Figuring out Cairo

Print edition : October 18, 1997

During Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's Cairo visit, Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak came out against the Taliban and fundamentalism and for India in the Security Council. But are these sentiments actionable?

WITH Egypt moving into the U.S. camp following the policy coup enacted in the second half of the 1970s by Anwar Sadat and continued in a more savvy way by his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, over the past 15 years, India's once close relations with Egypt have certainly fallen off in quality. The last time the Egyptian President visited India was in 1983, for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement which could hardly be skipped. Although two Indian Prime Ministers did visit Cairo briefly in 1985 and 1995 and although there have been various other visits from both sides, top level political contact has been superficial and even perfunctory.

Given the scaled down expectations, Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral's one-day stop in Cairo on his way back from a major South African visit seems to have produced a bonus, at least in formal terms. During an hour-long meeting on October 11, Mubarak came out clearly against the Taliban in Afghanistan and those outside powers which supported it, and in a more general way against fundamentalism. Secondly, he expressed support to India's position on U.N. reform and Security Council expansion specifically and also recognised that India must "have a place in any Security Council expansion." Thirdly, he agreed with Gujral that NAM needed to be strengthened and revitalised, even promising to activate his country's foreign policy along with India's towards this end.

Mubarak has his own domestic problems with Islamic fundamentalism and has adopted tough methods to crush its extremist and terrorist manifestations. When Gujral registered India's concerns over the Afghanistan developments, the destabilising role of the Taliban in the region and the role of some outside powers in this regard, the Egyptian strongman expressed an aversion towards this fundamentalist and fanatical organisation and clearly disapproved of the role of outside powers.

On U.N. Security Council expansion, according to a senior Indian official, Mubarak agreed with Gujral that there should be no partial or selective expansion. The Egyptian President specially told the Indian Prime Minister that "Egypt recognises that India has a place in any Security Council expansion," the official added. Speaking to some journalists after the meeting, Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amr Mousa, elaborated on this: "Yes, we discussed the issue of enlarging the Security Council and both of us voiced support for the decision of the Non-Aligned Movement last spring that we cannot support the so-called quick fix in letting two countries from the North join without a comprehensive agreement. The second thing that we agree on is that there is no reason to rush. We have to take our time so that the enlargement of the Security Council, the reform of the U.N., be an agreed and consensus issue. That would meet the needs, the requirements and the interests of both North and South."

The business of strengthening bilateral relations was also discussed, with Mubarak and Gujral spending some time on nostalgia and agreeing on "the need to restore the camaraderie of the Nehru-Nasser days." While political relations have languished in recent times, trade and economic relations have not done too badly. Two-way trade has grown from $101.51 million in 1991-92 to $219.26 million in 1996-97. Indian companies such as Grasim India Limited, Telco, Bajaj Auto, Kirloskar and ONGC are involved in significant joint ventures in Egypt and others like Essar Steel, BHEL, Kirloskar and KEC have executed useful projects.

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on October 11.-MONA SHARAF / REUTERS

In addition, three agreements relating to tourism, mutual assistance and cooperation in customs matters, and information were signed with Egypt during the Gujral visit. An executive programme of cultural, educational and scientific cooperation between the two countries was also formalised.

But in the Indian Prime Minister's meeting with the Egyptian President, the bilateral seemed to take a back seat to the unexpectedly helpful sentiments expressed by the latter on the Taliban and on India's quest for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. (With respect to the West Asia peace process, Mubarak conveyed an assessment that was markedly pessimistic.)

Whether these sentiments and positions are actionable and there will be a serious follow-up, remains to be seen. Mubarak will visit India in the near future, inter alia, to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for 1995.

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