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Why India is expanding its strategic ties with Egypt

Why India is expanding its strategic ties with Egypt
9 min read
01 February, 2023
Analysis: India and Egypt are rapidly strengthening bilateral ties, but what is New Delhi's wider role in the Middle East and how do Cairo's economic troubles factor into the picture?

In 1960, Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, embarked on a state visit to India at the invitation of independence leader and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

During this period of tensions between the Soviet Union and NATO, the two historical figures carved out a space that sought to rebuff the bipolar international order.

Sixty-three years later, the partnership between Cairo and New Delhi is still going strong, and taking on new meaning.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s place as the guest of honour at the 74th Republic Day parade symbolised India’s unique role on the world stage, especially within the Middle East.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sisi announced a “strategic partnership” and vowed to boost trade, diplomatic, and security cooperation.

So what is ahead for India’s Middle East diplomacy and how does Egypt factor into the picture?

Non-alignment 2.0? 

Like India’s historical bond with Syria, the Indian and Egyptian leadership sought to avoid being constrained into either ideological camp as the Cold War unfolded.

“Egypt has always been an important partner and a friend for India,” Dr Manjari Singh, an Assistant Professor at the Amity Institute of International Studies at Amity University and Middle East observer, told The New Arab.  

“However, the relationship became more nuanced and engaged during the Nehru-Nasser era when the two leaders worked towards non-alignment and were important pillars and founding members of the movement. The Nehru-Nasser era has been the most significant aspect in the bilateral [ties],” Singh said.

“This is not a revisiting of relations as it was during the non-alignment era, as it is widely portrayed, this is a re-packaging… aimed at shifting the focus from Nehru-Nasser times to Modi-Sisi multilateral [relations]; engagements with strategic autonomy.”

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Both Egypt and India aim to solidify their own geopolitical positioning amid the heightened state of international tensions between Western countries and their primary adversaries: Iran, Russia, and China.

In September 2022, Egyptian Defence Minister General Mohamed Zaki signed a security cooperation agreement with India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Cairo.

“There is a change in the global geopolitical and geoeconomic atmosphere wherein both countries wish to play a defining role,” Singh notes.

“Egypt’s geostrategic location acts as a connecting link between Africa, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe and is also an important country from the Indo-Pacific point of view.”

For New Delhi, the future of its national interests hangs in the balance with access to critical maritime trade routes.

“New Delhi certainly wants to play a defining role in the region which has four main chokepoints, the Suez Canal being one of them, which is controlled by Egypt. That aspect makes engaging with the country even more important. By engaging holistically with the Arab Republic, India will have clear access to all these regions,” Singh explained.  

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inspects a guard of honour during his ceremonial reception at India's presidential palace on 25 January 2023 in New Delhi, India. [Getty]

“Likewise, on defence, as India is focusing on self-production and indigenisation, Egypt seems like a lucrative partner as a market for Indian defence platforms,” she said. “As of now, India is exporting defence items to over 42 countries and Egypt is one of them. Additionally, the country has shown its interest in procuring India’s Tejas aircraft.”

Egypt and India both share positive ties with Russia and hope to avoid any disruption in bilateral relations with Moscow as Putin’s war with Ukraine unfolds.

India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has sought to rebuff pressure from the West to scale back its ties with Russia, remarking last year that the notion that “Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s” was drawing to an end.

Egyptian food security and economic downturn

The world economy continues to struggle with the aftermath of the pandemic and the global food crisis due to the Russia-Ukraine war, which has hit countries such as Egypt particularly hard.

Egypt is currently undergoing a period of intense economic hardship. The cost of living has drastically increased due to inflation, with the Egyptian pound now valued at 31.7 to the US dollar.

However, the two countries stand to gain from increasing their cooperation. “Egypt, even if going through an economic downturn, is a major power in the Red Sea, Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Sea connects them. India is a resident power in the Indian Ocean,” Anil Trigunayat, India’s former Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta, told The New Arab.

The economic agreements signed between the two sides intend to expand trade to $12 billion in the next five years. Egypt is reportedly also weighing the possibility of granting India a special area for Indian commercial industries within the Suez Canal Economic Zone.

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“Maritime cooperation and security of trading lanes via the Suez Canal have always been an Indian priority. Indian companies are also looking to harness the potential of the Suez Special Economic Zone for exports to Europe, Africa, and the Arab world,” Trigunayat noted. 

