Egypt moves east

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 1 Feb 2023

Al Ahram Weekly reports on the significance of President Al-Sisi’s recent visits to three Asian countries.

Al-Sisi and Modi
Al-Sisi and Modi photo: AFP


President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited India, Azerbaijan, and Armenia from 24 to 29 January. While Al-Sisi’s visit to India was the third since he came to office in 2014, his trips to Azerbaijan and Armenia were the first for an Egyptian president since the two countries gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Al-Sisi’s visits to the three countries were welcomed in Cairo’s political and economic circles as historic and reflecting a need for Egypt to shift the focus in its foreign relations in favour of going east more to reinforce relations with Asian countries rather than limiting the scope to Western Europe and the United States.

In New Delhi, India’s capital, President Al-Sisi kicked off his six-day tour in Asia. He talked politics, security, defence, economic cooperation, investment, and food security with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “The two leaders decided to elevate bilateral relations to a strategic partnership, which will create a long-term structure of cooperation in political, security, economic, and scientific areas,” said Modi, also announcing that the scope for cooperation with Egypt in the fields of defence will be “unlimited”.

During the three-day visit to India, officials from the two countries signed five memoranda of understanding covering culture, cooperation on youth matters, cyber security, information and technology, and public broadcasting. “I have asked Prime Minister Modi to create permanent channels to enhance digital connections between small and medium-scale industries in the two countries as this will help in improving life for many young people in the two countries,” Al-Sisi said, adding that defence cooperation was part of his discussion with Modi and that a joint Egyptian-Indian military exercise was an example of that cooperation.

The Hindu, India’s daily newspaper, reported that while Modi had approved sending military personnel to work on Egypt’s military aircraft project at south Cairo’s district of Helwan, he appreciated that a contingent of Egyptian military personnel had participated in the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on 26 January.

It was also announced that Egypt had been invited to participate in the Aero-India 2023 at Yelahanka Air Force Station, in India’s district of Bengaluru, next month.

In business terms, the visit also saw President Al-Sisi announcing that his government would consider establishing an economic zone for Indian firms in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.

“The two countries hope to increase the value of bilateral trade to $12 billion in the next five years, up from $7.3 billion in FY 2021-22,” an official statement said.

Al-Sisi also met representatives from India’s renewable energy firm ReNew Power to discuss investments in renewable energy infrastructure.

India’s billionaire and Asia’s richest man Gautam Adani was among those who also met Al-Sisi. Adani said there are opportunities for cooperation with Egypt regarding ports, logistics, energy, digital transformation, and green hydrogen facilities.

Egypt’s former ambassador to India Jailan Allam said in a TV interview on 28 January that Egypt had for long been hoping to regain the strategic partnership which existed with India during the 1950s and 1960s under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

“Egypt wants to build new relations with new partners in Asia, particularly India, rather than limiting its strategic partnerships with countries in Western Europe and with the US,” said Allam, indicating that “India has the fifth biggest economy and the fifth strongest army in the world and this means a lot for Egypt.”

Hisham Halabi, former Egyptian air commander, commented on the visit: “Egypt sees that there is wide potential for cooperation with India in the area of joint military production and President Al-Sisi’s visit to India is a big step on this road.” He explained that India has come a long way in military industries, particularly in fighter planes, drones, rockets, and submarines.

Al-Sisi’s visits to the two former Soviet Union republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia were particularly significant, according to Al-Ahram political analyst Hassan Abu Taleb. ‘‘This is the first time for an Egyptian president to visit these two countries and it reflects the need to tap economic, commercial, and investment opportunities with them and with others in the Caucuses,” Abu Taleb said, indicating that India and former Soviet Union republics had achieved much economic progress in recent years and that Egypt should “benefit from their experiments”, especially in the sense of how to boost information technology, exports and double tourism traffic.

From New Delhi, Al-Sisi left for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where he held a one-on-one meeting with President IIham Aliyev on 28 January. They held an expanded meeting on the same day, after which came the signing of contracts. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and his Azerbaijan counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov signed MoUs on water security and culture, while Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala Al-Said and Azerbaijan’s Minister of Economy Mikayil Jabbarov signed another MoU on trade.

Aliyev said that since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has been keen to foster strong economic and political relations with Egypt. “Of course, the joint activity of the business communities in our two countries will further reinforce our relations, and I am sure that a greater volume of mutual investments and an increase in exchange of trade will be achieved in the near future,” Aliyev said.

Al-Sisi said Egypt and Azerbaijan had agreed to take urgent measures to up joint investments and joint ventures, particularly in pharmaceuticals and drugs, agriculture, trade, and information technology.

Statistics show that the value of trade between Egypt and Azerbaijan dramatically increased to $1 billion in 2021, up from just $2 million in 2008.

In a press conference, Al-Sisi and Aliyev agreed on forming a joint business council for private businessmen and investors. “The two countries have enormous potential and numerous opportunities for cooperation, particularly in new and renewable energy and natural gas, taking into account that Egypt is positioning itself to be a regional energy hub,” a statement said, adding that “the two presidents also agreed on the need to step up cooperation in other areas such as construction, infrastructure, transport, pharmaceutical industries, tourism and culture.”

Like Azerbaijan, Al-Sisi then paid a one-day visit to Armenia. In Yerevan, the capital, he talked trade and investment with his counterpart Vahagn Khachaturyan. After an expanded meeting on 29 January, the two leaders witnessed the inking of a number of MoUs in science, technology, culture, youth and institutional cooperation in investment. Also, the Enterprise Armenia (Investment Support Centre) signed a memo with the Egyptian General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI). Al-Said signed the deal for Egypt.

“The two presidents also discussed boosting trade, opening regular direct flights between Cairo and Yerevan, and cooperation in the energy, infrastructure, agriculture, IT, food, and pharmaceutical industries,” a statement said.

Al-Sisi also held a separate meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to discuss mutual investments and agreed to intensify coordination and consultation over the war in Ukraine and its repercussions.

In a press conference on 29 January, Al-Sisi said he and his Armenian counterpart agreed to boost their economic and industrial cooperation in the coming stage particularly in green hydrogen production, and boosting trade exchange. A joint committee for economic, scientific and technical cooperation, as well as a joint businessmen council, will be formed to translate the objectives into facts on the ground, according to Al-Sisi.

Khachaturyan hailed Egypt facilitating visa procedures for Armenian tourists. “The number of Armenian tourists interested in visiting Egypt is increasing all the time and that they view it as a favourite tourist destination,” Khachaturyan said.

At the end of his visit, President Al-Sisi said Egypt was ready to play a mediation role between Azerbaijan and Armenia to settle the political crisis between them. “We maintain a neutral position over this crisis but we are ready to play the role of a peacekeeping mediator to settle it,” Al-Sisi said.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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