Why Egyptian President al-Sisi’s visit can expand India’s strategic horizons

India’s invitation to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations is redolent with nostalgia and realpolitik, retrieving a valuable age-old relationship while recognising its importance for both countries in the changing regional political and economic scenario. After the extraordinary bonhomie of the Nehru-Nasser years, the ties had lost most of their substance – Anwar Sadat had focused on building relations with western powers, while Hosni Mubarak sulked for twenty-five years over a perceived diplomatic slight during the NAM summit in 1983, and came back to India only in 2008.

There was some promise of improved relations during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi: in India in March 2013, Morsi spoke of enhanced economic ties and even referred to “E-BRICS”, with “E” representing Egypt’s membership of this important partnership. But Morsi was soon ousted in July and Egypt sank into political instability and economic turmoil, surviving on largesse from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Much has changed over the last few years. Though serious economic problems remain, in 2019 Egypt obtained a GDP growth rate at constant market prices of 5.6% and, after two difficult years during the pandemic (2020 and 2021) when growth was just over 3%, it has gone back to over 5% in 2022, a trend that is likely to continue over the next two years.

Gulf and West Asian engagements

Over the last few years, Cairo has emerged as a central player in developments in West Asia, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and African affairs in general. Though crucially dependent on the Gulf monarchies, Egypt has refused to support the Saudi-sponsored agenda of regime-change in Syria. It has also opposed the Saudi-led war in Yemen and called for a cessation of hostilities. and affirming that its armed forces are available to deter any threat to the security of its GCC brethren.

But there is more: though Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain important economic supporters, they have now been joined by Qatar as well, till recently a hostile presence in the region. Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, visited Cairo on 29 March last year, and promised a $5 billion package to strengthen economic ties “between the two brotherly countries”. Thus, Egypt has broadened its GCC engagements beyond Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The other significant Egyptian diplomatic effort has been to forge close political and economic relations with Iraq and Jordan. After three informal meetings since March 2019, the leaders of the three countries met in Baghdad in June 2021. This tripartite partnership – referred to as “al-Sham al-Jadid” or the “New Levant” — promises to synergise the strengths of the countries in the areas of energy, trade and investment, including pipeline projects and connecting their electricity grids. The leaders have also said that membership is open to other countries, with Syria and Lebanon as partners in the near future.

This summit has been followed by another one, this time in Amman, in December 2022. Besides highlighting economic cooperation, the leaders have spoken of regional security and stability as priority concerns, besides collectively facing food, water and energy security challenges.

The East Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa

On the eve of the recent football World Cup in Doha, the leaders of Egypt and Turkey, arch-rivals for nearly a decade, engaged in a historic handshake, suggesting an imminent dialogue to improve relations. After reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Turkish officials have been meeting their Egyptian counterparts over the last two years to bridge their differences. However, they remain on opposite sides in two crucial areas – Libya’s political future and the division of gas assets in the East Mediterranean.

In Libya, Turkey and Egypt back competing administrations – in Tripoli and Tobruk, respectively. This divide has spilled into the East Mediterranean — here Turkey, following an agreement with the Tripoli government, has staked claims in the Mediterranean waters that encroach on those of Greece and Cyprus. The latter two have partnered with Egypt and Israel in setting up the East Mediterranean Gas Forum to finalise their maritime borders and delineate their Exclusive Economic Zones; however, differences with Turkey remain unresolved.

Inter-state competitions in West Asia are today reverberating in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. The 2000-km long Red Sea links the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, with the sea being tightly enclosed at both ends – the Bab al-Mandab, where the Indian Ocean enters the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal that opens into the Mediterranean.

The regional security scenario has been complicated by two developments that have recently emerged in the Red Sea littoral. One is the increasing frequency of lowkey skirmishes between Iranian and Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean over the last two years, involving both commercial and naval vessels. As Israel becomes more aggressive in opposing Iran’s nuclear activity and possibly seeking to provoke Iran into an aggressive response, these skirmishes could easily escalate into a major conflict that could block the Bab al Mandab.

The other threat to regional peace is the sharpening divide between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 2011, Ethiopia began the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile, largely to provide electricity to the power-starved country. Egypt is concerned that the dam would reduce water supply for its own population and has embarked on an extensive diplomatic effort to garner support from African countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa through economic, political and defence agreements.

In response to the maritime challenges in the east Mediterranean and the Red Sea, Egypt is also attempting to enhance its naval capabilities. It has set up a new naval base at Gargoub on its northern coastline, about 140 km from its border with Libya. In January 2020, Egypt inaugurated its Bernice naval base on the Red Sea, and has announced plans to set up another base in the north, east of Port Said.

India-Egypt ties: new opportunities

President al-Sisi’s visit to India on our Republic day is taking place in the background of the significant regional developments discussed above, which offer opportunities to set up bases for cooperation for mutual interest and take relations into new hitherto unexplored areas.

The two countries of course already have in place solid foundations on which to build these new cooperative initiatives. There have already been personal interactions between al-Sisi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – Modi visited Cairo in August 2015, while al-Sisi was in India for the India-Africa Forum in October 2015, and then on a bilateral state visit in September 2016. There have been several exchanges at minister-level, including those of the Indian defence minister and external affairs minister late last year.

