New Delhi: The three-day visit to India by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was indeed a boost to relations between nations which spawned the oldest civilizations and in contemporary international scenario, Egypt is a crucial partner for any country that is ambitious about its long-term growth plans.
Egyptian President Sisi who was chief guest at this year’s 74th Republic Day, the first Egyptian President to be accorded this honour, is the fifth leader from the region of West Asia and North Africa to be the chief guest, reflecting India’s move to strengthen bilateral ties with this nation.
The 69 year old Egyptian leader heads the largest country in the Arab region with a population of about 110 million and is naturally rich in oil and gas. In fact, India is one of the top importers of Egyptian crude oil and natural gas. India’s top imported items from Egypt for FY 2020-21 were Petroleum Oil (46.2 percent) and Petroleum Gas (11.1 percent). In a world which is tightly squeezed for oil and gas resources, it is increasingly important to shore up influence in energy-rich countries.
The visit which is the third by the Egyptian leader to this country is significant since China’s trade with it is currently at $15 billion, which is double that of India’s $7.26 billion in 2021-22 and Sisi has been wooing Chinese investments and has travelled to China as many as seven times in the last eight years. With China focussing on the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping and having Africa on its radar, this visit to India by Sisi who was a former military chief and defence minister of Egypt, the two countries are looking at defence and security cooperation.
The renewed tie up is indeed of immense strategic importance. Earlier, the Air Forces of the two countries had collaborated on the development of the fighter aircraft in 1960s and Indian pilots had trained their counterparts from 1960s until the mid-1980s. Besides, the IAF and the Egyptian Air Force fly the French Rafale fighter jets.
Even though Indo-Egyptian trade may not be at the same level as Sino-Egyptian trade, but India now has stepped up its defence cooperation with that nation and wants to supply India-made defence equipment such as the LCA Tejas, missiles like Akash, DRDO’s Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon and radars to Egypt. A pact was signed during the visit to Cairo by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh last year and the two countries have decided to also participate in exercises and cooperation in training.
India’s relations with Egypt assumes importance for it is not only to counter China’s moves in the region as Beijing tries to get a firmer foothold into Africa, but, that Egypt is a pivotal state on the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and Europe with the capacity to influence political outcomes on multiple fronts. It is also significant that India and Egypt were one of the key players in the Non-Aligned Movement. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a close friend of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the two countries inked a friendship treaty in 1965. In 1961, Nehru and Nasser along with Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito, Indonesia’s President Sukarno and Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah established the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
It is indeed noteworthy to recall that Sisi was part of the coup d’ etat in which President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. In 2014, then Field Marshal Sisi – a former military chief – contested elections against a lone opponent and won with 97 per cent votes in his favour and took charge in June of that year. About a year after coming to power, Sisi in September 2015 had his first meeting with Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and visited India in September 2016. Since then the relationship between the two countries have been growing and India has had a strong support in Sisi in its fight against terrorism.
What has boosted India is that Sisi since coming to power has been tough on Islamic religious extremism which his critics said was because he saw advantage in positioning himself against the Muslim Brotherhood whose leader Morsi, had been jailed and Sisi has earned praise for his fight. New Delhi has seen Sisi as the moderate voice of Islam among Muslim-majority countries as well as a “friend” within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 57-member grouping of Islamic nations that have almost made it a routine to condemn India on Jammu and Kashmir and the plight of Muslims at the behest of Pakistan.
It is after a two-year gap due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that New Delhi finally hosted a guest this time for the Republic Day Parade. Apart from the optics, El-Sisi’s visit seems to have been strategically planned to truly value Indo-Egypt relations and tap into the potential of a bilateral partnership. It opens the door for a larger Indian role in the region which is trying to diversify its partnerships and New Delhi’s outreach to Cairo brings greater balance to India’s engagement with the Middle East as a whole.
Egypt is an important strategic partner for the Gulf Arabs. Emirati and Saudi capital today has a major role in the economic transformation of Egypt and its neighbourhood. After the Arab Spring in 2011, Egypt and the Gulf Arabs have also come together to confront challenges from Sunni extremist forces in the region, like the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Turkey and Qatar. India is no stranger to this problem since it has been at the receiving end of the Islamist policies of Ankara and Doha.
The Arab Spring galvanised the moderate Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to actively counter violent religious extremism and contest the narratives of the radical Islamists. While Egypt has long been an inclusive society, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been deeply religious and conservative Islamic societies. They are now actively pursuing internal social reform, promoting religious tolerance and countering extremist ideologies.
What is of interest to India and the entire subcontinent is the political moderation and social modernisation that is taking place in the Middle East. The extremist ideas from the Middle East had their unfortunate resonance in South Asia, destabilising internal and intra-regional dynamics in the subcontinent over the last few decades. So, overall, India has a big stake in building a strong coalition with moderate Arab Sunni states that could help promote peace and stability in both the Middle East and South Asia.
Another aspect of immense significance from the Indian point of view is that both leaders – Sisi and Modi – called for zero tolerance towards terrorism and strongly condemned its use as a foreign policy instrument – which was an oblique reference to Pakistan establishment’s support to terror groups. As Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said, “both leaders strongly condemned the use of terrorism by countries as a foreign policy instrument and called for zero tolerance to terrorism.”
The relations between the two countries have indeed come a full circle for it was six decades ago that they founded NAM and now have an opportunity to forge a new path ahead, not just for their strategic and economic interests, but as the voice of the Global South. India which now chairs G20 has invited Egypt as a guest country at G20. Delhi’s global southism which will be a running thread through its presidency is bound to find resonance in Cairo.