Author : Navdeep Suri

Originally Published 2023-06-27 12:04:54 Published on Jun 27, 2023
The diversity of engagements planned during PM’s visit suggests that after a long hiatus, relations between two of the world’s oldest civilizations are on an upswing
Modi’s visit could bring fresh energy to India-Egypt ties
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Egypt on June 24-25 was part of a series of carefully calibrated initiatives taken by India over the last year or so. These include the decision to invite Egypt, along with UAE and Oman, as India’s special guests to the G20 summit and to the scores of other events being organized during our presidency. They also reflect the important groundwork done during the Cairo visits of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in September and External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar in October 2022. These paved the way for the invitation to President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to participate as chief guest on India’s Republic Day in January 2023. This kind of sustained engagement is vital because our bilateral ties over the last four decades have meandered without a clear sense of direction despite sporadic and well-meaning attempts by either side to inject some energy and purpose. And the engagement matters for both sides. For India, Egypt’s population of 110 million makes it the largest country in the Arab world, its importance enhanced by a geopolitical location astride Asia and Africa and by the presence of the Suez Canal as a crucial artery of global commerce. It has the largest standing army in the region, hosts the headquarters of the League of Arab states and has an extensive diplomatic footprint that enables it to punch above its weight. It may not share India’s position on UNSC reform but there is a strong convergence on fighting religious extremism and terrorism. For Egypt, India is both an old friend and a new rising power, a potential source of both technology and investment and a desirable partner in a multipolar world. The decision to confer PM Modi with the Order of Nile, Egypt’s highest award and to constitute a ministerial level ‘India-Unit’ under the Prime Minister is a sign of intent to boost ties.
Bilateral trade is growing and defence cooperation, in particular, has seen a fair bit of activity with air force and special ops exercises and a series of high-level visits.
The strategic partnership agreement signed during the visit could become the driver for a more multi-faceted relationship. Bilateral trade is growing and defence cooperation, in particular, has seen a fair bit of activity with air force and special ops exercises and a series of high-level visits. As India shifts its focus towards defence exports, Egypt could be a potentially significant market. But there is a more exciting opportunity on the horizon in the form of the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZONE) with easy access to markets in Europe, Africa and the Gulf through a web of FTAs. Indian companies like Sanmar, the Aditya Birla group and several others already use Egypt as a manufacturing base to feed the local market and to export their products to Europe and Türkiye. Even as we focus on our Make in India campaign, a substantial presence in Egypt, including the SCZONE, could be a boost for an export-oriented ‘Made by India for the World’ programme. There is also a dimension that goes beyond these imperatives of geoeconomics and geopolitics. Egypt occupies a very special place in the Muslim world and Cairo’s Al Azhar University, founded during the Fatimid Caliphate in the 10th century is widely regarded as the world’s most prestigious institution for Islamic learning. It is the leading centre for Islamic jurisprudence and many of its alumni go on to become ulema in countries across Asia and Africa. Over the last decade and especially after the demise of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Al Azhar has played a key role in countering the half-baked theological doctrines spouted by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. But Al Azhar also has students in regular faculties like commerce, engineering, medicine etc and India has done well to establish a Centre for Excellence in IT at the hallowed campus as part of an MoU that was signed in 2013 during my time in Egypt. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, is traditionally elected by a council of senior scholars at Al Azhar and we have built a good relationship with Sheikh Shawki Ibrahim Allam. We took the sensible initiative to host him in India as part of ICCR’s Distinguished Visitors Program in May 2022 even after Al Azhar had issued a mildly worded rebuke on Nupur Sharma’s prurient comments in March. It is significant that PM met  the Grand Mufti and also visited another Fatimid monument from the 10th century to which India’s Dawoodi Bohra community traces its heritage - the mosque of Al Hakim in old Cairo. The visit to a historic mosque restored and reconstructed by the Bohras was good foreign policy optics with a tinge of domestic politics because the Bohras have been steadfast supporters of PM Modi since his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat. As we enter a new era in bilateral ties, it is churlish for some of our armchair commentators to lament that Egypt did not participate in the meeting of the G20 working group on tourism in Srinagar in May. Just because we invited Egypt to G20 does not mean that it will jettison its longstanding position on J&K or on UN reform. Despite the difficult economic circumstances that it is currently facing, Egypt strives to maintain a degree of autonomy in its foreign policy postures and we Indians should understand this approach better than most. The fact that PM Modi went ahead with the visit despite that unnecessary kerfuffle on Srinagar displays a long-term vision and maturity in our foreign policy establishment. We should also be clear-eyed that the trajectory of our ties with Egypt will be a lot less linear than the dramatic transformation that we have seen with UAE and Saudi Arabia. Like India, Egypt is replete with contradictions. It is ancient and modern, authoritarian and argumentative, nimble and bureaucratic, friendly and opinionated - all at the same time. As we embark on this journey, should be prepared for the long haul.
This commentary originally appeared in The Indian Express.
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