Trade ties have flourished, going from $4.55 billion in 2018-19 to $7.26 billion in 2021-22, a 75% increase over the previous year, making India the third-largest export market for Egypt and its sixth-largest trade partner. Indian companies have also invested in some high-value projects in Egypt, such as the $1.5 billion PVC and caustic soda plant in Port Said.

Bilateral defence ties are being managed through the Joint Defence Committee that, since 2006, has met nine times. Defence cooperation has included: joint exercises of the navy and air force, several training programmes, and participation in each other’s defence exhibitions. Both sides are looking at cooperation in the defence industry sector.

The stage is set for the two countries to explore fresh ideas to serve their crucial security interests. The following areas are proposed:

One, the Red Sea: The Suez Canal is used by about 19,000 ships every year, which transport 12% of global trade, valued at $700 billion. About 4.8 million barrels per day (mbd) of crude oil is transported both ways through the canal. Of this, about 500,000 barrels/day of crude is shipped to India through the Suez Canal from the US, Latin America and Algeria.

This makes India the largest crude importer through the canal. India is also the sixth-largest exporter of oil products through the Suez, after Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Algeria. The total value of India’s merchandise trade that passes through the Suez is $200 billion, ie, one-fourth of India’s global trade. Besides oil products, Indian key exports are: chemicals, iron and steel, machinery, textiles, carpets and handicrafts.

As noted above, the Red Sea, with a major choke-point at each end, has already attracted several role-players that are in competition with each other. It is important that India and Egypt, having abiding and crucial interests in Red Sea security, should institutionalise their maritime cooperation, both bilaterally and at multilateral platforms, to manage regional contentions. One possibility in regard to the latter to upgrade the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as a platform to discuss Indian Ocean security issues by broadening its membership and mandate.

Two, the Horn of Africa: The Red Sea littoral states of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, taken together, constitute the “Horn of Africa”. This region over the last few decades has witnessed unrelenting violence and great suffering due to civil conflict and inter-state wars. These conflicts have resulted from fragile state formation, inter-tribal rivalries and support enjoyed by fissiparous groups from external sources.

The Horn of Africa was afflicted with maritime piracy from 2000, which continued till 2017 and ended only with the cooperative efforts of 33 nations. It is also home to the extremist group, Al Shabaab, in Somalia, that launches lethal attacks in East Africa and has ties with the Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria.

Over the last few years, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are now seeking to expand their influence in the Red Sea littoral. Thus, the UAE is supporting the Saudi military effort in Yemen with mercenaries from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. The UAE has also taken control of some of Yemen’s ports—Mokha in the Red Sea, and Aden as well as Mokalla on the Indian Ocean, and has set up an air base on Perim Island at Bab al Mandab, eight miles off the Yemeni coast.

The Gulf states seek to reshape regional politics to their own advantage. Thus, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have set up bases in Assab in Eritrea and Berbera in Somaliland to launch air and sea attacks on the Houthis and their Iranian allies. Again, West Asian rivals are competing to influence domestic politics in Sudan which has a fragile military-civilian administration. Turkey is seeking to develop the Ottoman-era port of Suakin, which is being opposed by Egypt and its Gulf allies who are backing the country’s military leaders.

Indo-Egyptian cooperation in the Red Sea has to be integrated with addressing issues of security and stability in the Horn through a well-coordinated political and economic engagements with regional states that are complementary and mutually supportive.

Three, the East Mediterranean: Though some exercises involving the Indian navy have taken place in these waters, the area has generally been outside India’s strategic space. This needs to be reviewed: the waters are not only rich in gas resources, a much-needed energy source for India, they are also the arena of diverse competitions, many of which are connected with developments in the Gulf and the Red Sea. Hence, the expansion of India’s strategic space into the East Mediterranean makes sense. Working closely with the Egyptian navy in the Red Sea and the East Mediterranean will broaden the Indian Navy’s strategic vision and maritime expertise, particularly since it would be closely linked with the security of the Red Sea.

Four, strategic partnership with Egypt: The India-Egypt cooperation agenda set out here has to be anchored in a “strategic partnership” that results from mutual confidence and a shared perspective on regional security challenges. This will facilitate bilateral initiatives to promote the inter-operability of the two countries’ armed forces, greater intelligence exchanges on regional developments, joint efforts in defence production, and working together in frontier areas involving cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and space. It will also facilitate cooperative efforts in the regions discussed above.

It is surprising that the Indo-Egyptian joint statement, issued after President al-Sisi’s visit in September 2016 makes no mention of finalising a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, though the statement sets out several areas of agreement in regard to the regional situation.

It is proposed that this lacuna be corrected so that the presidential visit during our Republic Day this month takes the two countries into new strategic spaces.

(The author, the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His new book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published in April last year)

Also Read: Egyptian President El Sisi’s visit to India can yield a pan-Arab “Cairo-Delhi” axis- Mohammed Soliman

Talmiz Ahmad

The author is the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune

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