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India-Egypt Relationship: Looking for a new Momentum

Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • September 01, 2015

    India and Egypt share civilizational ties with a long history of people-to-people contacts. Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and India under the leadership of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were the torchbearers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Their commitment to socialism also kept both the leaders and countries drawn towards each other. After the end of the Nehru-Nasser era, the relationship between the two countries lost much of its old sheen. Subsequent leadership in both the countries has acknowledged the importance of the other, but there has been a discernible absence of any meaningful efforts from both sides to further strengthen the relationship.

    The popular protests against President Hosni Mubarak and his subsequent removal from power in 2011 drove Egypt in to deep political instability. Protesters demanded a liberal and democratic political system by replacing the authoritarian rule consolidated by the Mubarak regime. Presidential elections held in 2012 saw the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and Mohammed Morsi becoming the President of Egypt. The electoral victory of Muslim Brotherhood became a watershed moment not only in the history of Egypt but the entire Arab world. It marked the emergence of political Islam in the mainstream of Arab politics. Despite Muslim Brotherhood being an Islamist party, it did not hesitate to engage with India. Morsi visited India in March 2013 and both countries signed agreements on information and communication technology, cyber security, cultural heritage, micro and small enterprises, vocational training etc. Morsi’s rule ended abruptly due to intervention by the military and Abdel Fattah El Sisi became the new president of Egypt. Morsi’s rule was short-lived, but his visit to India reflected his desire to rebuild ties with India.

    Throughout the political turmoil in Egypt, India has consistently expressed solidarity with the people of Egypt appealing to the leadership to see the winds of change and address the aspirations of the youth. As Sisi continues to restore peace and order in his country, he has shown substantial interest in reviving India-Egypt relationship. India has invited Sisi for the upcoming Third India-Africa Forum Summit to be held in New Delhi in October this year. Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways visited Egypt as the Prime Minister’s representative to attend the opening ceremony of the New Suez Canal in August 5, 2015. The visit of Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to Cairo on August 23-24, 2015 was intended to bring both the countries closer by identifying mutual issues of concern and pledging to work together. Fighting terrorism has been identified as an important issue for both India and Egypt as they are concerned with the growing menace of the Islamic State (IS). As the IS continues to spread its activities throughout the region, both India and Egypt are trying their best to insulate themselves from the threat and cooperate in their fight against it. India and Egypt signed an agreement in 1995 to combat terrorism and organised and transnational crime. Though not much cooperation has happened on the ground, the resurgence of terrorism throughout the region provides an opportunity for both countries to cooperate.

    Besides, economic engagement is another important issue which requires focussed attention from the leadership of both the countries. Bilateral trade between India and Egypt has been negatively affected by the continuing violence and instability in Egypt. According to the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India, the total bilateral trade between the two countries was USD 5.42 billion in 2011-12 which has come down to USD 4.76 billion in 2014-15. Indian export to Egypt has increased only marginally from USD 2.42 billion in 2011-12 to USD 3 billion in 2014-15. Egypt’s exports to India have been hit by the internal political and security situation. Egyptian export to India in 2011-12 was USD 3 billion which has come down to USD 1.74 billion in 2014-15. Bilateral trade has never been an important element in the India-Egypt bilateral relationship. As Egypt is moving towards restoring peace and internal stability, it expects India to become a partner in its economic development. Sisi expects more Indian investment in Egypt which will boost their economy. At present India has around USD 2.5 billion investments in Egypt with around 46 Indian companies operating in the country. Both countries should explore the opportunities in trade and investment which can be a new instrument of cooperation in the coming days.

    It is also important for both the countries to find commonalities on regional political and strategic issues. Since the death of Nasser and the subsequent weakening of the NAM, India-Egypt relationship has gone through a period of decline. The subsequent leadership of both the countries has not been able to rekindle the warmth of Nehru-Nasser friendship; nor has any other cause as strong and appealing as the NAM been explored to be pursued jointly. Change of leadership and changing regional political and security situations are responsible for the loss of momentum in the India-Egypt ties. High level visits from India have continued over the decades despite an evident lack of vibrancy in the relationship. Indian Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1995, I. K. Gujral in 1997 and Manmohan Singh in 2009 have visited Egypt. Mubarak also visited India in 2008. But such visits have not been able to take the relationship to a higher level. This shows that both the countries are still grappling over finding the core issues between them to be pursued. The failure of the leadership to find common ground to work together seems to be the primary reason for the sluggishness of the relationship. Sisi is trying to bring Egypt back to the centre of regional politics as well as Arab affairs and may invite larger Indian role in the region. A pragmatic approach of dealing with the sensitive regional issues by India and Egypt will be in the interest of both.

    With the passage of time India has emerged as an important player in the world. With a stable democracy, growing economy and development in science and technology it offers a window of several opportunities for cooperation. Egypt is emerging from the turmoil of Arab Spring while simultaneously facing a number of security and economic challenges. The current leadership in both countries has shown deep interest in reviving the bilateral ties; thus both must find issues of common concern to cooperate on, which would give a much needed thrust to the relationship.

    The author is Associate Fellow at IDSA.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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