India and Egypt are almost unrecognisable from the nations they were when Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jawaharla Nehru got together with Yugoslavia’s Tito to establish the Non-Aligned Movement at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.
Those were days of lofty ideals, fervent rhetoric and populism in a blossoming post-colonial era for both. Memories remain of an era of a shifting global landscape; a time when Cold War non-combatants such as Egypt, India and Yugoslavia wanted to stand and be counted in a world struggling to heal the scars of the Second World War while rocked by the waning of European colonialism.
With Yugoslavia no more, what endures to this day is the special relationship between Egypt and India.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi is travelling to New Delhi this week to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations and to commemorate with Indian leaders the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Cairo and Delhi.
It would be Mr El Sisi’s third visit to India since the former army general took the reins in the most populous Arab nation in 2014, but his most significant by far given the giant leaps made by the two countries in cementing and expanding their relationship.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last visited Cairo in August 2015.
"It is a momentous occasion for both countries that will undoubtedly herald a new dawn in our bilateral relations,” India’s ambassador to Egypt, Ajit Gupte, said during an early national day celebration in Cairo last weekend. “As the world faces new threats, it is imperative that the [two] countries come closer to realise a sustainable solution.”
A multi-faceted relationship
The volume of bilateral trade rose from $4.55 billion in 2018-19 to $7.26 billion in 2021-22, making India the third-largest export market for Egypt and its sixth-largest trade partner, according to Indian government figures.
Indian investment in Egypt is also sizeable at $3.15 billion, with 50 Indian companies actively present in Egypt in sectors like manufacturing, chemicals, energy, infrastructure and retail.
In the wider geopolitical context, Mr El Sisi’s visit comes at a time when India's co-operation with Egypt and its Gulf allies is needed to deal with the potentially destabilising rivalry in west Asia and over the vital shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian and Red Seas.
A potentially more proactive role by India in the region would be a reflection of its, and Egypt’s, historical weight and relevance, according to Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar.
“We are both civilization states. We have a tradition of thinking beyond our narrow national interests. We have always been interested in the world, and we have again, a history of working together, in that regard,” he said in Cairo last October.
Already, naval and air units from Egypt and India have been conducting joint war games and negotiations over the sale of Indian-made Tejas light combat aircraft to Egypt have been in progress for months.
The two militaries are also bound by a co-operation memorandum of understanding signed during a visit to Cairo last September by Defence Minister Shri Rajnath. The Indian minister discussed enhancing military cooperation with Egypt when he met Mr El Sisi and his counterpart Gen Mohammed Zaki during the visit.
A joint Egyptian-Indian defence committee has since its 2006 inception met nine times.
Cairo and Delhi also share intelligence and coordinate on counterterrorism, according to Egyptian security officials. Military co-production or the sale by India of anti-aircraft weapons systems, drones and armoured vehicles were expected to be on the agenda during the Egyptian leader’s talks in New Delhi, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We expect a significant deal on military co-production to be reached when the president is in Delhi. The focus of the agreement will be fighter jets and drones as well as warships,” said one of the officials.
A deal on joint military coproduction would be a revival of sorts of similar enterprises undertaken by the two nations in the 1950s and 1960s.
Procuring Indian weapons, moreover, would form part of an Egyptian drive launched by Mr El Sisi to diversify the country’s sources of arms, complementing its large arsenal of modern US weapons with hardware from countries like Germany, Russia, Italy and France.
Cairo has also been seeking to secure the transfer of military technology through licenses to locally manufacture parts of the weapon systems it imports. It has also invested in developing its nascent arms industry.
“As Arab states are becoming more influential on the world stage … they are looking for bilateral relations with other powers – chief among them India,” Mohammed Soliman of the Middle East Institute in Washington said in an interview published this month in the Indian Narrative.
“For Arab capitals, India is a capable nuclear power, on the verge of overtaking China as the world’s most populous nation and the fifth largest economy in the world … This makes India a natural ally during this time of global disorder,” he said, referring in other segments of the interview to the revival of what he called the Cairo-Delhi axis.