Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on two highly important State visits to the US and Egypt– India’s strategic partners, this week. While the US is the Global Comprehensive Strategic Partner of India the relationship with Cairo acquired the historic heft yet again during the visit of President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi as a Chief Guest at the 74th Republic Day of India a few months before. The Indian Prime Minister is scheduled for a state visit to Egypt on June 24-25, upon the invitation of President Sisi.
While a lot has been written about the visit and important outcomes with the US and rightly so, importance of PM’s visit to Cairo is also highly significant in the Asian context since West Asia and North Africa are strategically important geography for India’s critical and crucial strategic interests.
In recent times, India’s relationship with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries especially with UAE and Saudi Arabia has transformed from broadly transactional to truly strategic in content and extent encompassing diverse areas of cooperation including security and defence, underscoring the mutual recurring benefit and accruing advantage which is already paying off dividends.
But with this visit of PM Modi the relationship with Egypt will also transcend to the same trajectory of sustainable strategic partnership given the fact that these strategically located countries have a much bigger role to play in the emerging global dynamic and disorder especially in the maritime domain and the Indo pacific. India is the most populous country in the world and Egypt is the largest in the Arab world with both African and Arab identities. Both also like to follow strategic autonomy in their international discourse .
High level visits are indeed an indicator of the depth of a relationship. President Sisi has visited India thrice already with two State visits and one for the 3 rd India Africa Form Summit. Nearly all leaders from Nehru -Nasser NAM era , have exchanged visits while confronting global challenges of their times . Prime Minister Modi was to visit Cairo in 2020 but due to the pandemic the visit had to be postponed. During the last visit of President Sisi in January this year the relationship was virtually elevated to strategic partnership level which will be formalised during PM Modi’s visit.
Defence and security collaboration has acquired a real depth. Since January 2021 more than 16 delegations have interacted including the visits of Defence Ministers and service chiefs. India is a resident power in the Indian Ocean and Egypt not only has “Advantage Suez” but also a major player in the Red Sea , Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean that are of emerging strategic importance for India and for security of sea lanes.
Moreover, India considers East Africa and West Asia as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Egypt also feels that it has a bigger role to play in the region as it becomes increasingly contested by the Sino-US rivalry. With in the region, it is also normalising relations with Ankara and Tehran while problems with Ethiopia on Nile Dam continue. It was also the first Arab country to have normalise ties with Israel in 1974 and since then has played a significant role in addressing the Palestinian issue as an interlocutor including in the most recent conflagration.
Intra-forces war in Sudan, next door, is its another preoccupation. Since COP27, Cairo continues with its various initiatives in the fight against climate change going into COP 28 in UAE which is already a member of the India led-ISA. Synergistic approaches will help all sides. Hence apart from the bilateral and regional issues both leaders will have a lot to ponder upon and perspectives to share.
Egypt has excellent relations with China as well and looks at both partnerships in a historical and civilisational context and wishes. It is also part of the BRI project. Likewise, it has good relationship with Pakistan and often goes along with OIC resolutions on Kashmir which are an avoidable irritant for India.
Since both India and Egypt suffer from terrorism and both attach great importance to global fight against this menace it is imperative that Cairo recognizes that direct and indirect support and sponsorship of cross border terrorism and globally designated terrorists everywhere are condemned and prevented . Support to Indian proposal on CCIT (Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism) at the UN will also help. Non state actors often thrive with the active indulgence or connivance of certain states.
Two black swan events of the Covid 19 pandemic and Russia -Ukraine war have created serious economic difficulties for Egypt . Food security has become a major issue. A Crisis Group Report (May 31) states that effects of the pandemic and war on the global economy have exposed Egypt’s longstanding dependence on fuel and food imports, which have become too expensive for the country to afford, as well as short-term foreign financing, which has also become more costly and difficult to get as its Gulf benefactors are becoming more finance savvy.
The resulting imbalance has led to the currency’s devaluation and an inflation spike that is hitting the middle and working classes especially hard. India did provide 61500 tons of wheat to Egypt to tide over immediate problems.
