During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Egypt on June 24 and 25, India and Egypt signed four agreements. Foremost among them was the pact that elevates the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership,” which India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra described as “the most important and the landmark development in the history of our relationship.”
The two sides also signed three memorandums of understanding in the fields of agriculture, protection and preservation of archaeology and antiquities, and competition law. The two sides also discussed bilateral cooperation in the fields of renewable energy, information technology, health, and infrastructure, and multilateral cooperation in the G-20.
Egypt-India relations go back several millennia. In the contemporary era, relations were initially strong. Anti-colonial and Third World solidarity brought the two countries together, as their leaders championed liberation struggles worldwide. India backed Egypt robustly during the 1956 Suez Crisis, and the two countries were among the co-founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.
However, relations cooled when Hosni Mubarak was at the helm in Egypt (1981-2011); Mubarak was reportedly miffed with India for a perceived diplomatic slight. But also, with the end of the Cold War, both countries moved away from non-alignment. Besides India began pursuing a “Look East” policy. It was only after Mubarak’s exit that Egypt-India relations not only began to expand but also acquired direction.
Especially over the last couple of years, relations have gathered momentum. If Egypt extended India a helping hand with medicines during the devastating COVID-19 second wave in 2021, India shipped wheat to Egypt when it struggled with grain shortages on account of the war in Ukraine.
Economic and security cooperation, which was not a priority in the past, have emerged as important pillars of the bilateral relationship. Bilateral trade multiplied by over five times in the past decade to reach $4.55 billion in 2018-19 and then $7.26 billion in 2021-22. The two countries plan to increase it to $12 billion in the coming five years.
As for defense cooperation, the Indian Air Force and Navy are engaging in joint exercises with their Egyptian counterparts. In January of this year, for the first time, the Special Forces of the Indian and Egyptian armies participated in joint exercises. Their warships are visiting each other’s ports. Importantly, Egypt is keen to purchase from India its indigenously-manufactured Tejas LCA Mk-1A aircraft as well as radars and military helicopters. As India looks to step up defense exports, Egypt could emerge as an important market.
India and Egypt are partners of multilateral forums like the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Exercising its prerogative as G-20 president, India has invited Egypt to participate as a guest in the G-20 meetings it is hosting this year.
High-level visits between the two countries have grown over the past year. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebration on January 26 this year, a clear sign of the priority that India accorded Egypt in its foreign policy agenda. During his recent visit to Cairo, Modi was bestowed with Egypt’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Nile. Incidentally, Modi’s visit to Egypt was the first by an Indian prime minister to that country in 25 years.
The rising bilateral bonhomie faced a bit of a hiccup recently, when Egypt along with China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey boycotted the G-20 tourism meeting in Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, causing India some embarrassment.
Yet India, which doesn’t usually take lightly criticism or slights relating to Kashmir from other countries, went ahead with Modi’s visit to Egypt. Clearly, staying the course in its engagement of Egypt and the gains it is expected to bring far outweighed a prickly response to Egypt’s Srinagar snub.
So, what underlies Egypt’s rising significance in India’s foreign policy and security calculations?
With a population of over 105 million, Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world. It is a founding member of the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union, multilateral organizations where India has been seeking more friends, especially for support on issues like Kashmir. Egypt straddles Africa and West Asia, and India sees Egypt as a bridgehead to a larger economic and security presence for itself in these regions.
Importantly, Egypt also controls the Suez Canal. Although India is simultaneously participating in road and rail connectivity corridors that will enable it to deepen and speed up trade with Europe, it is keen to expand its presence at this vital waterway. Some 500,000 barrels of crude oil are shipped to India daily through the Suez.
India’s presence at the Suez is poised to grow in the coming years, with Egypt in the process of allocating land for Indian companies to invest in the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZONE). A plan to transform Egypt into a global logistical and commercial hub by linking the Red and Mediterranean Seas, the SCZONE is likely to see Indian investment in renewable energy, green hydrogen, and infrastructure.
Egypt is also important to India because of its role in the Islamic world. Cairo’s Al-Azhar University is not only among the world’s foremost centers for Islamic learning and jurisprudence, but also promotes moderate methodology in Islamic thought. Hundreds of Islamic scholars and students from India’s Islamic seminaries and schools head to the Al-Azhar University every year, and almost all schools of Islamic thought in India follow edicts issued by Al-Azhar.
During his recent visit to Egypt, Modi met the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Shawki Allam, who is said to be moderate in his outlook. The meeting came close on the heels of the Grand Mufti’s visit to India in May, when he was a guest of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), an autonomous body under the Ministry of External Affairs. At Cairo, Modi and the Grand Mufti reportedly discussed religious extremism and countering the radicalization of youth.
Interestingly, Modi and el-Sisi have much in common. Both contest elections but are authoritarian leaders. Moreover, they have a “shared hate,” points out former Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmed. While el-Sisi has a “visceral animosity” for political Islamists, Modi’s antipathy is for all Muslims.