Why is Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Egypt visit significant?

The trip is anticipated to pave the way for a substantial increase in India’s investment in the North African country.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a photo opportunity at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, September 2, 2016.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and India's Narendra Modi, right, in New Delhi [File: Altaf Hussain/Reuters]

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a two-day visit to Egypt, some analysts have hailed it as a potential “game changer” for bilateral ties.

The trip has been expected to pave the way for a substantial increase in India’s investment in the North African country and a ladder for Egypt to gain entry to the BRICS economic bloc.

It is Modi’s first visit to the country as prime minister and the first by any Indian prime minister since 1997.

It has come months after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s January visit to New Delhi when he was the chief guest at India’s 74th Republic Day celebrations. El-Sisi was the first Egyptian president accorded the honour.

Modi’s visit has been viewed as strengthening the bilateral relations the two sides had already elevated to a strategic level during el-Sisi’s January visit. Analysts say it could also reveal the contours of how ties could unfurl in the days ahead.

“This is a very quick, reciprocal visit coming just within six months of President Sisi’s visit to India. We do expect and are confident that the visit will not just ensure continuing momentum to the relationship between our two countries, but will also help it expand to new areas of trade and economic engagement,” Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said.

From Egypt’s point of view, it is more about diversifying partnerships beyond the Western bloc. For India, observers have said it is to consolidate its position as a voice of the Global South as it gears up to host the G20 meeting in September in the capital New Delhi.

Apart from bilateral talks and the signing of various trade agreements, Modi will interact with the small Indian community and was expected to meet some prominent leaders in Egypt.

India and Egypt have enjoyed close ties as they were the founding numbers of the 1961 Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) – a global forum of 120 developing countries that believed in the non-alignment of major power blocs.

In recent years, el-Sisi has travelled to India three times. While Egypt has eyed increasing India’s investment in the country, experts said New Delhi is looking for deeper access to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through Cairo.

‘Refurbished image’

Aftab Kamal Pasha, who taught Middle Eastern Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that Egypt and India have enjoyed friendly relations historically.

“There are clear limits to what he [Modi] can get from the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states, so he turned to Egypt,” Pasha said.

Pasha said el-Sisi would like to see Egypt join BRICS – a powerful grouping of the world’s major economies including Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

Modi “wants to balance China in the organisation” and also to prevent Pakistan, which Beijing wants inside BRICS, from joining, he said. Expectations have been high that Modi will announce India’s support for Egypt’s desire to join BRICS.

“Modi will be able to project at home that the most important Arab country is supporting India … without attacking his policy towards Indian Muslims, not mentioning what he’s doing in Kashmir,” said Pasha.

What do both countries seek?

Egypt’s economy has endured tumultuous periods over the past few years, initially caused by the pandemic and then followed by the Russia-Ukraine war, which affected the food supply of almost 80 percent of Egypt’s grains imported from Russia and Ukraine.

The war also impacted Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves. In 2022, despite putting restrictions on wheat exports, India stepped in to assist crisis-ridden Egypt and allowed shipments of 61,500 metric tonnes to the country.

To overcome the crisis, Egypt is eyeing investment from India to meet its foreign debt obligations and maintain food security. Since Russia’s invasion, Egypt’s currency has depreciated nearly by half. Multiple foreign investors have pulled billions out of Egyptian treasury markets.

Analysts have said close ties with Cairo can also hold significance for India. The most populous country in MENA, Egypt holds a crucial geostrategic significance as 12 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal.

Cairo can be a gateway to major markets in both Europe and Africa for India, experts said. India has also been concerned about China’s growing influence in Egypt.

China’s bilateral trade with Egypt is currently at $15bn, double that of India’s $7.26bn in 2021-22. The latest bilateral trade reached $5.18bn from April 22 to January 23.

Regional recognition

Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, senior research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that India intends to emerge as a significant power in the Global South.

“Since Modi came to power, India has tried to broaden its foreign policy outreach. India has opened almost 20 new missions on the African continent,” Siddiqui said.

“Egypt has lost its voice in regional affairs like in Palestine, Ethiopia, and many African countries over the years. The kind of say it used to have; they have lost their shine. And Egypt is now looking beyond the continent, and India happens to be potential for its growing stature.”

He said by allying with Egypt, India could have deeper access to the Arab world, Africa, and much deeper access to Israel. After taking over the G20 presidency in December 2022, India has invited Egypt to participate as a “guest country”.

In an interview with the Indian daily Hindustan Times last week, Egyptian ambassador to India, Wael Mohamed Awad Hamed, called the visits “game-changers”.

“We can reinforce each other’s position on the international front … we are offering India a very promising opportunity of taking Egypt as a springboard to three regions – Europe, the Middle East, and the whole of Africa,” he said.

“With the launch of the direct connection between Cairo and New Delhi, along with the possibility of having an industrial zone for India in Egypt – these are all things that will really solidify our relations and take them to new horizons.”

Source: Al Jazeera