modi will be participating in the first virtual summit of the I2U2 – India, Israel, UAE and the US forum – to strengthen economic relations. Defence can hardly be far away in this vital region from where much of the world’s energy needs flow.
India also plays an important role in maintaining the security of the Gulf’s sea lanes of communication through its anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
“The Indo-Abrahamic framework – integrating India into the defence architecture of the WANA region – creates incentives for Cairo and New Delhi to work together more closely. From coordinating on global and regional issues to working together in other strategic theatres such as Africa and the Indian Ocean, Egypt-India bilateral relations hold much untapped potential, and the two capitals understand that,” says Soliman.
An Opportunity in the Indo-Pacific?
It is helpful and significant that India’s definition of the Indo-Pacific extends from the Eastern shores of the African continent. As Modi pointed out in his Shangri La Dialogue address. “The Indo-Pacific is a natural region home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges … by no means … do we consider it directed against any country.”
Even though Modi was referring to Southeast Asian countries, a partnership with Egypt, which ranks first in the Arab world and 13th globally in military manpower, and which houses the region’s largest military base, represents one such opportunity for India in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
(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.)