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Why India must strengthen the government of President el-Sisi in Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan (Pic. Courtesy Twitter/@rashtrapatibhvn)

The visit of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to India as Chief Guest for the 2023 Republic Day parade has been hugely successful. Trying to make up for lost time the two ancient civilizations but modern nation states have elevated their relations to a “strategic partnership”. “By doing so, the two sides seek to maximise the common interests and exchange support in a bid to overcome the difficulties caused by various consecutive crises and challenges the world is facing,” the joint statement issued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President El Sisi said.

The three main areas highlighted during the visit were trade and investments; defence; and counter-terrorism.

While the international community has been reeling economically from the aftermath of the pandemic, Egypt in particular has been badly hit. Sisi’s visit came in the backdrop of an unprecedented economic crisis in his country. A weakening Egyptian pound, and further devaluations are expected, has led to skyrocketing inflation, with the population of 90 million people, of whom a fourth live under poverty, grappling with how to make ends meet. The pandemic has seriously hit the Egyptian tourism industry, Egypt’s main foreign revenue earner, and an industry on which the Egyptian economy is heavily dependent on. It has forced the return of many Egyptian expatriate workers in the Gulf region where employment opportunities dried up.

Once the economy began limping back, the Russian-Ukraine conflict broke out, again putting a spanner in the economy – tourists from Russia and Ukraine formed at least a quarter of the total foreign tourist footfall in the country.

The conflict has also hit another major arena of Eygptian life – food security. Wheat is the main ingredient of the Egyptian diet and Egypt is heavily dependent on foreign imports to meet its wheat demand. In 2020 it imported almost 96 per cent of its wheat, of which the 85 per cent came from Russia and Ukraine. Those imports were badly hit a year ago. India was one of the countries that came to its rescue, in spite of the ban put on import of wheat in order to sustain domestic consumption. India exported 61,500 tons of wheat to Egypt last year.

That is why it is no secret economic ties topped the agenda. The joint statement issued said that “Both sides welcomed the expansion of Indian investments in Egypt, which is currently more than US$ 3.15 billion… Egypt welcomes the flow of more Indian investments and promises to offer incentives and facilities as per applicable regulations and frameworks. On its part, India underlines its support for this approach by encouraging its companies, which have the potentials to establish overseas investments, to make use of the available investment opportunities in Egypt.”

Currently, bilateral trade stands at an all-time high of $ 7.26 billion, and both sides are working to take it to $12 billion in the near future. around 50 Indian companies are operating in Egypt providing direct employment to approximately 38,000 Egyptians. These companies invest over $3.2 billion across the chemical, energy, automobile, retail, apparel, and agriculture sectors, among others.

In Delhi at a business meet Sisi pitched Egypt as a launch pad for products made by Indian companies to reach local and global markets as the country is ideally located to access both European and Arab markets, calling for more Indian investments, even offering India participation in the Suez Canal Economic Zone. The joint statement said “In this context, the Egyptian side considers the possibility of allocating a special area of land for the Indian industries in the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCEZ), and the Indian side can arrange for the master plan.”

India must seize this opportunity. Indian products have long been popular with Egyptians, and India is in a position to offer much in numerous sectors – IT, pharmaceuticals, green and renewable energy, textiles, and so on. Not only will greater Indian investments and business in Egypt widen the Indian footprint there, where China already has a huge one, but it will also help strengthen the government of President Sisi, something that is in India’s interest.

It is interesting that when Sisi was visiting India, Egypt was marking the 12th anniversary of the Egyptian uprising as part of the “Arab spring” sweeping through the Arab world then. The removal of President Hosni Mubarak brought into power the government of the late Mohammed Morsi and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It unleashed the powers of religious radicalism and extremism in the region, in a domino effect bringing down governments, instigating civil war, and abetting the rise of ISIS. All of this has also directly and indirectly impacted India, in ways which are not always discussed in the public domain.

The government of Sisi which removed Morsi in 2013, and in 2014 won power through elections has acted as a bulwark against these forces of radicalism and extremism. Since 2014, Egypt has fought a protracted battle against the Sinai Province (SP) branch of the ISIS on its own territory and with setbacks every now and then, been largely successful, bringing down the number of terror attacks in the country.

As President Draupadi Murmu noted in her address welcoming Sisi “We appreciate Egypt’s leading role in promoting peace, prosperity and stability in the region.” With Egypt, the Arab world’s largest, most populous country, as well as its cultural capital, pushing back against the Muslim Brotherhood, has also helped those like Syria and Tunisia do so as well. It has stemmed the tide of the rise of political Islam in the region as well as that of violent extremism. But the ideological battle is well and alive, with overt and covert support from other states in the region.

Today, when Egypt is battling its economic crisis, the SP is resurgent again. The economic turbulence in Egypt is a sure recipe for emboldening those inside and outside the country for whom the ouster of the Morsi government has been a loss in both economic and political terms.

Here, wheat procurements play a major role. For centuries, wheat has been a central component of the typical diet of the country’s inhabitants. Egypt is not only the largest importer of wheat but also the largest wheat consumer per capita in the world. A key component of government policy in this regard is the provision of low-priced bread to the population. India has already helped Egypt in this crucial area and should continue this help in the country’s food security, specifically wheat procurement. The Egyptian government subsidizes the bread produced from the wheat. A failure in this is a sure recipe for political turbulence there with a quarter of the country’s population living below the poverty line, and would be conducive for the forces of radicalism and extremism who are eager to recover lost ground.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have embarked on a path of tolerance and pluralism, as well as Israel, which has helped Egypt battle terrorism and insurgency have all come to its aid. India must join them as well. It is in India’s own interest to do so, with its perennially hostile neighbor on the West, the Taliban back in Kabul, a growing ISIS-KP footprint in Af-Pak, India’s domestic fight with radicalism, recently flagged as a major threat facing the country. Egypt has largely accepted the Indian position on Kashmir, and refrained from commenting on the removal of Article 370. More recently, it has refrained from commenting during the Nupur Sharma fiasco.

In the joint statement both India and Egypt are cognizant of the threat of terrorism that face their two countries. In Delhi both Modi and El Sisi expressed concern over the spread of terrorism across the world and condemned the use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool, agreeing to hold a joint working group on Counterterrorism on regular basis to exchange information and best practices. They also agreed on enhancing interaction between their respective National Security Councils.

There are forces who are waiting to see Sisi toppled. There are allegations of corruption and of severe human rights abuses. Yet, without a strong person like Sisi at the helm, Egypt would become another Libya. India should do everything possible to prevent that, and thereby enlarge its global footprint.