- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will be the chief guest at the seventy-fourth republic day celebrations on 26 January 2023. It will be President Sisi’s third visit to India after assuming the presidency of Egypt in 2014.
- In this context, this edition of the burning issue will discuss the Indo-Egypt bilateral relationship.
Historical background of the Relationship
- India and Egypt, two of the world’s oldest civilizations, have enjoyed a history of close contact from ancient times. Even before the Common Era, Ashoka’s edicts refer to his relations with Egypt under Ptolemy II.
- In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi and Saad Zaghloul shared common goals regarding the independence of their countries, a relationship that was to blossom into an exceptionally close friendship between Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru, leading to a Friendship Treaty between the two countries in 1955.
- The Non-Aligned Movement, led by Nehru and Nasser, was a natural concomitant of this relationship. In 1955, Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser and India under Jawaharlal Nehru became the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.
- During the 1956 War, Nehru stood supporting Egypt to the point of threatening to withdraw his country from the British Commonwealth. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, India supported Egypt and the Arabs.
- Since the 1980s, there have been four Prime Ministerial visits from India to Egypt: Shri Rajiv Gandhi (1985); Shri P. V. Narasimha Rao (1995); Shri I. K. Gujral (1997); and Dr Manmohan Singh (2009). Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh participated in the XV NAM Summit held in Sharm EISheikh in July 2009.
Significance of the relations
- A pivotal regional power: With a population of almost 110 million, a location that straddles Africa and Asia, a standing army that is the largest in the region, a capital that hosts the League of Arab States and a diplomatic presence that punches above its weight in global affairs, Egypt is a pivotal player.
- Gateway to both Europe and Africa: Egypt, the most populous country in West Asia, occupies a crucial geo-strategic location — 12% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal — and is a key player in the region. It is a major market for India and can act as a gateway to both Europe and Africa.
- Close relationship immediately after Independence: It is a country with which India enjoyed an exceptionally close relationship in the first couple of decades after our independence.
- A shared vision of NAM: The personal equation between Prime Minister Nehru and President Nasser was legendary and the two also became the stalwarts of the nonaligned movement during the Cold War of the 1960s.
- Friendly voice in the Islamic world: Relations between the two countries have been historically good. India sees Egypt as a moderate, friendly voice in the Islamic world, and New opportunities lie ahead for the two Global South partners.
- Joint fighter project: At the political level, the two countries were close enough for India to send clandestine arms shipments to Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956 and contemplate nuclear cooperation and a joint fighter project in the 1960s.
- Indian literature in Egypt: It was a time when Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore were household names and their works were translated into Arabic by leading figures of Arab literature.
- Tough on terrorism: From the beginning, Sisi has been tough on Islamic religious extremism — critics say he saw an advantage in positioning himself against the Muslim Brotherhood whose leader, Morsi, had been jailed — and has earned praise for his fight.
Current state of Bilateral relations
- India and Egypt share close political understanding based on a long history of contact and cooperation in bilateral, regional and global issues. Both countries have cooperated closely in multilateral fora and were the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement. The year 2022 is of particular significance since it marks the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Egypt.
- Hardeep Singh Puri November 2019 addressed the inaugural session of the “Regional Conclave on India – West Asia and North Africa (WANA)” organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
- There are several mechanisms of bilateral institutional dialogue at different levels like The Joint Working Group on Cyber Issues, Joint Committee Meeting on S&T, India-Egypt JWG on Counter Terrorism etc.
- The India-Egypt Bilateral Trade Agreement has been in operation since March 1978 and is based on the Most Favoured Nation clause and the bilateral trade has increased more than five times in the last ten years. The bilateral trade in 2018-19 reached US$ 4.55 billion. Despite the Pandemic, the volume of trade declined only marginally to US $ 4.5 billion in 2019-20 and to US $ 4.15 billion in 2020-21.
- Wheat export from India: Russia-Ukraine conflict has threatened Egypt with a shortage of wheat, 80% of which is imported from Russia and Ukraine. On 14 April 2022, Egyptian Cabinet announced the inclusion of India in the list of accredited countries which can supply wheat to Egypt, thus ending a long pending Non-Tariff Barrier.
