New Delhi, India – As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a two-day visit to Egypt, some analysts hail it as a potential “game changer” for bilateral relations.
The visit is expected to pave the way for a significant increase in India’s investment in the North African country and a ladder for Egypt’s entry into the BRICS economic bloc.
This is Modi’s first visit as Prime Minister and the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister since 1997.
This comes months after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited New Delhi in January when he was the chief guest at India’s 74th Republic Day celebrations. El-Sisi was the first Egyptian president to be awarded the honor.
Modi’s visit is seen as a strengthening of bilateral ties that both sides had already raised to a strategic level during El-Sisi’s visit in January. Analysts say it could also outline how the bond could unfold in the days ahead.
“This is a very quick, reciprocal visit, just six months after President Sisi’s visit to India. We hope and are confident that this visit will not only ensure the continued momentum of the relationship between our two countries, but also help expand it to new areas of trade and economic engagement,” said Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
From Egypt’s perspective, it is more about diversifying partnerships outside the Western bloc. As for India, observers say it will consolidate its position as a voice in the Global South as it prepares to host the G20 meeting in the capital, New Delhi, in September.
Apart from bilateral talks and signing various trade deals, Modi is expected to interact with the small Indian community and meet some prominent leaders in Egypt.
India and Egypt have enjoyed close ties since they were the founding figures of the 1961 Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) – a global forum of 120 developing countries that believe in non-alignment with major power blocs.
In recent years, El-Sisi has visited India three times. As Egypt looks to increase India’s investment in the country, experts say New Delhi is seeking deeper access to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through Cairo.
Aftab Kamal Pasha, who studies Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that Egypt and India have historically enjoyed friendly relations.
“He has clear limits [Modi] can be obtained from gcc [Gulf Cooperation Council] kingdom, so he went back to Egypt,” said the Pasha.
Pasha said El-Sisi wants Egypt to join BRICS – a powerful grouping of the world’s major economies including Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Modi wants to “balance China in the organization” and also block Pakistan, which Beijing wants to join within BRICS, he said. Expectations were high that Modi would announce India’s support for Egypt’s bid to join BRICS.
“Modi will be able to project at home that the most important Arab country is supporting India … without attacking his policies towards Indian Muslims, not to mention what he is doing in Kashmir,” Pasha said.
What do the two countries want?
Egypt’s economy has endured tumultuous times over the past few years, caused primarily by pandemics and then the Russia-Ukraine war, which affected Egypt’s food supply with about 80 percent of its grain imported from Russia and Ukraine.
The war also affected Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves. In 2022, despite imposing restrictions on wheat exports, India stepped in to help crisis-stricken Egypt and allowed 61,500 metric tons of shipments into the country.
To overcome the crisis, Egypt is eyeing investments from India to meet its foreign debt obligations and maintain food security. Egypt’s currency has devalued by about half since the Russian invasion. Multiple foreign investors have pulled billions from the Egyptian treasury market.
Analysts say closer ties with Cairo could have implications for India as well. The most populous country in MENA, Egypt has an important geostrategic importance as 12 percent of world trade passes through the Suez Canal.
Cairo could be a gateway for India to major markets in Europe and Africa, experts said. India is also concerned about China’s growing influence in Egypt.
China’s bilateral trade with Egypt currently stands at $15 billion, double India’s $7.26 billion in 2021-22. The latest bilateral trade reached $5.18 billion from April 22 to January 23.
Fazur Rahman Siddiqui, senior research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that India wants to emerge as a significant power in the Global South.
“Since Modi came to power, India has tried to expand its foreign policy outreach. India has opened about 20 new missions in the African continent,” Siddiqui said.
“Egypt has lost its voice in regional affairs over the years to Palestine, Ethiopia and many African countries. It kind of said; They have lost their luster. And Egypt is now looking beyond the continent, and India may be the potential for its rising stature.”
India can gain deeper access to the Arab world, Africa and Israel through an alliance with Egypt, he said. After taking over the G20 presidency in December 2022, India has invited Egypt to participate as a “guest country”.
Egypt’s ambassador to India, Wael Mohammed Awad Hamed, called the visit a “game-changer” in an interview with the Indian daily Hindustan Times last week.
“We can strengthen each other’s position on the international front … We are giving India a very promising opportunity to take Egypt as a springboard in three regions – Europe, the Middle East and the whole of Africa,” he said.
“With the launch of a direct link between Cairo and New Delhi, with the possibility of Egypt becoming an industrial zone for India – these are all things that will really strengthen our relationship and take them to new horizons.”