Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s recent India trip has provided an excellent opportunity to expand bilateral cooperation at a much wider scale, covering a range of regional and international issues.
Second in a year, the delegation included top ministers and business leaders. Indeed, as Sisi wrote in an article immediately prior to his historic visit, both India and Egypt have much in common in terms of culture, society, interests and aspirations.
Centuries ago, Egyptian vessels carried papyrus and crystallized sugar, known in local Indian dialect as “Misri,” derived from Misr, the term by which Indians usually call ancient Egypt, to the shores of India. As rightly pointed out by the Egyptian president, Egypt and India have been historically bounded by a strong and close friendship that extended to different realms through cultural exchange and trade.
The special bonding between two stalwarts, India’s first premier Jawaharlal Nehru and Egyptian statesman Gamal Abdel Nasser, has led to the consolidation of Indo-Arab solidarity and paved the way for greater co-operation on a win-win basis.
The struggle against colonialism, spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, not only strengthened people-to-people relations in two distant lands of ancient civilizations, but has also become the fulcrum of future endeavors to realize common goals of the two peoples. And the 1955 Indo-Egypt treaty of friendship coupled with an intense collaborative effort that went into the formation of Non Aligned Movement (NAM) have been great examples of how common aspirations can propel two nations to work together in cohesion in their quest for prosperity.
Most importantly, India’s relationship with Egypt during those volatile days was not based on mere slogans, as has been the hallmark of India’s foreign policy lately. New Delhi’s unflinching support to Nasser on Suez Canal’s – central to Egypt’s national identity and economy – nationalization, generous contribution in Aswan Dam construction on river Nile and exploring joint defense projects, including fighter aircraft and jet engine manufacturing, have been instrumental in adding fresh momentum to a strong relationship that already existed with a strategically located country, holding Maghreb and Mashriq together.
Perhaps, not many are aware that the successful launch of Arab world’s maiden supersonic fighter aircraft, nicknamed HA 300, manufacturing project was made possible by the close cooperation of Indian Air Force and aircraft manufacturing establishment.
At least 50 Egyptian engineers worked in Bangalore to carry out necessary research work for development of this flexible aircraft, which was far superior to Russian MIG 21 or American F4-Phantom in combat performance, as well as E300 turbo jet engine. This was eventually used in the Indian HF-24 Marut fighter plane. Several senior Indian Air Force officials too served in the HA 300 research and development facility in Egypt’s Helwan airbase.
Though, this project, which could have been an Arab pride, was ultimately shelved due to intense pressure from big powers, Indo-Egypt collaboration in defense manufacturing arena got a shot in the arm in those early days. New Delhi should strive to build a strategic edifice on this interdependence that once shaped the bilateral security relationship between the two nations, extending it to cooperation in containing the menace of growing radicalism that has taken a toll on global peace and harmony.
Egypt is however a different ball game now. Hosni Mubarak has been ousted after three decades of unitary rule in the wake of Arab uprising.
A counter-revolution later saw Sisi, then at the helm of Egyptian Army, unleashing a coup to bring his country back from the brink of turmoil following widespread chaos. This has all altered the political scenario completely in the land of the pharaohs.
Having lost its centrality in the Arab world’s strategic space, Egypt, under the charismatic leadership of El-Sisi, is desperately pushing new frontiers today as it probes all avenues to strengthen the emerging trend of multi-polarity, gripping Middle-East’s shifting political tectonics.
With the turmoil in West Asia leading to situations that can usher new and hitherto unexpected alignments, New Delhi might well use this opportunity to intensify political and intelligence contacts.
With China breathing down India’s neck, through lavish investment in infrastructure development, including a $15 billion grant for constructing a new capital city, east of Cairo, Indian government is racing against time to go beyond pompous bilateral statements and declarations and take the relationship to a level of genuine strategic significance. Surely, sky is the limit for Indo-Egypt ties especially when Cairo is eyeing to raise $30 billion in the short term for stabilizing the country’s tottering economy, having suffered from a general slowdown since the 2011 revolution.
As macroeconomic instability due to domestic tension leads to a sharp drop in state revenue, foreign currency shortages and soaring employment crisis, India should come up with some innovative measures to boost Egypt’s economic modernization program. Egypt, being the largest market in the region, also offers lucrative opportunity for Indian manufacturing sector to set-up base in the upcoming Suez Canal Economic Corridor and reach out to potential consumers in the extended MENA region.
Most importantly, instead of utilizing Cairo to isolate Pakistan in the OIC, India should use Sisi’s good office to reinvigorate multilateral forums, comprising developing nations, like NAM and G77 to further strengthen south-south cooperation.