Egypt and India: Time to rebuild relations

Asia is undergoing a world-historical geopolitical transformation. The rise of the Indo-Pacific as a coherent geoeconomic and geopolitical system coincides with the rise of what this author has previously termed the “Indo-Abrahamic,” an emerging transregional order connecting India to West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Until now, the geographic vastness of Asia and the legacy of “divide-and-conquer” colonialism have kept the continent politically and economically fragmented. By reshaping their bilateral relations, Cairo and New Delhi can seize the strategic opportunity to link the Indo-Abrahamic with the Indo-Pacific, thus realizing this envisioned West Asian system. 

Leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement

Cairo and New Delhi share an intertwined history. British colonialists coveted Egypt not only for its riches but also as the gateway to India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. Britain’s sprawling colonial enterprise created a transcontinental geostrategic and geoeconomic system that connected India to Egypt to Britain via the Suez Canal. Indians and Egyptians took up the fight against British colonialism almost simultaneously and the two nations gained their independence within a decade of one another, in 1947 and 1956 respectively. Bilateral relations blossomed into a quasi-strategic partnership under Egypt’s Pan-Arabist President Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The two charismatic leaders championed liberation movements worldwide. Alongside Yugoslavia’s President Josip Tito, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, and Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, Nasser and Nehru founded then led the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which claimed neutrality during the Cold War and fostered Afro-Asian unity. Despite their professed neutrality, Cairo and New Delhi leaned in favor of the Soviet Union because they viewed Washington as an avatar of the West’s dark history of colonialism. 

Cairo and New Delhi beyond Islamabad

In the 1950s, India’s special relationship with Egypt formed a cornerstone of New Delhi’s foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. Nehru and Nasser themselves bonded at the helm of the NAM. But the Indo-Egyptian partnership wasn’t all about political solidarity and decolonization. Nehru and Nasser hoped to aid each other’s military and industrial development as a defense against coercion during the Cold War.

Cairo has tried to foster relations with New Delhi and Islamabad without having to prioritize one over the other. Relations with India are central to Cairo’s self-perception as both a leader of the Arab world and one of only a handful of African nations powerful and respected enough to represent the continent on the world stage. Similarly, New Delhi has looked to Cairo as a nation with deep-seated cultural roots and widespread political influence that could rehabilitate India’s reputation damaged in the Muslim world by the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. Egypt respects India’s status as a regional and global power as well as Pakistan’s status as the sole Muslim nuclear power. Cairo supports talks between the two over the Kashmir conflict. Cairo’s relations with Islamabad circumscribe, but do not altogether sabotage, its ties with New Delhi. 

The current state of affairs between Egypt and India 

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India maintain a friendly, cooperative rapport and show a clear appetite for closer ties. After President Sisi assumed power in 2014, PM Modi visited Egypt in August 2015, and they met one month later on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. During the third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in October 2015, President Sisi met with PM Modi for the third time. In 2016, President Sisi traveled to India with his top cabinet members on a state visit in a more organized effort to develop relations. Sisi’s and Modi’s personal chemistry is fundamental to Egypt and India’s strategic ties. The growing strength of the bilateral relationship was highlighted by Egypt’s shipment of 30 tons of medical supplies and 300,000 doses of the antiviral drug remdesivir to India during the pandemic.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has only exacerbated Egypt’s economic woes by cutting off wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. Within this context, Cairo has looked to India as an alternative supplier. Because of the brutal heatwave currently impacting India’s grain production, New Delhi imposed an export ban on wheat in mid-May. India did, however, exempt Egypt from the ban. This exemption speaks to the strong, resilient relationship between Egypt and India. The nature of bilateral relations and Cairo’s decision to help New Delhi during the pandemic paved the way for India to support Egypt in staving off its looming wheat shortages. 

Cairo hopes for deeper and more strategic relations with New Delhi and vice-versa, and there’s a lot of untapped potential. Cairo and New Delhi should strive together to create a global system that preserves the cultural specificity of non-Western nations, contains global disorder, resists Western practices of coercion, and promotes equity between East and West, North and South. 

The four pillars of new bilateral relations between Cairo and New Delhi

1. The rise of Egypt and India as civilization-states 

As a response to the Western-dominated liberal international order, its cultural principles, and interventionism, Egypt and India are building their own civilization-states. As per Bruno Maçães’s definition, civilization-states, in contrast to nation-states, are “organized around culture rather than politics.” The concept of the civilization-state is crucial to understanding countries such as China on their own terms. This author argued in a previous essay that Egypt is developing its own civilization-state after decades of soul-searching over how to define itself. Cairo’s domestic and foreign policy decisions should be viewed and understood through the lens of the civilization-state paradigm. Modi’s India is following a similar trajectory by embracing a civilizational perspective of itself and the world, emphasizing the idea that India is not just a nation, but rather a distinct civilization. Cairo and New Delhi consider themselves heirs to their respective civilizations and thus feel compelled to preserve their own faith, traditions, and heritage against the demands of the dominant liberal world order. This perspective informs both the domestic and foreign policy of these two states, and their similar self-conceptions can form the bedrock of stronger bilateral relations.

