Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations this year, landed in India on Tuesday (January 24). This is the first time that an Egyptian President has been invited as chief guest for the event.
Sisi will be accorded a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 25, and President Droupadi Murmu will host a State Banquet in his honour the same evening.
Sisi will have a meeting and delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar will also call on President Sisi. The visiting dignitary will interact with the Indian business community at an event on the same day, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.
An invitation to be the Republic Day chief guest is highly symbolic from the Indian government’s perspective. New Delhi has been weaving strategy with hospitality to decide its chief guest for the Republic Day. The choice of chief guest every year is dictated by a number of reasons — strategic and diplomatic, business interests, and international geo-politics.
India and Egypt share close political understanding based on a long history of cooperation in bilateral, regional and global issues. The joint announcement of the establishment of diplomatic relations at the Ambassadorial level was made on August 18, 1947.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser signed the Friendship Treaty between the two countries, and they were key to forming the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) along with Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito.
Since the 1980s, there have been four Prime Ministerial visits from India to Egypt: Rajiv Gandhi (1985); P V Narasimha Rao (1995); IK Gujral (1997); and Dr. Manmohan Singh (2009, NAM Summit).
From the Egyptian side, President Hosni Mubarak visited India in 1982, in 1983 (NAM Summit), and again in 2008.
High-level exchanges with Egypt continued after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and then President Mohamed Morsi visited India in March 2013. India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) visited Cairo in March 2012 and the Egyptian Foreign Minister visited India in December 2013.
After the new government led by President Sisi took over in June 2014, then EAM Sushma Swaraj visited Cairo in August 2015. PM Modi met President Sisi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), New York, in September 2015. President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Modi met Sisi during the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in October 2015.
President Sisi also paid a State visit to India in September 2016. A joint statement was issued, outlining the three pillars of political-security cooperation, economic engagement & scientific collaboration and cultural & people-people ties as the basis of a new partnership for a new era.
PM Modi held a phone conversation with Sisi on April 17, 2020 to discuss efforts to halt the spread of the coronavirus, and again on April 26, 2020 to exchange Eid-ul-Fitr greetings. The PM expressed appreciation for the support extended by Egyptian authorities for the safety and welfare of Indian nationals in Egypt during the Covid crisis.
President Sisi expressed sympathy and solidarity with India during the second wave of Covid-19, on April 30, 2021. Egypt dispatched three planes with medical supplies to India on May 9, 2021. In addition, the Embassy of India also signed an agreement to procure 300,000 doses of REMDESEVIR from M/s EVA Pharma, Egypt, which were provided well before schedule.
Egypt has traditionally been one of India’s most important trading partners in the African continent. The India-Egypt bilateral trade agreement has been in operation since March 1978 and is based on the most-favoured nation clause.
The bilateral trade has increased more than five times in the past 10 years. In 2018-19, it reached USD 4.55 billion. Despite the pandemic, trade volume declined only marginally to USD 4.5 billion in 2019-20 and to USD 4.15 billion in 2020-21. Bilateral trade has expanded rapidly in 21-22 — climbing to 7.26 billion, a 75 per cent increase from FY 2020-2021.
Officials said that the two countries will be looking at a range of sectors, and agriculture will be one of the key areas of cooperation.
Egypt, which is facing a shortage of food grains as its major sources were the warring Ukraine and Russia, wants to buy wheat from India. In May last year, India — which had put a ban on sale of wheat — allowed export of 61,000 tonnes to Egypt. But the country wants more grains, in view of the shortages.
Egypt’s President is also coming at a time when the country is facing a massive economic crisis due to depleted forex reserves. While there has been no request for budgetary support, India is looking at increasing investments in the country, especially in major infrastructure projects in and around the Suez Canal, in terms of special economic zones in Alexandria and Cairo. Egypt is also keen to push for more tourism from India, and ease the movement of people so that there is more forex inflow into their tourism-dependent economy.
With Sisi being a former Army chief, Egypt is interested in procuring defence equipment from India, which includes LCA Tejas, missiles like Akash, DRDO’s Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon, and radars. This is being developed as part of defence industry cooperation, and one of the markers was that Defence minister Rajnath Singh visited Cairo last year when a defence pact was signed. Egypt has also been invited to participate in the Aero-India 2023 at Yelahanka Air Force Station, Bengaluru, next month.
A military contingent from the Egyptian Army will participate in the Republic Day parade.
The two countries will also look at the education sector, where Indian higher educational institutions can set up campuses in Egypt: a proposal for establishing an IIT in Egypt is in the works.
An invitation to the Egyptian President is being considered significant, especially when India’s ties with Muslim-majority countries were tested due to controversial remarks made by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma in June last year. That Egypt was one of the few countries from the Arab world which did not react officially to the remarks was not lost on New Delhi.
Top clerics — the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the Al Azhar university, the top seat of learning of Sunni Islam — had condemned those remarks. But New Delhi views Egypt as a moderate Islamic voice, which has made an attempt over the years to play a nuanced and positive role in the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, where Pakistan has managed to get some India-centric condemnatory resolutions.