While marking a new phase in India’s relationship with Egypt, PM Modi’s June 24-25 visit to the North African country has given New Delhi an opportunity to pursue closer cooperation with Cairo in green energy, defence, agriculture, and pharmaceuticals
The just concluded two-day visit of Egypt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be remembered for many reasons. First, it was the first state visit by an Indian Prime minister to Cairo in 26 years; I K Gujral was the last Indian Prime Minister who took a state visit to the North African country in 1997. Second, the visit led to the elevation of ties between India and Egypt to strategic partnership. Third, it helped in pushing the two countries towards giving a boost to their bilateral engagements in the areas of trade and investment, information technology, defence and security, renewable energy, agriculture, health, and culture. Fourth, it offered the two sides an opportunity to further strengthen their people-to-people relations. Display of symbolism As the Indian Prime Minister’s Air India One plane touched down at the Cairo airport on June 24, no less than Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly rushed to the airport to personally receive him. Warmth between the two countries’ relations scaled a new height when President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi conferred Prime Minister Modi with the ‘Order of the Nile,’ the highest state award of Egypt. Instituted in 1915, the ‘Order of the Nile’ award is conferred upon heads of states, crown princes and vice presidents who offer Egypt or humanity invaluable services. This is the 13th highest state honour conferred upon Prime Minister Modi. These developments clearly showed Egyptian leadership’s respect and love towards India and Prime Minister Modi. Diplomatic significance India is looking for a deeper access to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through Cairo. The region is diverse and affected by political transformations, but has huge potential for growth. Along with its strategic and privileged geographic location, Egypt has huge access to large markets, backed by social vibrancy and demographic dividend. It holds ‘comparative advantage’ in several key sectors like manufacturing and renewable energy. India sees Egypt as a key link in its pursuit of energy security and solar revolution. India is also looking towards Egypt as a gateway to major markets in the “Euro-African region”. In the last 19 years, India has opened more than 20 missions in the African region to build and strengthen relationships with Africa. More than this, the Prime ministerial visit from India to Egypt held a huge diplomatic significance as it took place at the time when New Delhi is trying to consolidate its position as a voice of the Global South. In fact, promoting inclusive leadership with strong participation of the Global South in the multilateral process is a major objective for India at the G20. India has invited Egypt to participate as a “guest country” during the G20 summit in September. Strategic significance Egypt’s strategic location, especially with the Suez Canal, is of high significance for India. The 193 km Suez Canal is one of the world’s most important and busiest trade routes. Connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal serves as a route for approximately 12% of global shipments, representing more than $1 trillion worth of goods per annum. According to Suez Canal Authority, in 2020, approximately 19,000 ships passed through the Canal which was opened in November 1869. It should be noted that out of the total 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil shipped and transported through the Suez Canal, 500,000 barrels per day of crude is shipped to India. Besides, Egypt is a key player in the politics of Africa and the Arab world. Its status as the most populous Arab country, its geostrategic position at the confluence of Asia and Africa and its rich history and enormous cultural influence in the Arab world, add to its importance in the world. These factors apparently played well into pushing India and Egypt towards signing a joint declaration to elevate relations to strategic partnership. This development took place during the just concluded visit of Prime Minister Modi to Cairo. Trade relations For India, Egypt has served as the most important trading partner in Africa. 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 was $ 4.55 billion. Despite the pandemic, the volume of trade declined only marginally to $ 4.5 billion in 2019-20 and to $4.15 billion in 2020-21. However, bilateral trade expanded rapidly in 2021-22, amounting to $7.26 billion registering a 75% increase compared to FY 2020-21. According to the Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, from April 2022 to January 2023, bilateral trade between the two countries reached nearly $4.4 billion, with $2.9 billion worth of exports from India and $1.5 billion worth of imports from Egypt. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit, the two countries decided to deepen their partnership in the areas of trade and investment. Defence relations India and Egypt enjoy warm defence relations. According to the Indian embassy in Cairo, since June 2021, more than 15 defence delegations have visited Egypt, including Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, from November 28 to December 2, 2021. He attended the Egypt Air Power Symposium and delivered a keynote address on 'Strategic Air Intelligence in confronting new and non-organized threats. Subsequently, the IAF Chief visited the Egyptian Defence Exposition (EDEX). Reciprocally, Air Marshal Mohamed Abbas Helmy, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Air Force visited India on July 04-07, 2022. In addition to meeting the Chief of Air Staff, he also called on the Chief of Army Staff, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Defence Secretary to further mutual cooperation. The EAF Chief also visited HAL at Bengaluru, Software Development Institute and Aircraft Systems and Testing Establishment (ASTE). After a gap of several years, Ministerial visits resumed in the latter half of 2022, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visiting Cairo from September 18 to 21, 2022. Last year on November 19, India and Egypt signed an MoU on defence cooperation. 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, Desert Warrior, was held in Egypt from October 29-31, 2021. Two officers from the Egyptian Navy participated in Multilateral Indian Naval Exercise MILAN-2022 held from February 25 to March 4, 2022. For the first time, the Indian Air Force participated in the Tactical Leadership Program of the Egyptian Air Force Weapons School from June 23 to July 22, 2022. The first joint exercise between Special Forces of India and Egypt titled ‘Exercise Cyclone’ was held on January 14-27, 2023 in India. Indian cinema and its influence Bollywood films have a strong influence on Egyptian minds and public discourse. Second Egyptian President Abdel Nasser, it is said, had attended the Indian Film fare Award in the 1960s. Hindi film stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan have a strong fan following in Egypt. Besides cinema halls, there are round the clock film and music tv channels where Bollywood films and music are shown. It is said that despite the language barrier, generations of Arabic-speaking Egyptians feel affinity with culture, drama of family relationships shown in Indian films. Conclusion The Indian Prime Minister’s state visit to Egypt after a gap of 26 years has injected a fresh life in the two countries’ bilateral relations. It helped in the elevation of ties between the two countries to a strategic partnership, considered as a significant move in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region. Reinforced by historical ties, yet rocked by present-day geopolitical tension, which has been sharpened by the Ukraine war, Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Egypt has given New Delhi and Cairo an opportunity to essay a closer relationship--filled with charm and mutual understanding. ***Author teaches at University of Delhi’s Deshbandhu College; views expressed here are his own