Diplomacy: ‘Egypt-India coordination is crucial to defend the interests of countries from the South’
The articulate Egyptian Ambassador to India, Hatem Tageldin, is optimistic that the relationship between the two countries will get better
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
What was the outcome of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Cairo?
The visit was very successful. Both Egypt and India want to lift their relations to a higher level and the visit served as a launching pad for a new era of comprehensive and enhanced cooperation. Based on our historical ties and common values and interests, the two sides discussed ways to deepen and expand cooperation in all spheres, and will follow up on this during political consultations and meetings in the next few months.
The visit was an opportunity to discuss regional issues in both the Middle East and in South Asia. During the minister’s meeting with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, as well as the extended consultations between the two foreign ministers, both sides agreed on the need to work together to counter terrorism which threatens security and stability in our two regions. Egypt believes that the international community must be united in the fight against terrorism. We were therefore heartened by Swaraj’s assertion that India does not only condemn terrorism but joins hands with Egypt in the fight to remove the scourge of terrorism completely. The two sides have agreed to enhance their security cooperation and exchange related information.
What is the nature of the cooperation envisaged?
We are equally determined to enhance other aspects of our bilateral cooperation, including in the areas of defence, trade and investment. Egypt is India’s largest trading partner in Africa, with our trade volume nearing $5 billion annually since 2011. But we strongly believe that there is bigger potential for our trade exchanges, and we are working together to increase its volume and diversify into new products. Indian companies find Egypt an attractive destination for their investments. Currently, more than 50 Indian companies are established in Egypt with an investment of almost $3 billion. Likewise, Egyptian companies have started to establish their presence in India, with factories in Haryana and Karnataka. But this is only a beginning and more Egyptian companies are exploring how to be part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative, Make in India. The two governments recognise the importance of these investments and spare no effort in encouraging and supporting companies from both sides to invest.
In addition to our bilateral and regional cooperation, our collaboration and coordination in the multilateral forums is of paramount importance, not only to our countries but many others in Africa and Asia as well. Whether it is in the context of multilateral trade negotiations in the World Trade Organisation or climate change in preparation for the upcoming Paris conference, our coordination is crucial to defend the interests of countries from the South. Further, developing coordination in these forums was part of the discussions of the two foreign ministers in Cairo.
Swaraj also reiterated Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to President Al Sisi to attend the Third Summit of the India Africa Forum, to be held in New Delhi towards the end of October. The President warmly welcomed the invitation, referring to the importance of the African-Indian partnership and how both sides can benefit from each other. We look forward to this forum as an opportunity to enhance our cooperation and exchange views between all our leaders on international issues of concern to all of us in the South.
In July, the Egyptian army fought off an attack by terrorist organisations in the Sinai Peninsula. How is Egypt dealing with such attacks?
Terrorist organisations and groups are trying to spread fear and destruction in many parts of West Asia and North Africa. The majority of their victims are innocent civilians. Their inhuman attacks resonate with what we witness in other parts of Africa and Asia, as well as in Europe. In Egypt, these organisations are largely confined to Northern Sinai. The Egyptian armed forces have been successfully targetting these organisations, their operatives and their hideouts, as well as their lines of supply from the sea and across international borders. When we set out to confront these organisations, we were aware that it would not be an easy or short endeavour. But we were confident and determined to prevail over these forces of evil. The people of
Egypt are fully supportive of their armed forces as they continue to fight these terrorist groups.
Today, the situation has greatly improved and security has been restored. From time to time, we still witness attempts to attack our armed forces in the North of Sinai, like the one you are referring to. However, we stand ready to counter any such attempt, and we are confident that our effort will help stop these organisations and eradicate the threat they represent. But in order to achieve this goal, more coordinated efforts at the regional and international levels are needed. The international community must prevent these organisations from getting funding and other material support, and should hold those who provide such support responsible for their actions.
President Al Sisi made a courageous call for a “religious revolution” to counter the rise of religious
extremism. How is his call being turned into a policy to fight radicalism and promote moderation?
Egypt has a long history of religious tolerance and moderation. President Al Sisi has called for revision and reform of the religious discourse to ensure that younger generations are not left alone as prey for those who misinterpret and misuse Islam for their own political agenda.
There are many players and stakeholders who can and will contribute to the implementation of this initiative. Foremost is Al-Azhar which is a 10 centuries old institution, and a longstanding beacon of moderate Islam. Al-Azhar offers training and educational programmes to students from all over the world and sends some of its teachers abroad to spend one or more academic years teaching the true and tolerant tenets of Islam. It is now embarking on a new effort to disseminate the correct and merciful teachings of Islam using modern
tools of information technology and social media. Education and enlightenment are critical in the fight against extremism, hatred and violence. But other players also should shoulder this responsibility, particularly the media outlets.