2. The Non-Alignment Movement in a multipolar world

The unipolar moment has passed and the world is on the verge of becoming a multipolar system. Multiple factors now hinder the prevention and management of conflicts: Increased geopolitical tension between the U.S. and other major powers (e.g., China and Russia); the rise of civilization-states such as Turkey and India; the shift of economic power to Asia; global demographic changes; the digital transformation; and global warming. Global disorder is poised to become the new normal. Cairo and New Delhi share the belief that the liberal international order is a thinly veiled vehicle for Western political, economic, and cultural domination. Egypt and India do agree with the West on certain strategic interests, but disagree on many others. The war in Ukraine is a prime example of this. Cairo and New Delhi value their relations with Moscow and have refused to condemn the Russian invasion. The Ukraine war won’t be the last issue where Egypt and India pursue their own interests against the wishes of the West. The NAM requires retooling to deal with an emergent multipolar international system characterized by simmering competition among the great powers. Egypt and India should strive to rework the NAM into a coordination mechanism capable of sending a clear message to policymakers in Western capitals, Beijing, and Moscow that its 120 member-states want to choose their partners based on their national interests. In other words, they don’t want to be coerced into picking sides in the ideological struggle pitting the West against Russia and China.

3. The Indo-Abrahamic framework

Coined in an essay by this author, the concept of the Indo-Abrahamic refers to the growing convergence of strategic interests between India, Israel, and the UAE — one that would ultimately lead to the emergence of a new geostrategic coalition between them. “For a long time, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have maintained transactional relations. However, last year’s normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states, including the UAE, as well as Turkey’s bid to reassert its position as the leader of a Muslim order and the UAE’s growing distance from Pakistan, have resulted in the formation of an unlikely and unprecedented ‘Indo-Abrahamic’ alliance.’ This emerging multilateral alliance has the ability to reshape the region’s geopolitics and geoeconomics by filling the gap left by the United States in the Middle East.” 

Here I echo the Indian intellectual Raja Mohan’s argument that “located at the cusp of the Mediterranean – Europe, Africa, and Asia, Egypt is the center and heart of the Greater Middle East.” By virtue of its demographics, geography, civilization, and location at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and Asia, Cairo could give substantive depth to the rising Indo-Abrahamic bloc. In light of the instability following the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, a consensus formed in many regional and global capitals that Egypt had lost the luster that once allowed it to lead the Arab world, champion decolonization movements, and pioneer the NAM during the Cold War. Being dismissed and downplayed as a regional player gave Cairo a strategic window of opportunity to redefine its interests and sphere of influence without arousing too much suspicion. By leveraging its geoeconomic and geopolitical advantages, Cairo is rising as a power in multiple strategic theaters, including Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine. Engagement within the Indo-Abrahamic framework would allow Cairo and New Delhi to establish a new security architecture for West Asia that addresses the region’s challenges in light of the U.S.’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific.

4. Egypt as an anchor for India in Africa

As a rising great power, India has a strategic interest in expanding its reach to various regions around the globe — especially to Africa, which boasts a rapidly growing population and middle class and plays a central role in global commodities markets. With such attractions, Africa is emerging as an arena of great-power competition. Cairo plays a hybrid role in Africa. Egypt is positioning itself as a political, economic, and security gateway to the rest of the continent and is itself a rising strategic player with a growing security and intelligence footprint across Africa. Egypt has staked its geoeconomic strategy on its engagement with the rest of the continent. For instance, Cairo expanded its airline routes throughout Africa, built medical and pharmaceutical centers in the Nile Basin, and constructed a hydroelectric dam in Tanzania. On the strategic level and to advance its position in its struggle with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt has ramped up its diplomatic outreach and established itself as an influential player in the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa as well as East and Central Africa. As I highlighted in a previous publication for MEI, “Cairo succeeded in forging strategic alignment with Khartoum to exert diplomatic pressure on Addis Ababa, forming webs of alliances with different regional powers across East and Central Africa and the Horn of Africa to project power and influence, and exerting geopolitical forward pressure on Ethiopia in parallel with the diplomatic track to solve the Nile dispute.”

Their clear dynamism and shared interests in Africa, as well as their common perspective on the global order, create an opening for Cairo and New Delhi to redouble their efforts across Africa together. There are clear needs in Africa that Egypt and India could cooperate to meet in alliance with their African partners. The areas of potential cooperation run the gamut from pharma to infrastructure, education to health services, intelligence cooperation to military exercises.

From the shared struggle for independence against the British Empire to founding and leading the NAM at the height of the Cold War, Egypt and India have long maintained close ties. Nonetheless, bilateral relations between Cairo and New Delhi in recent decades stagnated due to: 1) Egypt’s pivot to the West following the U.S.-brokered peace agreement with Israel; 2) the end of the Cold War; 3) Egypt’s balancing act between Pakistan and India; and 4) India’s focus on its immediate sphere of interest and influence. The current state of global disorder and the rise of Indo-Abrahamic, however, create incentives for Cairo and New Delhi to work together more closely. By virtue of their civilizational outlooks, demography, geography, and geopolitical aspirations, Egypt and India could develop a West Asian system that integrates the region. From coordinating on global and regional issues to working together in other strategic theaters such as Africa and the Indian Ocean, Egypt-India bilateral relations hold much untapped potential.

 

Mohammed Soliman is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Cyber and Egypt programs and a Senior Associate at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa Practice. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in MENA. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

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