Context: During the recent visit of Indian PM to Egypt, the countries took mutual decision to upgrade their ties to a Strategic Partnership, which is seen as a significant move for India’s ties with the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region that is long overdue, given their historical ties. The visit was also important because it was the first official bilateral visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Egypt since 1997. There have been visits in between but they have mostly been for the multilateral or plurilateral events.
Historic partnership between India & Egypt:
- The two countries signed a Friendship Treaty in 1955, and India’s support to Egypt, including during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, eventually led to the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, with both as founder members.
- They were also instrumental in the G-77 grouping and “South-South Cooperation” initiatives
- During the Cold War, India and Egypt were united over their desire not to become “camp followers” of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union
- In the recent times their positions on the Ukraine war have been extremely similar — refusing to criticise Russia’s actions but not condoning them either and calling for a diplomatic resolution.
- India’s decision to supply wheat to Egypt, one of the world’s biggest importers that was hit by the blockade on exports from Russia and Ukraine last year, won New Delhi much goodwill in Cairo.
- The leaders have recently spent much time focusing on multilateral issues, India’s close ties in Egypt’s neighbourhood (especially Israel and Saudi Arabia), food and energy security constraints, and building more cooperation with the Global South including the African Union
- Egypt joined the “New Development Bank” set up by BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), and is keen to join this grouping that will deliberate new memberships at its Summit in Cape Town this August, where Egypt will seek India’s support.
During the recent visit apart from upgrading ties to strategic level following developments were made
- The two sides are also pursuing closer cooperation in green energy, pharmaceuticals and defence, with MoUs in agriculture, archaeology and antiquities, and competition law.
- Leaders identified green and renewable collaboration will be an important part of future partnership because of the importance the two sides attach to clean energy.
- The setting up of the ‘India Unit’ by Egypt was welcomed as it highlights ‘whole of the government approach’ to take forward bilateral relations and also India’s readiness to work closely with Egypt in various areas of mutual interest.
- Prime Minister also interacted with the leaders of Bohra community, who are actively involved in the upkeep of this Fatimid era Shi’a Mosque and highlighted the strong people to people ties between India and Egypt.
Importance of Egypt for India
- Egypt is the most populous country in West Asia, occupies a crucial geo-strategic location on the international trade map. Egypt hosts the Suez Canal, the channel which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean and Europe plus – 12% of global trade passes through it.
- Egypt can play a key role in countering global terrorism. With Al Azhar Mosque and university revered across the Muslim world, a voice of moderation emerging from Cairo to counter the millenarian ideas of global Jihad, espoused prominently by Al Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups, can play a major role in the battle of narratives.
- Egypt under El- Sisi is totally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), making India Cairo’s natural partner in countering the MB ideology which is being transmitted by regional influencers including Qatar and Turkey.
- India’s engagement with Egypt can become part of an energetic but pragmatic exercise to limit Chinese influence as China’s bilateral trade with Egypt is currently at USD 15 billion, double that of India’s USD 7.26 billion in 2021-22 plus Sisi has also been wooing Chinese investments and has visited China seven times in the past eight years.
- Egypt is a major market for India and can act as a gateway to both Europe and Africa. It is also important to increase India’s influence is increasing in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean Region.
North-Africa in India’s foreign policy matrix:
- Gateway to African continent: The nations such as Morocco and Algeria become geographical gateways to other parts of Africa. This is especially relevant for India given its desire to penetrate Francophone Africa
- Connectivity to Europe: North African nations are also important for Europe which provides many opportunities for India to collaborate with the European Union (EU) on issues such as terrorism, migration, and climate change amongst others.
- Diplomatic Support: India looks forward to generate employment, develop the youth, advance agricultural technology, and combat issues such as climate change and terrorism, amongst others. Specifically with the North African nations, India also aims to garner support for its bid to gain a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
- Critical Imports: Many of the North African Nations are trade partners of India with commodities such as petroleum, machinery, electrical appliances, medical goods, and many others often being exported and imported between the nations. Of these is phosphate which is used for agricultural purposes to enrich soil is a key import from the region. Indeed, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco account for almost 50 percent of India’s total imports of phosphates resulting in trade deficits occurring in some of the bilateral exchanges.
- Traditional and Non-Traditional Security: The second aspect is defence and counter terrorism. India’s defence relations with nations in North Africa are staggered with Egypt, however recently India also upgraded its relationship with Algeria in 2021 having conducted its maiden maritime partnership off the Algerian coast in the Mediterranean a sign of India’s growing interest in growing its maritime prowess as well.
- Diplomatic Aid: India has long boosted its image in the North African nations by providing medical, financial, and agricultural aid such as when it donated more than a million dollar to Libya to help stabilise the nation after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in 2010. Further recently India’s “Vaccine Maitri” programme meant to distribute vaccines for COVID-19 also included North African nations.
- Vibrant Diaspora: Indian workers in nations like Libya are well regarded due to their role as skilled medical professionals. In addition, India has also provided educational scholarships to citizens of the North African nations who often come to India to take advantage of the affordable living costs amongst other things
- Soft-Power Matrix: Many of the North African nations also have a long love affair with Bollywood, making it one of India’s most powerful soft power export apart from aid for the region. Thus, North African nations have even made documentaries on Bollywood due to the wide penetration of Hindi movies in the nation.
India’s engagement with the North African nations are historic, but still not as immense as other nations such as UAE and Saudi Arabia. There exists immense potential for India to ramp up its presence in North Africa pertaining to trade, defence, and counterterrorism amongst others. In the long run, this region will become an important gateway to India’s global power ambitions and its presence in Africa, and it would do well to increase its activities here.