By: Dipak Kurmi
India’s invitation to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the Republic Day celebrations as a Guest of Honour on Republic Day on 26 January can be marked as an essential outreach effort by the Indian government to the continent of Africa. Egypt, the second largest economy of the African continent, is India’s most important trading partner in the African continent. As far as geographic relevance is concerned, Egypt is located at the centre of three continents. Egypt has historically served as a flag-bearer of the Arab World and also emerged as a leader of the African continent. Suez Canal has been strategically important throughout history and is also essential to Egypt’s importance in world politics. The canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea is the shortest link to connect the eastern and the Western continents.
India and Egypt commemorated the 75th anniversary of their diplomatic ties; the people-to people connection and the civilizational links go back to ancient times. In the book “Glimpses of World History” written by the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru shared an account of the trading relations that takes us back to the days when Arab Merchants from Egypt travelled to the Indian subcontinent to purchase muslin clothes in exchange of rhino horns, stones and tortoise shells. The existence of the strong barter trade is evident from the fact that 4,000-thousand-year-old Egyptian mummies were found wrapped in Indian muslins by archaeologists. Both countries have a long legacy of fighting the European colonial powers. The mutual trust and the shared history against imperialist powers have consolidated the relations. The Nehru-Nasser comraderies flourished and nurtured their external relations. The 1955 Afro-Asian summit at Bandung witnessed the formal emergence of the Third World and a united force against Western colonialism. Over the following half decades, Non-Alignment Movement jointly championed by Nehru and Nasser emerged as an important political project which was more than non-Western and non-white identity and potentially supplanted Afro-Asianism as the new concept for the emerging Third World.
The Egyptian President’s invitation to 26 January Republic Day comes when India reemphasizes the dynamic historicity of “Third Worldism” while rebuilding the significance of the “South-South” connection. India’s G20 presidency also gives them the leverage to strengthen the voices of the Global South and comes at a time when the world is witnessing a power shift from West to East. Egypt is an essential partner in rebuilding India’s interest in West Asia and North Africa and has a strong potential for defence cooperation. But it is a historic opportunity for both countries as it is for the first time that Egypt has been invited to India’s Republic Day commemoration. Egypt is also invited as a “guest country” at the G-20 summit of 2023.
As Egypt under President Sisi is asserting its position as leader of Arab world and India is also seeking to expand its strategic interests in Africa, both the countries are intertwined when it comes to having strategic interests in Africa and can cooperate in many areas, especially in the defence sector. They have had historic defence ties since the inception of their diplomatic ties and have a history of co-production of military equipment, negotiated on shared intelligence and joint military exercises. It gives India a unique opportunity to consolidate India’s strong connections with West Asia and North Africa region by reviving the Cairo-Delhi Nexus and re-strengthen the Third world voices.
The Russia-Ukraine war has impacted the world’s geopolitical dynamics, and India is reinforcing its own independent path with a non-aligned standpoint. Egypt also delineates its balancing act by carefully positioning itself between West Asia, West, East and Africa. Therefore, Egypt’s importance in India’s foreign policy is in sync with its strategic positioning. It is not surprising that both countries are thus trying to renew their friendship, which has long been in stagnation. In the Indo-Pacific strategy in which the Western Indian Ocean is a crucial link, India also is trying to make various strategic partners in the West Asian region, ensuring accessibility in various chokepoints. Egypt, which has absolute control over the Suez Canal, is strategically important to India.
It is especially true when China is making strong inroads in West Asia and North Asia due to the Belt and Road Initiative. Recently, Chinese President Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia also marked apprehension among the Western world. In this context, when West Asia’s “Look East” policy is getting well reciprocated by India’s Look west policy, it is relevant to discuss the notion of Egyptian scholar Mohammad Soliman, who coined the “Indo-Abrahamic Accord” to restore stability in the region. The pandemic years also witnessed major vaccine diplomacy, with India supplying vaccines to Egypt. Also, India is a significant food security guarantor of West Asian counties. Egypt faced severe challenges due to the outbreak of Russia Ukraine war in February 2022. India offered huge supplies of wheat to fulfil its food requirements.
Defence cooperation has been the central thrust of the Indo-Egypt partnership since 1960 and has constantly been evolving away from the limelight. 2022 marks the 75th year of diplomatic relations and has also witnessed an unprecedented level of intense engagement, especially in the defence sector. The number of high-level ministerial visits has set a close narrative of cooperation. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s two-day visit in September 2022 in Cairo clearly indicated India’s willingness to explore new initiatives to focus on military initiatives with Egypt. The latest significant development in this relationship is marked by the signing of the MoU in defence cooperation between Rajnath Singh and General Mohamed Zaki from Egypt, followed by Egypt’s participation in the 12th Def Expo held at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, from 18-22 October 2022. Around the same time, External Affairs Minister (EAM) of India, Dr S. Jaishankar, too, conducted his first official high-level visit to Egypt from 13-15 October, highlighting a significant jump in trade, with 2021-22 being the highest ever, over US $7.2 billion. Egypt is a potential market for “Make in India” products, and India can hold collaboration for co-production, co-manufacturing defence products and joint defence manufacturing. Both countries will soon have joint military exercises with Special Forces in three cities Udaipur, Jaipur, and Jodhpur.
India and Egypt have re-entered the golden times of their bilateral relationship and provided massive scope in investments and further defence cooperation. They have immense opportunities to collaborate and can create a strong voice for the “Global South” by reviving the essence of Nonalignment in their foreign relations. Only time will tell whether Modi-Sisi’s friendship will rebuild the legacy Nasser-Nehru had once created.