There are two ways to play a game. Go with the flow or patiently wait for your moment to come, while strengthening the weak portions of your game. India mainly engages in the second type of play. India always had interests in North Africa, but at the same time, it had problems finding a stable ally. This is why India traditionally did not have much stake in the region. Things are changing with the emergence of a disciplined Egypt.
During Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Egypt, India and Egypt signed a Memorandum of Understanding to further boost bilateral defence cooperation. In the bilateral meeting between Singh and his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Zaki, both leaders also reached a consensus to enhance joint exercises and exchange of personnel for training, especially in the field of counter-insurgency.
Sharing some photos from the meeting with his counterpart, the Defence Minister tweeted, “Had an excellent meeting with Egypt’s Defence Minister, General Mohamed Zaki in Cairo. We had wide-ranging discussions on several initiatives to further expand bilateral Defence engagements.”
The Defence Minister also held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for an increase in bilateral military-to-military cooperation.
The MoU did not come in vacuum. Despite being partners in the Non-Aligned Movement, it took years for both countries to reach this level of trust. Various factors such as cold war, western pressure tactics, and misinformation spread by intelligence agencies played a key role. However, these hurdles could be overcome if Egypt had a stable government at the helm of affairs.
History of Egypt’s struggle with Political instability
Yes, throughout the last few centuries, Egypt was never ruled by a stable political unit. Its tragedy started with the destruction of the Sultanate of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. For the next 288 years, Egyptians remained under the control of the Ottoman Empire. After 1805, Egyptians established their hereditary monarchy, military, legal system, currency, and empire. Muhammad Ali Pasha modernised Egypt to such an extent that British Empire became eager to have a political hold on it.
Pasha’s successors failed to capitalise on the gains made by him. But ‘Isma’il the Magnificent’ brought prosperity back to Egypt. This prosperity had a cost and the cost was financial. To finance his rapid industrialisation plan, Isma’il the Magnificent had to sell Egypt’s shares in the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez.
British hold on Egypt
The sale of stakes to the United Kingdom resulted in active interference by the British Empire in the Egyptian polity. Legally, Egypt was still a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, but it was the British who were running its affairs. Despite the movements such as the ‘Orabi revolt of 1881’, and ‘Egyptian Revolution of 1919’, the British’s influence did not wane. The British extensively used Egyptian geography to gain leverage in the Second World War as well.
Even after the war, the British maintained their presence in the country, primarily for controlling trade passing through the Suez Canal. Nationalists were getting infuriated and it was exacerbated by the loss of 78% of Palestine in the ‘Palestine War of 1948–1949’. King Farouk, believed by many to be on payrolls of Pound, was blamed for it. The loss of territory infuriated Army officers and soon the ‘Free Officers Movement’ was formed.
A young officer named Gamel Abdel Nasser was leading the charge. In no time, he realised that he would need the Muslim brotherhood, a fundamentaist organisation, to dethrone the incompetent regime. Meanwhile, he also disagreed with their world view and had formed an organisation called “Tahreer” (“freedom” in Arabic) to throw them out once the regime was toppled. In the revolution of 1952, King Farouk was dethroned. Sayyid Qutb, the man in charge of Muslim Brotherhood, actively supported Naseer. 11 years later, Qutb was executed for playing a part in conspiracy to assassinate the President.
Despite his supposedly treacherous nature, Nasser shared a good bond with Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. In 1955, both countries signed a Friendship Treaty l. Both countries also shared common interests in NAM as well. Additionally, Egypt’s regaining of its sovereign control on the Suez Canal in 1956 should have meant that it would gain a prominent place in the 20th century for challenging western hegemony.
Problems in Egypt did not stop
But western countries took on coordinated diplomatic offensives against Egypt. Internal politics took it down as well. After Nasser’s death in 1970, 3 successive Presidents could not provide stability to the country. In 1981, 53-year-old Hosni Mubarak came to power. He stayed at the helm of affairs for 3 decades and it took the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to give him a status of normal civilian.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi, had soon taken over Cairo and unleashed a reign of terror in the country. The Brotherhood itself was removed through a protest movement called “Tamarod” (revolt) that had collected 22 million signatures asking Morsi to step down. The arrival of El-Sisi was the moment India was patiently waiting for. Indian diplomats have more valid reasons than one to do so.