I would like to mention here that many Indian students join Al-Azhar University for undergraduate and postgraduate studies. We welcome the interest of Indian educational institutions in being associated with Al-Azhar and work closely with the government of India to ensure the best use and dissemination of the scholarships and opportunities it offers.
Egypt has been active diplomatically. Recently, President Al Sisi and Saudi Arabia Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman issued the Cairo Declaration which rejects interference in Arab affairs and talks about the Joint Arab Force. How is this progressing?
Our region is facing many threats. To be able to counter and defeat these threats, the countries of the region have to be in the forefront of safeguarding their national interests. This is why the last summit of the League of Arab States held in Egypt earlier this year adopted a resolution to establish a Joint Arab Force. Our intentions are completely peaceful towards our neighbours, however we are determined to defend our countries and peoples. The Chiefs of Staff of the 22 Arab countries have held some meetings since the summit to work out the details and operational guidelines of this Force and it will be adopted by the League of Arab States, once complete.
In this vein, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working closely to ensure that the Arab world restores its stability and protects the territorial integrity of all its countries. Our cooperation serves these objectives and the interests of both our peoples. The Cairo Declaration is yet another step towards reinforcing the cooperation and coordination between our two countries. It outlines six facets of cooperation, most notably military cooperation, working towards the establishment of the proposed Joint Arab Force, and enhancing cooperation and investment in the fields of energy, electricity, and transportation.
What are Egypt’s views on the crisis in Syria and how to resolve it?
The situation in Syria needs the immediate and collective attention of the international community. The Syrian people are paying a huge price for the current crisis. Almost half of the population has been displaced internally or to other countries in the region, including Egypt. A political solution is urgently needed; a solution which responds to the Syrians’ desire for democracy and security, while ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and the unity of its people.
Egypt is striving to achieve this goal along with other Arab and international players. Cairo has hosted a number of meetings for the national and non-violent Syrian opposition factions. Through dialogue, these parties are aiming at presenting a front that is capable of playing a role in achieving a political solution. At the same time, Egypt has been calling on the international community to take measures to stop the infiltration by foreign fighters into Syria.
Egypt is part of the larger coalition that is trying to restore the rule of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Yemen. How does Egypt perceive the crisis in Yemen?
Yemen has suffered greatly in recent years from chaos and violence. Egypt, along with other Arab countries, supports the legitimate government of Yemen and is working towards restoring peace and security. This should serve the Yemeni people and allow them to rebuild their united country. It would also ensure that the factions spreading destruction in Yemen are unable to threaten its neighbours. President Al Sisi has reiterated in no ambiguous terms that the security of the Gulf is a “red line” for Egypt. The national security of Egypt and the Gulf countries are intertwined. Further, securing navigation in the Red Sea and protecting Bab Al-Mandab Strait is also a top priority for Egypt’s national security, as this strategic area is the southern entrance to the Suez Canal. Recent weeks have witnessed important successes towards restoring peace in Yemen. But more efforts are needed to ensure that the entire country is once again controlled by the legitimate government.
When the crisis in Yemen peaked a few months back, Egypt sought India’s assistance in helping Egyptian nationals working there and their families wishing to exit. We deeply appreciate India’s prompt response. The cooperation between our two countries in such circumstances, as was the case a few years back with Indians wishing to exit Libya through Egypt, is a clear manifestation of the importance of our relations and its nature.
Egypt has held the Palestinian problem dear for so long. There is a view that your military operations in Sinai have hurt the Palestinian cause. Your comments...
Egypt’s solidarity with the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause is an undeniable fact. Egypt would never hurt the Palestinians in any way. On the contrary, Egypt continues to stand hand in hand with the Palestinian people and their leadership to achieve their historical right to establish their state. We also provide support on many other fronts – whether helping to achieve a ceasefire with Israel, mediating between various Palestinian factions, or calling on the international community to provide the assistance the Palestinians are in dire need of. During the 2014 Gaza war, Egypt’s role was crucial in reaching a ceasefire with Israel, and we hosted the following October the Cairo International Donors Conference for the Reconstruction of Gaza.
Having said this, let me emphasise that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be brought to an end by abiding by the parameters of the peace process, ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a viable and contiguous Palestinian State, with Jerusalem as its capital. The international community has a role to play towards achieving this goal, and countries like India, which have long supported Palestinian rights, should contribute to this goal. This is why Palestinians, Egyptians and Arabs in general were reassured by Swaraj’s statement in Cairo that India’s traditional support to the Palestinian cause remains unwavering.
In recent times, President Al Sisi has met Russian President Vladimir Putin on many occasions. These meetings pertain to increased defence cooperation, but how do they square with your revived ties with
Egypt is keen to have friendly and cooperative relations with all international powers. We have always played an important role towards contributing to international peace and security, whether in Africa, the Middle East or the world at large. Egypt is a strong believer in international cooperation and friendly relations between countries. We are ready to work with any country that shares these objectives and aspirations. In today’s multi-polar world, there is no contradiction in having good relations with different world powers. India is a good example. India has maintained traditional cooperation with Russia, while building a strong cooperation with the US. This mode of international relations is a model that is being repeated in many corners of the world. We have longstanding relations with the US which we are keen to develop further. Early in August, the two countries held a new round of strategic dialogue that examined their cooperation at various levels. But we also enjoy historical relations with Russia, and both countries are working closely to enhance their bilateral cooperation and expand it to new areas of mutual interest, including defence, trade and nuclear energy for peaceful uses.
Egypt has an open and balanced foreign policy that is built on peaceful objectives and mutual respect. This is why Egypt is seeking the membership of the UN Security Council for the next two years (2016-2017) and aims at utilising its membership to further enhance peace and security as envisaged in the United Nations’ Charter. Our candidature has received the full support of all African countries. In fact, we are running as a clean slate to represent Africa. We are also receiving the support of many other countries around the world.
Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with Sushma Swaraj
Will the P5+1 deal with Iran impact the region?
Egypt has always supported the right of Iran, as a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the peaceful uses of nuclear power. We have also long called for the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone in the Middle East. Egypt has therefore welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal as long as it fulfils those two pillars. But it is also important that all parties to the deal contribute with the same zeal to achieving peace and security in the Middle East. Further, the international community should build on this step to achieve the goal of establishing the NFZ in the region.
In early August, Egypt celebrated the opening of the extension of the Suez Canal that, according to some, will change the map of the world. Tell us about this amazing achievement and how it was conceived.
On August 6, Egypt celebrated the completion of the mega project aimed at creating a new canal parallel to parts of the existing Suez Canal and deepening the waterway, thus significantly shortening the transit time and allowing bigger ships to use the canal. Many world leaders were keen to be part of the celebration which was led by President Al Sisi. India was present on this occasion, Minister Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Maritime, Transport and Roads, participated on behalf of Prime Minister Modi. The minister also met his Egyptian counterpart and both countries are exploring ways to enhance their maritime cooperation.
The New Suez Canal project was completed in 12 months instead of the initial estimated three years. Egyptians wanted to fund the project with their own resources. Individuals, students, and small and medium Egyptian companies raised the required $8.5 billion in eight days. We are very proud that Egyptian resources were mobilised in such a way to fund this national project. The next phases of the project will include building four tunnels to connect both sides of the canal. This will be in addition to the existing tunnel and bridge. They will also include establishing a development zone next to the Suez Canal which will host many industries, services and storage areas. The Suez Canal is one of the most important waterways in the world. It serves world trade as the shortest connection between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The envisaged Suez Canal Development Zone will create huge opportunities for many companies and investors. Egypt is keen that Indian companies join this project and benefit from the unique location of the canal and the industrial and services zone that will be created next to its banks. We are currently working with various Indian business associations and industry federations to disseminate information about these opportunities among the Indian business community.
At one time, India and Egypt were very close. What would it take for the two countries to revive the earlier warmth? Are trips by the two heads of state to each other’s countries enough or is more needed?
Egypt and India are poised to have very close relations in the years ahead. Both countries share many common interests and face common challenges that have a direct bearing on their national interests. Ensuring security in West Asia, confronting terrorist organisations and breaking their financial and recruitment networks, offering businesses and investors from Egypt and India new opportunities and coordinating the positions of the two countries on various international political issues are just a few examples.
Both countries recognise the importance of working closely. Coordination on various issues has been regular, whether through political consultations between the two foreign ministries or the joint trade committee talks held in New Delhi towards the end of last year. In recent weeks, Egypt welcomed three visits by Indian ministers and the deputy National Security Adviser. We look forward to holding the next Joint Commission headed by both foreign ministers in New Delhi early next year.
All these exchanges ensure close understanding and collaboration between Egypt and India. But let me add that people to people relations are also very important. Our peoples are particularly fond of each other’s history, culture and traditions. Our common history in recent times is still very much alive in the memory of our peoples, even the younger generation. The two sides work continuously to nurture these special cultural ties and build upon them. We should complement this by encouraging more cooperation and exchanges between our think tanks and news agencies. It is very important that our media outlets have correspondents on the ground in India and Egypt to reflect the developments in each country directly and not depend on third parties.
Both Egypt and India are keen to develop a special relation which is based on shared values and common interests. In today’s world, this is the best foundation for strong and healthy relations that will serve the interest of the two great and friendly peoples of Egypt and India.