- Around 50 Indian companies have invested in various sectors in Egypt with a combined investment exceeding US$ 3.15 billion. Major Indian investments in Egypt include TCI Sanmar (with the largest investment of US$ 1.5 billion), Alexandria Carbon Black, Kirloskar, Dabur India, FLEX P. FILMS, SCIB Paints, Godrej, Mahindra and Monginis.
- Technical cooperation and assistance have been a major part of our bilateral relationship. Since 2000, over 1300 Egyptian officials have benefited from ITEC and other programs like ICCR and IAFS scholarships.
- Egypt and India enjoy cordial defence relations. The landmark event of the year 2022 was the official visit of Shri Rajnath Singh. Fruitful discussions on various aspects of Defence cooperation and ways to further enhance mutual exchanges were held during the meetings. An MoU on Defence Cooperation was signed on 19 Nov 2022 by both defence ministers.
- Egypt participated in the Multinational Training Exercise for friendly African countries held at Pune in March 2019. The first ever IAF-EAF Joint Tactical Air Exercise, Dessert Warrior, was held in Egypt from 29-31 October 2021.
- The Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture (MACIC) has been promoting cultural cooperation between the two countries, through regular activities such as Hindi, Urdu and Yoga classes; seminars; film shows; exhibitions and participation in local cultural activities.
- Yoga has gained immense popularity in Egypt. IDY was celebrated with much vigour in 2022; yoga events were held in Alexandria (on 12th June 2022), and for the first time, in Sharm Al-Sheikh.
- At present, the Indian community in Egypt numbers around 3200, most of whom are concentrated in Cairo. About 400 Indian students are studying in Egypt, mainly at Al Azhar University.
Limitations in the relationship
- Low bilateral trade: China’s bilateral trade with Egypt is currently at $15 billion, double that of India’s $7.26 billion in 2021-22. Sisi has been wooing Chinese investments and has travelled to China as many as seven times in the last eight years.
- Defence trade deficiencies: Cairo is interested in Indian defence products but Indian defence manufacturers are still not in a position to supply defence products in large quantities which makes Cairo to look towards other nations for its defence needs.
- Low people-to-people connections: direct people-to-people connection, lack of Indian diaspora in the country also makes it difficult to strengthen relations at ground level.
Outcomes from the current visit
- Consolidating India’s new coalition in the Middle East: The renewed engagement with Egypt is about consolidating India’s new coalition with moderate Sunni states in the Middle East, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It could help promote peace and stability in the Middle East and South Asia
- Ties elevated to strategic partnership: India and Egypt agreed to elevate their bilateral ties to a “Strategic Partnership” covering political, security, defence, energy and economic aspects.
- Enhance cooperation in diverse sectors: The meeting led to further strengthening cooperation between defence industries, and enhance the exchange of information and intelligence related to counter-terrorism. Extensive discussions were also held on strengthening the food and pharma supply chains affected by the Covid and the Ukraine conflict. Increase mutual investment and trade in these areas and take bilateral trade to 12 billion dollars.
- Exchange of media content: Media Authority of Egypt and Prasar Bharati to exchange content. Under the pact, both broadcasters will exchange their programs of different genres like sports, news, culture, and entertainment on a bilateral basis.
- For India, a deeper economic engagement with Egypt, therefore, acquires an additional strategic imperative.
- While Egypt needs to do more to market itself as an investment destination in India, it is also important for industry bodies like CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM to take a more proactive approach.
- ReNew Power has shown the way but it will need a joint government-industry initiative to acquire the scale needed to make an impact.
- The decision to invite President Abdel Fattah al Sisi of Egypt as the Chief Guest on Republic Day is an important gesture and should go a long way in imparting fresh momentum to India’s ties with the largest country in the Arab world.
- India’s decision to elevate bilateral ties to the strategic level is rooted in a recognition of the enduring salience of Egypt as a pivotal state sitting at the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, with the capacity to influence political outcomes on multiple fronts.
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