Engaging Egypt In A Strategic Vibe: India Seeks To Enhance Partnership With Cairo – Analysis


India’s engagements with Egypt have attained a new significance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Cairo on 24-25 June. During the visit, Prime Minister Modi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi signed a ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement that would serve as evidence of the growing ties between the two nations, holding promises for both geopolitical and economic realms.

In a Twitter post, Modi noted that his visit was of great historical significance. He emphasized that it would “add renewed vigour to the relationship between India and Egypt,” ultimately benefiting the people of both nations. The MEA statement noted that “the newly established ‘India Unit’ in Egyptian Cabinet was a useful tool in steering bilateral collaborations.” The two leaders also discussed “further cooperation in G-20, highlighting the issues of food and energy insecurity, climate change, and the need for the Global South to have a concerted voice.” Egyptian President El-Sisi is also expected to attend the G20 Leaders’ Summit to be held in New Delhi in September 2023. 

Significantly, for the first time since 1997, an Indian head of government embarked on a state visit to Egypt, marking a noteworthy sign. The visit was filled with notable events, including the prestigious presentation of Egypt’s highest civilian honour, the Order of the Nile, to Prime Minister Modi and his meeting with the Indian diaspora and the visit to Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo. This exceptional gesture carries even greater significance given the relatively brief period since President El-Sisi’s visit to India earlier this year. 

Government of India sources elaborated on the fruitful discussions held between the leaders, emphasizing their mutual dedication to enhancing the connections between their respective nations. These efforts encompassed a wide range of areas, including trade, investment, defense, security, renewable energy, cultural exchanges, and promoting people-to-people interactions. MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi expressed his contentment with the productive nature of the meeting, highlighting that India and Egypt solidified their collaboration by signing three additional memoranda of understanding. These memoranda encompassed agriculture, archaeology, and antiquities, as well as competition law, showcasing the comprehensive scope of their cooperation. 

In a previous meeting held in January, Modi and El-Sisi set forth their commitment to bolster bilateral trade to the level of $12 billion within the next five years. This ambitious target significantly surpassed the already remarkable figure of $7.23 billion recorded for the fiscal year 2021-22. It is worth noting that the two countries also appended their signatures to several agreements in New Delhi, encompassing areas such as cybersecurity, information technology, culture, and broadcasting, thus fostering a multifaceted and comprehensive approach to their collaboration. 

In the realm of diplomatic interactions, India and Egypt also experienced a notable expansion in political exchanges at the ministerial level during the past years. Particularly noteworthy was the reciprocal visits of ministers from both countries, which demonstrated the emphasis placed on fortifying various dimensions of the bilateral relationship.

The visits undertaken by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in September 2022 and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in October of the preceding year yielded remarkable outcomes in the sphere of defense collaboration between India and Egypt. These visits paved the way for the momentous inception of “Desert Warrior,” a joint tactical exercise conducted by the air forces of the two nations. Furthermore, another significant milestone in the bilateral defense cooperation was marked by Cyclone 2023, a two-week-long joint military exercise carried out by the armies of India and Egypt.

Historical Trajectory 

The bilateral relations between India and Egypt, two populous countries in the Asian and African continents, are embedded in their distinctive cultural and civilizational heritages. Their links have a history that goes back to the pre-Christian era, as shown by the excavations in Pattanam under the Muziris Heritage Project of Kerala, the south Indian State. The Malabar Coast of Kerala had trade links with Egypt and the traders from there used to come to Muziris, the port which later came to be called Kodungaloor. This is being rediscovered today in the context of understanding Kerala’s historical connectivity with the Arab world and Europe, through the Indian Ocean trade. Even as history played a significant role in forging multi-level ties, the politics and international relations of the twentieth century further strengthened their relations.

In the post-colonial conditions, India and Egypt rediscovered themselves, in a larger collectivity called the Global South with a shared understanding of international relations and foreign policy. Both sought to tread on an autonomous, non-aligned foreign policy path, drawing inspiration from the Bandung spirit of the Afro-Asian solidarity. This collaborative spirit continued in their opposition to the Cold War, in their struggle for an equitable international economic order and in their shared outlook on a variety of issues from the Palestine question to the issues of terrorism and religious extremism. 

The relationship did not, however, undergo any major change in the post-Cold War period. However, there has been a substantial change in the very structure of bilateral relations, shaped increasingly by the process of economic liberalisation and globalisation. Inevitably, the bilateral relations saw a major jump in trade and investment.  There was an increase of 60 to 75 per cent in bilateral trade between the two countries in the last few years, though the global slowdown affected some sectors. Investments from both sides also increased considerably. More than 50 Indian companies are now working in Egypt, providing employment to nearly 35,000 Egyptians. A study says that five Indian companies alone, who top the list, provide jobs to 13,000 Egyptians. A good number of them are in the construction, energy and textiles sectors. The combined investment of these major companies is estimated to cross $3 billion.  