Focus on food security
Cooperation in Agriculture and food processing is likely to be a focus during the visit. Trilateral cooperation with some countries in Africa itself could be a possibility to ensure food security. Delhi and Cairo had also collaborated a great deal during the pandemic by providing mutual assistance.
Cairo might be expecting an announcement during the visit for a financial life line of at least $1billion to tide over immediate challenges and to negotiate with IMF for another tranche of loans for which IMF also wants certain unpalatable structural reforms and measures which might cause domestic discontent in the short term.
India has also invited Egypt along with Oman and UAE as special guests at the G20 Summit which attests to the importance it attaches to the relationship with West Asia. President Sisi is expected to visit for the Summit in September where issues confronting the Global South and geo-economics will find greater prominence in the spirit of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam” .
Both sides have cooperated in the international fora and regard the multilateralism and sustenance of reformed multilateral institutions like UN, WTO and WHO as a precondition to their continued relevance . Both are hoping to be on the horseshoe table of the UNSC whenever that happens. Even Egypt has been keen to join the BRICS in 2013 since the times of discredited Muslim brotherhood President Morsi.
Besides at Samarkand, Egypt signed a MoU to become the dialogue partner at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It is natural that New Delhi and Cairo will find convergences to catapult the relationship to a much higher orbit across multiple platforms, as the two sides recently celebrated 75 years of establishment of diplomatic relations.
Tourism constitutes a major focus for Egypt as well as India that was highly impacted by the pandemic. Hence, their absence at the G20 Tourism vertical meet in J&K was obviously misconstrued as generating negative perceptions about the inexplicable intent whatever be the official explanation. Being clubbed with China and Turkey gave wind to speculation.
Moreover, Indians have emerged the second largest travellers and spenders in the world. Hence, while the Egypt Air is starting its direct flights to Delhi beginning July, Visa on Arrival or e-Visa facility for Indian tourists and businessmen will go a long way in attracting young Indian tourists to beautiful Egyptian civilisational heritage.
Trade and economic engagement are the key and backbone for any relationship. While the bilateral trade hangs around $ 7.2 bn and is aimed at $ 12 bn by 2027. Indian investments by 50 odd Indian companies is pegged at about $3 billion in traditional sectors. In addition, three Indian companies have committed to invest nearly $18 billion in the Hydrogen hubs.
Cairo’s keenness for Indian investments
Egypt is also keen for Indian investments in its special Indian economic zone like the one that China and Russia have and to use the special market access they will have in regional and European markets. For this end the CEO of Suez economic zone is visiting India to project Egypt as a Gateway for Asia, Africa and Europe for the businesses.
Food security is very important for Egypt, for which institutionalised cooperation in Agriculture sector will be useful. ICT, Space, Cyber, Renewables, Health care and pharma and textiles and joint manufacturing have excellent bilateral and trilateral potential in Africa and Asia to efficiently handle supply chain disruptions through broader and deeper economic engagement.
There is no doubt that current level is below potential but PM Modi’s visit will surely provide the requisite fillip.
Counter terrorism and deradicalisation and correct presentation of religious tenets are important for a harmonious coexistence. Egyptian traditions of secularism and institutions like Al Azhar have a great influence and can provide a fulcrum for cooperation as the two sides to call out the states and
groups indulging, promoting and sponsoring terrorists and extremists wherever and which ever form they are. During my recent visit for a strategic dialogue between India Foundation and Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, I noticed the sincere intent on both sides and most importantly among the ordinary Egyptians. One often heard ‘Indians are our cousins’ and ‘you are welcome brother’ that will be the strength of the bilateral relationship going forward. Bollywood’s impact is there for all to see with Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan becoming the household names. Of course, exposure of youth through, culture, education and engagement need to be institutionalised.
PM Modi’s visit is timely and will exploit and enhance the momentum and traction that has been engineered in recent years. Both are committed to peace, stability, security and strategic autonomy in all its ramifications. Hopefully, Modi-Sisi led enthusiasm and trust will catapult the relationship to a much higher orbit of mutually beneficial cooperation.
The article was first published in CNBC TV18 as PM Modi’s state visit to Egypt — here’s why it is highly significant in the Asian context on June 23, 2023.
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