Reasons why India wants a say in Egypt
Number one reason is its geography. Egypt is considered as a gateway to Africa. Egypt is located at the centre of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is bordered by Libya to the West, Sudan to the South, and Israel and the Gaza Strip to the northeast. Any miscalculation in identifying the right authority in getting entry into the region would have turned out to be counter-productive.
This is why neither the fundamentalist government like that of Muslim Brotherhood, nor an incompetent one like that of Mubarak was the right one for India to align with. To be fair to our Foreign Policy establishments, their analysis did not come out of thin air. During Mubarak’s time, 4 Indian Prime Ministers namely Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narsimha Rao, I.K. Gujaral and Manmohan Singh toured Egypt to strengthen bilateral ties. On his part, Mubarak visited India thrice in his 3-decade long reign. Mubarak’s successor Morsi also visited India in 2013. Apparently, except for a few investments by Indian companies in Egypt, all these initiatives did not bear much fruit.
El-Sisi changed it
The slow growth in bilateral ties rapidly changed after El-Sisi came to power. PM Modi himself took the initiative and met El-Sisi on the side-lines of UNGA in 2015. A month later both President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Modi met the Egyptian President during the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi. 11 months later, El-Sisi toured India for a state visit. It was during this visit that a Joint statement was issued. It outlined the three pillars of political-security cooperation, economic engagement, scientific collaboration, and cultural and people to people ties.
Riding on the endorsement by their respective head of states, various ministerial level collaborations also took place between both countries. Both countries have been assisting each other in various areas which include space and economy. In fact, Egypt is one of those countries with which India enjoys trade surplus. Despite historical issues hampering the trade, lots of bottlenecks have been removed by the collaboration between Industrial bodies of both countries.
In the year, 2020-2021, bilateral trade between both countries amounted to $7.26 billion, a 75 per cent increase over the previous year. India imported products such as Mineral Oil/Petroleum, Fertilisers, Inorganic Chemicals and Cotton from Egypt. While we mainly exported Iron and Steel, Light Vehicles, and Cotton Yarn to them. With Egypt holding massive reserves of gold, copper, silver, zinc, and platinum, only sky’s the limit for bilateral trade.
But increasing bilateral trade is only the tip of the iceberg. It is the building of defence ties between both countries that has more strategic importance. In the last 8 years, both countries’ defence cooperation has increased in exponentially. Since June 2021, a total of 7 Indian delegations have visited the North African country. Importance of Egypt can be gauzed from the fact that even the Air Chief Marshal himself visited the country.
Defence partnership between India and Egypt
Both countries also participate in various military exercises. Respective Air Forces of both countries participate in an exercise called Desert Warrior as well. Earlier this year, two Egyptian Naval Officers participated in Multilateral Indian Naval Exercise MILAN-2022. Egyptian ships also collaborate in various other exercises with the Indian Navy. The North African nation is also an enthusiastic partner in major Defence Exhibitions, and Aero shows held in India.
Both countries have developed such a level of trust that earlier this year, India offered to set up production facilities for light combat aircrafts in Egypt. India seems to be planning to use Egypt as a launchpad for exporting its Defence products in the MENA region.
Egypt’s role in India’s Middle East strategy
The weapon exports initiative has a bigger meaning than what it looks on the surface. India currently enjoys an excellent stature in the Middle East. Despite some ups and downs, Gulf nations are on good terms with India. India is a part of newly formed I2U2, which consists of Israel, UAE and the USA. Without India being a stable future partner, the other 3 would not have allowed India to gain a foothold in the grouping. India being on good terms with both Israel and Palestine played a key role in it.
But other than India, it is only Egypt that enjoys a respectable position in both Israel and Palestine. Egypt was the one to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after the 11-day war between Israel and Palestine. Even in August this year, Egypt strengthened its role as mediator between both countries.
Including Egypt under its sphere of influence is just an additional advantage for India. El-Sisi’s regime is one of the few sensible ones in Africa. Just like BRICS expanded, and is expanding, it won’t be a surprise if Egypt gets an entry into the grouping in future. Even an observer status would do. But for that political stability in Egypt is the prerequisite.
Only stable economic growth can give way for a stable regime. El-Sisi’s initiative towards taking Egypt on the path of economic growth is a promising start. India is also jumping to take the African nation on the path of development. India is doing it with both caution and precision. Soon, you will see a new ally for India in the MENA region. This ally will not only have economic power like the Arab world, but unlike Arabs, it will have military strength as well.
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