“Already three major Indian companies in renewables have agreed to invest nearly $18 billion,” Trigunayat said.

“The three main objectives are: to probably sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with Egypt as the latter had approached India on this aspect in 2008 and a preferential trade agreement already exists between them,” Singh said.

India will be hosting the G20 summit in September 2023, which could offer Egypt new channels to secure economic assistance.

In April 2022, Egypt was exploring the import of food from India due to Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian wheat from traversing the Black Sea. In June, Egypt procured 180,000 tonnes of wheat from India.

Singh explained, “An MoU on business and trade makes it feasible to sign an FTA with Egypt. This will provide India access to African, Arab, Mediterranean markets and to an extension to the European market.”

In addition, she said that India was also working on “a probable freight-food-energy corridor, with Egypt being one of the multilateral and strong partners”.

Modi has made an effort to reach out to countries in the Middle East and the GCC. [Getty]

New avenues of cooperation amid multi-alignment geopolitics

China’s rise has prompted India and the United States to enhance diplomatic and security relations in recent years. In December, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in renewed clashes in India’s northern border region.

With this in mind, India is likely watching China’s high-level outreach to the Arab Gulf countries closely.

“China has been trying to engage with Egypt and had invited the latter for the Winter Olympics in February last year and the two leaders had met and discussed at length on China’s engagement along the Suez and otherwise,” Singh noted.

In early December, Chinese President Xi Jinping was welcomed in Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was due to visit India in November but had to postpone the trip due to a scheduling conflict. He is likely to travel to New Delhi this year. Saudi Arabia has engaged in quiet behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel, but so far has refused to normalise relations until a Palestinian state can be achieved.

Trigunayat said, “PM Modi has made an exceptional effort to reach out to countries in the Middle East and the GCC, since it is India’s extended neighbourhood and is critically important for India’s own well-being. Most relationships have been converted to strategic partnerships with defence and security as key movers, especially with all the GCC countries.”

Pakistan has also sought to leverage influence with the UAE to persuade Modi into talks on resolving tensions over bilateral issues, including Kashmir. The United States, which is working to enhance ties with Islamabad following the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, has also reportedly offered to mediate such talks.

Interestingly enough, a January poll from the Morning Consult found that although Indians perceive China as the greatest threat (43%), Indians felt that the United States ranked as the second greatest threat (22%), with Pakistan coming third (13%).

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These findings were explained as being due to a fear of India becoming trapped between the United States and rising tensions with Russia and China.

“India has always stood for multilateralism and multilateral institutions and, with the failure of the world to be mindful of the plight and concerns of the Global South, India and like-minded countries like Egypt wish to work for a sane and equitable emerging order. Both also stand for strategic autonomy that was discernible during the Russia-Ukraine war,” Trigunayat explained.

India has made substantial inroads within the Arab World, which look set to continue expanding. Modi is also keen to foster relations with Arab states that have normalised ties with Israel.

As Michael Kugelman noted in Foreign Policy, “Egypt’s long-standing formal relationship with Israel, along with normalized ties between Israel and four other Arab states through the 2020 Abraham Accords, creates pathways for India to pursue multilateral arrangements in the region”.

This comes as India is now active with other multilateral platforms such as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the US) and I2U2 (India, Israel, the UAE, and the US).

“India’s focus on food security at various forums, especially within I2U2 and G20 platforms, means that its emphasis is on making a mark in the global and regional food supply chain. Similarly, a focus on energy security and clean energy, especially solar and green hydrogen, makes [Egypt] a collaborating partner,” Singh said.

In the wake of Sisi’s visit to India, Mirette F. Mabrouk, the Director of the Egypt Program at the Middle East Institute, even suggested that India could push for Egypt to join the I2U2 group. 

“The UAE is India’s third largest trading partner and KSA the fourth largest. India and UAE have also become part of the I2U2 as India and UAE have signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement,” Trigunayat said.

“[The GCC countries’] outlook towards India has undergone significant change as India emerged as a voice of the Global South and a gigantic economic opportunity with the fastest GDP growth, even during the ongoing Eurasian war and the pandemic,” Trigunayat noted.

As non-Western countries seek to revive their economies, adapt to global warming, coordinate diplomacy, and enhance food security, they will increasingly turn towards other emerging states, that are not aligned with either the United States, China, or Russia.

It is increasingly likely that India will be at the forefront of this emerging leadership.

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris