Prime Minister Modi’s recent trip to Cairo, Egypt, was significant with far reaching implications for both the countries and the region. It was not just that the PM Modi was conferred with the country’s highest honor, ‘Order of the Nile’, but it was also a manifestation of the importance that Egypt accords to India in the fast-evolving current global scenario. Significantly, is the first visit by a PM from India in 26 years to the biggest and most important Arab country, which was also the pillar of India’s middle-east policy.
In late 50’s and 60’s, leaders of both the countries, India’s Jawahar Lal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamel Abdul Nasser , were trying to forge a post-colonial world order. Both the leaders had built strong bonds with President Nasser grandly stated that “Suez is as dear to Egypt as Kashmir is to India”. Taking the cue from their leader, the Egyptian media blasted Pakistan and its close ally United States by branding Pakistan as “the number one enemy of Cairo and Arabs”. Nasser’s statement irked the Pakistanis so much that in an editorial, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper wrote: “It is nevertheless a matter of deep regret that in the veins of this turbulent egoist not the blood of Islam should seem to flow but the turbulent waters of Nile”. Nasser was unfazed by this criticism and worked towards strengthening the solidarity amidst non-aligned nations also promoted the Afro-Asian solidarity against western imperialism during the cold war era.
It’s possible to find many parallels between India and Egypt. The Indus and Nile valley civilizations had close contacts with each other for over a period of 4000 years. The Egyptian mummies, were wrapped with muslin cloth brought from India. Following the first world war, the Wafd party of Egypt had close interactions with the Indian National Congress and expressed solidarity with each other in their fight against British colonialism. In the initial years after Independence in 1947, India’s Middle East policy that championed the Palestinian cause was Cairo centric. Both Nehru and Nasser were socialists who adopted a non-alignment path in their foreign policies and were close to the Soviet Union. The India-Egypt friendship treaty was signed in the year 1955. During the Suez crisis in 1956 Nehru condemned the tripartite attack by Briton, France and Israel on Egypt and called it “naked aggression”. Egyptian President Nasser returned this favor to India when he refused passage to Portuguese ships through Suez Canal during India’s liberation of Goa in 1961 and also toned-down a Pro-Pakistan resolution against India at the Arab summit in Casablanca on the sidelines of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965.
New regional alignments and India’s change of priority in the Middle East
Egypt’s military defeat in the 1967 war tarnished Cairo’s image as the champion of the Arab world. The new equations which developed in the region in favor of the GCC nations prompted India to reorient its Cairo centric policy. Nasser’s death in 1970 witnessed the relative decline of Indo-Egypt relations. Anwar Sadat who became Nasser’s successor had aligned his country with the United States and went ahead to sign the Camp David treaty with Israel in 1978. By late seventies the GCC nations became India’s main source of energy imports and a favorite destination for India’s labor migration. India’s engagements in the region were strengthened with its new bond with the Arab Gulf monarchies (GCC) and its traditional friendship with the Arab secular republics such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq took a back seat. Following Sadat’s assassination and Hosni Mubarak coming to power in 1981, there was no perceptible change in the bilateral ties of the two countries. After the Egyptian uprising in 2011 the new president Mohammed Morsi visited India in 2013 but his tenure was short lived following the military coup. When Abdel Fateh al Sisi came to power in 2013, there was a possibility of growing cooperation between Egypt and India. As Chief Guest to President Sisi was warmly received as India’s at the Republic Day celebrations in 2023 and the bilateral ties were upgraded to the strategic partnership level. Egypt being the largest Arab country with a population of 105 million is situated geo strategically at a region that connects the Mediterranean, the red sea and the Indo-Pacific. Egypt can be a reliable partner to India as it hosts the Al Azhar University which is the biggest center of Sunni religious scholarship in the world and therefore having a moderate voice in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab league.
From Strategic Partnership to the Indo-Abrahamic Alliance and I2U2
The term “Indo-Abrahamic Alliance” was coined by Mohammed Soliman, an Egyptian Scholar based in Washington DC. The idea of adding Indo with the Abrahamic alliance postulates India taking full advantage of the normalization of relations between Israel and Arabs. If Pakistan can capitalize its relations with Turkey in organizations like the OIC over the issue of Kashmir, India should look at the possibilities to strengthen ties with its old friend Egypt whose leader Sisi has good relations with the United States, Israel and the Arab world can be supportive of India. Therefore, the seventy-five years of bilateral relations should be taken up to the highest level of strategic partnership. The bilateral trade volume of $7.26 billion in 2021-22 could be increased by strengthening and finding new areas of cooperation in maritime security, cyber security ,counter terrorism, curbing religious extremism, food security, agriculture, climate change, clean energy, space technology, health, tourism and higher education.
The visit of India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh to Cairo in 2022 set the ball running in defense cooperation. Egypt expressed interest in purchasing New Delhi’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. Due to its large population. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world. During the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict, India supplied nearly 1 million tons of wheat to Egypt last year. After years of a very perfunctory political engagement, it is now time for New Delhi to strengthen its ties with Cairo. India has to share its growing expertise in various sectors to enhance defense cooperation and accelerating India’s soft power. While India and Egypt are celebrating their 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations, will the exchange of visits by the two leaders set the stage for re-engagement like the Nasser-Nehru days of the yore- is the big question.
(This article has been authored by Ashok Alex Luke.He can be contacted at email@example.com )