Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was the Chief Guest at this year’s Republic Day. An invitation by India to a foreign leader to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations is a manifestation of its clear intention to comprehensively enhance its ties with the country he or she leads or the importance it attaches to the bilateral relationship. An acceptance of the invitation is equally an indication of the leader’s desire to take the relationship to a higher level. Thus, El-Sisi’s visit is a mark of India essentially not seeking to confine its relations to the Peninsular Arab states where it has enormous strategic, economic and commercial interests but, once again, as in decades past, look more positively towards Egypt.
The Arab world is diverse though language and faith provide an undergirding glue. Egypt which has been called a gift of the river Nile is obviously geographically vastly different from the deserts of the Arab peninsula and Sahel. Egypt too has deserts but it is the Nile valley which is its throbbing heart. It is this valley which has been one of the cradles of human civilization and Egypt, even today, is conscious and proud of its pre-Islamic past, though its Islamic faith is strong. Also, Egypt has always occupied a central position in the cultural, intellectual and even political life of the Arab world even if the Peninsular Arab States have been in the global eye for the past five decades because of wealth brought about their hydrocarbon reserves.
Scholar-diplomat Talmiz Ahmad has, in his excellent work, West Asia at War, which was published in 2021, given an account of Egypt’s nationalist and Islamic responses to colonial domination. In some ways it parallels India’s experience. Certainly, after the second World War Egypt too was an active participant in the decolonisation process and, under Abdel Gamal Nasser, determined, like India, under Jawaharlal Nehru, to keep away from power blocs though like India it was ideologically inclined to the left. Nasser was a leader of Arab nationalism though he was opposed by conservative forces led by the Saudis.
Egypt’s defeat at Israeli hands in the 1967 war dealt a severe blow to Egypt and Nasser. He died in 1970. His successor Anwar Sadat led Egypt away from Nasser’s policies, recovered some Egyptian pride through the 1973 war which led to the formation of OPEC and the consequent rise in price of hydrocarbons causing a massive rise in Peninsular Arab wealth. Sadat abandoned the Soviet affinity, opened up the economy and began the peace process with Israel. That was looked upon as a betrayal by many Arab states of the Palestinian cause. With India firmly supporting the Palestinians Sadat’s change of course inevitably led to a distance developing between India and Egypt and that distance only grew with the passage of years as Indian interests in the Arab peninsular grew exponentially. El-Sisi’s visit is a signal that the two countries now wish to make a determined effort to open a fresh chapter in their ties, especially as, through the past few decades a level of Indian investments has been made by Indian private companies in Egypt.
The present global challenges faced by developing countries on account of the problems that have emerged from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provide a good ground for a reinvigoration of India-Egypt ties. Climate change is also an issue which makes it mandatory for India and Egypt to come together for the Western world is unlikely to fulfil its promises on transfer of technology or finances so essential for adaptation and mitigation of the consequences of climate change faced by the developing world. The time is therefore propitious for renewed cooperation between the two countries.
It is the realisation that jointly India and Egypt can assist each other that led Modi and El Sisi to decide to elevate relations to that of a ‘strategic partnership’. The specific areas of interest for both are defence and security, political, energy and economic. It was significant that both leaders said, at the joint meeting with the media, after their discussions that terrorism and extremist ideologies which lead to violence are a contemporary danger. The Muslim Brotherhood has adherents in Egypt. Indeed its origin was in Egypt and El Sisi who is a former army chief had staged a coup to overthrow a government led by the group. The decision of the two leaders should now be translated into active cooperation at various operational levels in combatting extremist ideologies.
There was cooperation in the defence field during the Nehru-Nasser era. However, with Egypt first under Sadat and later in the three decade rule of Hosni Mubarak looking only at the United States for its defence needs, defence cooperation ties were cut. Now they can gradually begin again with training and joint exercises. Indeed, both India and Egypt enjoying good ties in the defence sector with the United States. It is therefore unlikely that the US will seek to discourage their contacts in this area.
West Asia and North Africa are under stress. Their populations are rising and economic difficulties are multiplying. The regimes are expected, especially by the youth, to deliver a better life. The governments are unable to deliver on these issues except in the oil rich countries where too problems are coming up with the young wanting socially more freedom. India has major interests in the entire region and not in the Arab Peninsular alone. Hence, the move to invite El-Sisi and pay greater attention to Egypt was timely.