President Mohamed Morsi’s visit is a fresh opportunity for India and Egypt to bury the irritants of the past and rebuild their neglected ties
The ostensibly secular President Hosni Mubarak took 18 years to come to secular India to receive the Indira Gandhi Prize for International Understanding; he had visited China more than once during that time. The avowedly Muslim Brotherhood member President Mohamed Morsi is visiting India within two years of assuming office. The conclusion suggests itself. Mr. Mubarak always looked West, perhaps for good reasons from his point of view, giving diminished priority to relations with developing countries and even to the interests of the Palestinian movement.
Mr. Morsi seems to be keen on looking equally at the East, perhaps more than towards the West, though he knows that it is the West which is going to provide him the much-needed funds and tourists. He has taken a conscious decision to assert Egypt’s strategic autonomy. The Egyptian President is visiting us despite being besieged by many extremely difficult challenges — raging riots, rapidly degrading economy, massive unemployment, and, above all, the clamour for reform, protection for the rights of minorities and women, to scrap the Constitution and, even to abdicate office. India should make a note of this and welcome his visit.
India-Egypt relations never regained the warmth that obtained during the Nehru-Nasser era. Nasser became a hero for us, as also for the entire developing and non-aligned world, especially after he nationalised the Suez Canal, asserting his country’s sovereignty and standing up to western pressure, including the International Monetary Fund’s refusal to give loan for the construction of the Aswan dam. Nasser’s successor Sadat did right by his country by signing the peace treaty with Israel since he managed to recover the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had occupied during the 1967 war. But he lost esteem, not only in the non-aligned world but also among large sections of his own people as he was perceived to have compromised the rights of Palestinians and to have given in to American persuasion. As for Mr. Mubarak, most Egyptians do not want even to talk about him.
There have been two irritants in India-Egypt relations. The first one has been mentioned above, namely, Mr. Mubarak’s deliberate snub to India. The second one concerns India’s aspiration for a permanent seat on an expanded U.N. Security Council. India has managed to secure a fair amount of support for its candidature, including from some permanent members and some African countries. However, our diplomats have encountered strong reservations from their Egyptian counterparts to our claim. It is no one’s case that Egypt, or any other country for that matter, must support our candidature. But the perception of our diplomats is that Egypt has gone out of its way to canvass against our candidature.
There are, as always, two sides to the issue and we have made our own faux pas. The G-4, consisting of the four aspirants with wide support, namely India, Germany, Japan and Brazil, held a meeting in London a few years ago. We invited South Africa to attend that meeting as an observer. That was a mistake, since it was known to everyone who deals with the subject that the Africans were deeply divided on this matter and that there were at least three serious African candidates — South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria — for two seats that Africa was demanding. (Africa, with 53 members, does not have a single permanent member, not does Latin America.) Since then, we have more or less publicly endorsed South Africa’s candidature. This was ill advised. It was not appropriate for us to have taken sides in intra-African rivalry. Egypt is an important country, the biggest Arab country as well as a significant player on the African continent. It is quite normal for Egypt too to have ambitions in the U.N. It is entirely possible that we might have decided to come out in support of South Africa in response to Egypt’s difficult attitude towards us, though it would no doubt argue the other way.
Be that as it may, the time has come for both countries to put these irritants behind them. A new Egypt is emerging; the ‘spring’ in that antique land is irreversible. At the same time, one must recognise that Egyptian diplomacy is still run by the veterans of its foreign service. Its foreign ministers have all been former diplomats and, hence, are likely to carry on in the old mould. However, Mr. Morsi has obviously decided to prioritise his country’s relations with India, partly to offset the American footprint and partly to enhance his own credentials with his people. It will take a conscious effort by both countries to re-establish confidence; a frank discussion at the highest political level on issues that have come in the way of irritant-free relations would be eminently desirable.
President Morsi can provide an authentic analysis of the situation in North Africa and the Sahel region, the developments in and around Mali, including the French intervention there, and the spreading influence of al Qaeda affiliates. He is also well placed to brief us about the Syrian imbroglio, the escalating sectarian tensions in the region, prospects for a peaceful outcome of the Syrian crisis and its implications for the region, including Iran’s stakes there.
President Morsi is coming to India with a strong business delegation, making clear his intention to forge substantial economic links with India. We should welcome this and reciprocate the desire. Apparently, there is a huge potential for Indian investors in Egypt, including in the hydro-carbon sector. China is reported to be very active in exploiting the opportunities which have opened up in Egypt to buy up good assets and to forge sustainable economic ties. FICCI, CII, Assocham and others should be encouraged to explore opportunities in Egypt.
Mr. Morsi will be visiting Pakistan en route to India. Originally, his visit to Delhi was conceived as a stand-alone event. As soon as Pakistan came to know of his visit to India, it must have worked on Egypt to include a stopover in Islamabad. This is understandable. Egypt currently holds the chair of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and as one of the long-time leaders of Muslim Brotherhood, it was natural for Mr. Morsi to accede to Pakistan’s request. After all, President Zardari recently visited Cairo for the OIC summit. It makes logistical sense for visiting leaders to include Pakistan in their itinerary; India need not be too concerned about this.
In his brief stint at the presidency, Mr. Morsi has been very active in the international arena, especially in his own region. He has managed to bring about a rapprochement between the Hamas and Fatah, though it remains to be seen how long that reconciliation would last. He also played a key role in the Hamas-Israel understanding which brought about a ceasefire between the two sides. He came up with an imaginative proposal of a four-power group, consisting of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to find an answer to the Syrian crisis, though it did not get anywhere because of Saudi and American allergy to Iran, as well as Qatar’s feeling outraged at being left out of the group even though it had generously given $4 billion of grant to Egypt. In his capacity as Chair of OIC, Mr. Morsi might be tempted to discuss the possibility of India being associated with it in some capacity which might give us an opportunity to express our own unhappiness with OIC. Knowing our sensitivities, Mr. Morsi is unlikely to seek to expand his diplomatic activism beyond his region.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for West Asia)