Egypt also sets a wider platform for foreign countries to come and invest in the country. The Suez Canal expansion project was one of the major developmental projects with an estimated cost of $8 billion (with expected revenue of $12.5 billion). President El-Sisi had invited India to be a partner in the Suez Canal Economic Zone during his visit in 2016, particularly in sectors such as petrochemicals, energy, agriculture, healthcare, education, IT etc. This is obviously a major challenge that Indian companies can certainly take up. When the Suez Canal becomes a full-fledged free trade zone, it would add to the opportunities for India to boost its exports to Africa and Europe. This was reiterated by the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who in an interview said that Egypt was strategically placed to help India in its desire to project itself further into Africa. 

While bilateral trade continued to rise (since the agreement signed between the two countries in 1978), the global slowdown occasionally affected the momentum. This was clear from the trend during 2013-14, but trade picked up momentum soon, and by 2018 India’s total trade with Egypt was restored to $4.5 billion. The target set by many for the coming years was $12 billion which is not too ambitious, given the vast opportunities available, particularly in the context of the US sanctions on Iran.

Egypt could be one of the balancing sources of crude, besides its potential as a source of stable supply of liquefied natural gas. Egypt being a mineral rich country, India can tap benefits from its trade with it, given the growth trajectory of the Indian industry. India must also explore the feasibility of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the African countries. For example, the proposal for a Common market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) which included Egypt needs to be taken up seriously, and the work of the Joint Study Group set up for the purpose should be activated. 

It is important for India to consider Egypt as a major hub for trade connectivity with Europe, Africa and Asia. Currently the share of Egypt in India’s total exports to the African region is less than 10% and this can be enhanced with a favourable policy regime in both India and Egypt.

The two countries should also be very cautious about the impending slowdown in the world economy and every option should be region-specific realistic strategies while expanding avenues of trade and investment. As the leading countries of the Global South, both India and Egypt should sustain the historical equation in meeting the challenges of the global financial institutions controlled by the Global North countries. This equation must get reflected in their joint efforts in all multilateral fora for a favourable bargain. This is obviously a task that India is expected to take up as Chairperson of the G-20 this year. 

As Egypt is strategically placed as a hub of maritime connectivity, India can develop effective partnerships and collaboration in a number of areas such as trade, commerce and services. While maritime security and counter-terrorism will remain high priority areas, it is equally important that the two countries learn from each other in areas of social policies and local governance (such as national rural employment guarantee scheme and Panchayat Raj system in India). 

Another area of mutual engagement is maritime connectivity as envisaged in India’s Project Mausam (PM) launched in 2014. It is the Government of India, Ministry of Culture project with two agencies having directly involved in its implementation – the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts. The PM aims to bring in a new cross-national and cross-regional communication system among the countries of the Indian Ocean region which will strengthen understanding of cultural values and concerns. It intends to provide new avenues for understanding national cultures in their regional milieu. India identified 39 countries, including Egypt, to be partners for the ‘new wind’ project which included countries from the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. Though there was a slow pace in the PM activities, it has great potential to further India’s maritime connectivity with a large segment of the Asian and African continents. 

Trade is, of course, one of the main concerns of PM given the fact that the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa are India’s biggest regional trade partners. Historically, the commodities traded through the Indian Ocean connectivity included spices, medicines, gems, stones, ornaments, metals, wood, etc. The Indian Ocean connectivity facilitated trade, and migration, and through them the spread of cultures and religions.

Historically, Kerala maintained a unique position in the global exchanges relations, both economic and cultural and the ‘spice route’ connectivity goes back to two millennia. The spices constituted one of the major components of India’s trade basket and Kerala was the hub of major exotic spices (like black pepper). Nearly 33 countries, including Egypt and Oman, had spice trade with ancient Kerala. A survey of the mummy of Ramesses II, one of the ancient Egypt’s rulers found that there were fragments of pepper in his nostrils. Spices from Kerala were also used in Egyptian perfume oil. 

The Muziris project and the Pattanam excavation in Kerala showed that the Southern coast of India and the Arab world had vibrant ocean connectivity. India’s Project Mausam, if it is extended to other levels, can be a good beginning and it would be instrumental in forging new ties with the African continent, in general, and the Arab world, in particular. The Government of India can co-opt partners like Egypt in the project and thereby strengthen both maritime and geo-historical connectivity. 

Egypt’s desire to work with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping is an indication that Cairo seeks to play a pro-active role in the Global South. Within the context of Global South engagements, India and Egypt serve as exemplars of South-South solidarity and cooperation, and their collaboration demonstrates the potential for developing nations to forge partnerships, exchange best practices, and jointly address pressing global issues. 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *