The sight of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sitting side-by-side with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at India’s Republic Day celebrations evoked three ironies. One, the people of India were celebrating 73 years of their constitution that ensures that fundamental human rights are enjoyed by all its citizens. But they were doing this before a guest who personally destroyed his own country’s first experiment with a democratic order nine years ago and today presides over one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Two, India’s outreach to Egypt recalled those heady days when India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had made Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, his partner in the Nonaligned Movement that, on behalf of the world’s developing nations emerging from colonialism, had challenged the global binary during the Cold War. But in today’s India, Nehru is a hate-figure, and its present-day leaders hold him culpable for every national shortcoming and failure.
Three, what appears to be uniting India and Egypt today is very far from the values that had brought the two countries together all those decades ago. Then, the sense of global camaraderie against imperialism had bonded the world’s stalwarts from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Now, Modi and el-Sisi have been brought together by a shared hate – in one case, for Muslims as a collective monolithic, in the other, a visceral animosity for a political movement committed to the values of Islam and those of parliamentary democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood.
But el-Sisi’s presence in New Delhi has also affirmed that large sections of the international community have little concern about the abridgement of human rights and the harsh actions being taken against domestic enemies; they are primarily anxious to explore with authoritarian leaders what mutual benefits these engagements can provide.
Dire economic situation
President el-Sisi’s rehabilitation on the world stage is taking place in unpropitious domestic circumstances – the country is mired in a deep economic crisis. In December, inflation had risen to 22%, as against 19% in November, and 6.5% in December 2021. This has occurred alongside currency depreciation, with the Egyptian pound losing half its value since March last year, reaching a record low of 30 pounds to the dollar in January. Egypt’s plight has been exacerbated by capital flight of over $20 billion since the start of the Ukraine war. The war has also created serious problems for Egypt as the principal importer of wheat from Ukraine, with a survey showing that 68% of the population has concerns about access to food.
In October last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted Egypt a $3 billion loan, taking its borrowing from the IMF to $23.1 billion since 2016. This loan is aimed at helping the country pay off $28 billion in maturing debt and interest and fund its current account deficit. Egypt’s foreign debt has gone from $40 billion in 2012 to $155 billion in 2022.
This IMF facility is expected to be supplemented with additional loans from international sources, most probably from the Gulf states. The IMF facility is far less than the $12 billion that Egypt had sought and is conditioned on Egypt carrying out major reforms to reduce inflation and reduce public debt, while expanding protection for the vulnerable.
The principal structural reform to which the country is committed is for the state to exit from the numerous sectors of the economy that it presently controls, particularly through Egypt’s “military economy”, ie, commercial enterprises that are owned by the armed forces. In December 2020, the World Bank had recorded that the sectors of the economy that the military controlled included: production of capital goods, consumer durables, apparel, food stuffs, automobiles and spare parts, semiconductors, transportation systems, technology hardware, and media and entertainment.
These military companies enjoy a privileged position in the country’s economy – they have access to public contracts, land and foreign currency, and are exempted from rules relating to financial disclosure, profitability, taxes, customs procedures, unfair competition and legal issues; this severely disadvantages private sector enterprises.
Though el-Sisi and other senior officials have frequently pledged to reduce the role of these military companies, reform has been avoided so far: in June 2022, the government had promised that the state would exit from 79 sectors and reduce its presence in 45 others, commentators believe these assurances could be “pure make-believe”.
Spat with the Gulf states
Egypt’s economic situation has recently caused an ugly spat with its benefactors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since 2011, the latter have provided Egypt with $92 billion – these funds kept the country afloat in the early days of the coup led by el-Sisi, that had toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi, when financing from international sources had dried up. Initially, these Gulf funds had been placed as deposits to shore up the economy; later, they were invested in Egyptian enterprises.
In response to the parlous state of the economy and the absence of any serious action by the government, some Gulf commentators have recently begun to criticise el-Sisi’s economic model of dependence on debt. A Kuwaiti member of parliament has advised his government not to provide any money to Egypt. A Saudi commentator has said that “the army’s control of politics and economy in Egypt has not allowed for a different political-economic alternative”, an obvious reference to el-Sisi’s rule.
Another distinguished Saudi writer, Turki al-Hamad, who is known to be close to the Saudi crown prince, has said that el-Sisi’s policies have led “to an Egypt of unemployment, economic and political crises, social dilemmas and violent radical fluctuations that do not belong to any model, neither royal nor republican”.
These criticisms have evoked venomous abuse from Egyptian commentators. A prominent journalist, Abdel Razek Tawfiq, has attacked these Gulf writers thus:
“The once barefooted and naked, who have only recently started to wear the most luxurious outfits, should not insult Egypt, the pride and mother of the world. … It is not the right of the mean, the lowly, and the newly minted to insult their masters. It is not the right of mini-states, whose age does not exceed the age of my youngest son to talk about Egypt, except with politeness, reverence and respect. Even if they can buy the voices and trumpets of some dwarves, agents and mercenaries, they cannot buy history, present and future.”
Besides reflecting the natural frustration of a rich ancient civilisation that is now in dire straits and dependent on nouveau riche relatives, the Egyptian outburst is also due to GCC pledges that have not been fulfilled: following the Ukraine war, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar had promised financial support of $20 billion that has so far not been provided. Again, the IMF loan is to supported by $6.7 billion from Gulf sources over the next three years, which might not materialise.
The Egyptian writer has perhaps drawn courage from the perception that the GCC states need Egypt to protect their regional interests and, hence, are in no position to replace el-Sisi. However, according to an Egyptian commentator, Khalil al-Ani, they might not be averse to weakening him to be better able to manipulate him to their advantage: Egypt’s dependence on GCC largesse is the most effective instrument they have, but el-Sisi is also the best weapon against their principal foe, political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood
After his coup d’etat in early July 2013, el-Sisi had consolidated his rule six weeks later with the massacre of nearly a thousand Muslim Brotherhood members who were peacefully demonstrating against the coup at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. El-Sisi was then giving the clear signal that, unlike in the case of the demonstrations against the Hosni Mubarak regime in January-February 2011, when the security forces had not indulged in mass-killings to protect the president, he would have no such compunctions – the new regime thus came to rule Egypt after perpetrating what Shadi Hamid has called “the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history”.
In the late last century, the Brotherhood’s intellectuals, underground or in exile, had attempted in their writings to draw from Islamic traditions the norms of modern-day democratic governance, espousing the principles of constitutionalism, human rights, political parties, free elections and responsible governments. The ascendancy of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency was the first instance of a Brotherhood member forming a government. There were concerns among Egypt’s armed forces that, as the government in office gained in experience, the combination of Islamic precepts and democracy would emerge as an alluring political order across West Asia, that had only known authoritarian rule – royal or republican – in the previous decades.
The armed forces’ concerns were shared by the Gulf monarchies who saw in the success of the Brotherhood government a challenge to their hereditary rule. Since the Morsi government needed to be removed before it settled down, two Gulf monarchies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, funded mass anti-government agitations in Egypt and backed the coup led by el-Sisi in June-July 2011. A year later, el-Sisi became president after elections which had a 47% turnout that gave him 97% support.
Since then, the principal concern of the el-Sisi government has been to destroy all threat from the Brotherhood. The latter was banned in September 2013, and declared a terrorist organisation in December. Its top leaders and thousands of members were arrested; several suspected members were dismissed from employment in public services, the organisation’s assets were confiscated and its welfare activities were closed. A few leaders and members who escaped imprisonment have gone into exile in Qatar, Turkey and London.
In her Congressional testimony in September 2020, Brookings scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes had said the el-Sisi government is “engaged in unprecedented domestic repression – Egypt is now the third worst jailer of journalists in the world, and is estimated to hold tens of thousands of political prisoners, including American citizens”. Referring to persisting extremist activity in Egypt’s Sinai, Wittes said the security forces were involved in “scorched-earth tactics” that included bulldozing villages and displacing thousands of residents; she wondered whether the “government’s approach is actually cultivating extremism more than it is combatting it”.
None of this has mattered to the US: Trump referred to el-Sisi as “my favourite dictator”. Biden has referred frequently to Egypt improving its human rights record, but has not done much about it. In December 2022, Andrea Prasow wrote:
“Not only are there tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, but the chains of the state extend far beyond those who are physically detained. Untold scores are trapped under travel bans, unable to see family members abroad, pursue professional or educational opportunities, or escape Egypt before they themselves are detained”. Despite this, Biden maintained the most cordial interactions with the Egyptian leader during his visits to Cairo in June and November last year, as also during el-Sisi’s visit to Washington in December.
El-Sisi in India
The Egyptian president’s visit to India in January affirms the commitment of both countries to work together to build political and economic ties that had lost much of their resonance over the last few decades due to Egypt’s domestic difficulties. Since the relationship is still at a nascent stage, the joint statement is functional in both tone and content.
The main new feature is the commitment of the two countries “to upgrade their relations to the level of a ‘Strategic Partnership’ covering political, security, defence, energy, and economic areas”. Thus, India’s relations with Egypt are now on par with ties with the countries of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
While “Defence Cooperation” has a separate sub-heading, the main focus here is on cooperation between the defence industries of the two countries. The substance of defence cooperation is covered with a mild reference to “widening the footprint of military exercises, and exchanging best practices”.
The caution reflected here is largely due to this area not having been explored in recent years; it needs some concrete initiatives to obtain substance. It is for this reason that cooperation in regard to maritime security is not specifically mentioned in the statement, despite Egypt’s dominant location on the Red Sea and the East Mediterranean and control over the Suez Canal – the world’s most crucial chokepoint for global trade. In fact, with India having set up “a formal trilateral cooperation initiative” with France and the UAE on February 4, 2023, it will make sense, over time, for Egypt to become a partner in this initiative, given that the initiative may be expected to focus on the Western Indian Ocean and sees defence as “an area of close cooperation between the three countries”.
Confronting political Islam
The Indian government’s outreach to Egypt flows naturally from the close relations it has established with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These three West Asian nations were brought together by the challenge they saw from the Muslim Brotherhood. Political Islam has three distinct expressions – Wahhabiya in Saudi Arabia, the politicisation of Islam as articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and transnational extremist Islam, or jihad, espoused by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. All three expressions are anathema to this West Asian triumvirate – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.
What India shares with these three Arab states is to view all expressions of political Islam as manifestations of “terrorism” to be combatted with the full force of state power. Hence, echoing the earlier joint statements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Indo-Egyptian joint statement also gives considerable importance to “Combatting Extremism and Countering Terrorism”: the statement describes terrorism as posing “one of the most serious security threats to humanity” and also reflects India’s concerns relating to Pakistan by condemning “the use of terrorism as a foreign policy tool”.
Important changes in Islamist discourse are taking place in response to new domestic challenges. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to legitimise his authoritarian rule at home and project a moderate image abroad by asserting a national rather than a religious identity, and a national identity that is projected in pluralistic terms. However, the perceived threat from the Brotherhood to this new order remains in place: as Yasmine Farouk and Nathan Brown have said, according to the Saudi state, “the fight against extremism, so-called deviance, and terrorism is equated with the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood”, as its blending of Islam and democracy challenges capricious and arbitrary royal rule. In fact, the principal threat that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by Saudi officials in Istanbul in October 2018, apparently posed to the Saudi order emerged from concerns about his affiliation with the Brotherhood’s ideology that espoused a liberal polity within an Islamic framework.
To expunge Brotherhood influence, Saudi Arabia has removed texts from its education system that reflect Brotherhood thought and purged teachers believed to be linked to the movement. A recently set up Presidency of State Security is charged with promoting “intellectual security in education” by targeting extremism and promoting positive values, while the Centre for Intellectual Awareness focuses on promoting nationalist education.
In Egypt, too, el-Sisi has been demonising the Brotherhood in the name of modernity, promoting inter-faith relations and opposing extremism as the basis to project himself as a reformer and improve his image abroad. What this has actually achieved in Egypt is a harsh authoritarian order consisting of “detention of tens of thousands of youth in poor conditions, forced disappearance and lengthy pre-trial detention, unfair trials, torture, and sexual abuse”, all of which have got worse since 2013.
The UAE faced a serious challenge from the Brotherhood in the early days of the Arab Spring: in July 2012, about 60 Brotherhood adherents was arrested; some of them confessed they belonged to an armed wing that was plotting to seize power and establish an Islamic state. In December 2012, there were news reports that a joint Saudi-UAE operation destroyed “an organised cell from the deviant group” that was planning attacks on the two countries. Though the group was believed to belong to Al Qaeda, a UAE commentator did not distinguish between the jihadi organisation and the Brotherhood and said the group belong to the “hardline Muslim Brotherhood Organisation”.
Finally, in January 2013, the UAE announced that it had uncovered a Brotherhood cell that had been active in local recruitment and collecting “sensitive military information”. It was in this background that the UAE, in association with Saudi Arabia, funded the overthrow of the Morsi government and extended full support to military rule in Egypt. Since then, the UAE has sought to project itself as the bastion of modern and moderate Islam and an emerging hub for technological innovation.
Outlook for India in West Asia
India has reached out to and established strategic partnerships with the principal West Asian states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – in the full confidence that the latter’s hostility to political Islam will bind them to India.
There is the clear impression at home and abroad that the Modi-led government’s priority interest is to reconstruct the “idea” of India in which the core commitment to the country’s democratic and secular order will be diluted in order to privilege its majoritarian “Hindu” character. This has meant, in effect, the systematic and sustained denigration of India’s Islamic legacy and its 200-million strong Muslim community. The Indian government is confident that the West Asian states’ reluctance to comment on domestic developments in other countries, lest their own dismal situation come in for international scrutiny, will ensure that the government’s mistreatment of its Muslim community will not evoke any adverse comment, and that India can pursue its political, security and economic ties with West Asian states with relative impunity.
This position is not sustainable. While authoritarian rulers – royal or republican – may seek to prioritise their rule over any other consideration, they cannot move too far away from the sentiments of their people. Thus, in June last year, the public abuse of Islam’s holy prophet by certain spokespersons of the ruling party in India had led to widespread criticisms across West Asia and large parts of the Muslim world, with stern diplomatic rebukes being conveyed to several Indian ambassadors. This was not at the initiative of the governments concerned; the latter acted under pressure from their religious establishments and popular sentiment in general.
The deep sense of cultural comfort towards India that pervades West Asia is largely due to India’s time-honoured accommodation of diverse faiths and cultures and the eschewing of faith-related matters in the public domain. Also, India has an eight and a half million strong community resident in the region that has emerged as the preferred expatriate community largely due to India being viewed as a democratic and secular entity and its citizens of all denominations refusing to see matters of faith as areas of inter-community contention.
As president of the G20, India has been promoting an inclusive agenda founded on the motto: Vasidhaiva Kutumbakam. But for this approach to be successful, India will have to practice inclusivity at home.
Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His new book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published by HarperCollins in April last year.