Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Recasting India-Egypt relations

Looking beyond the Nehru-Nasser era

Kanchan Gupta

Age had not dimmed Mustafa’s memory or lessened his amazing power to recall events of the past. He was a treasure trove of fascinating stories that would come alive as he told them while gently puffing on his sheesha at the café outside Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in downtown Cairo. Mustafa was among the oldest ‘local’ employees of the Indian mission and had virtually witnessed the evolution of India-Egypt relations over the decades, and possibly knew more than was contained in the dusty files at the chancery. When I took over as Director of the Centre, Mustafa was in charge of programmes and events; he took it upon himself to introduce me to the pleasures of smoking a sheesha while sipping thickly brewed Turkish coffee or mint shaai, depending on the weather. I would often join him at the café where he would regale me with stories about Ambassadors and their factotums in the Foreign Service, among them a certain head of mission whose frequent visits to the Soviet Ambassador’s residence had led to the Mukhabarat detaining his driver for interrogation. According to Mustafa, the driver was never quite the same again.One evening Mustafa called over a friend of his whom he wanted me to meet. As I reached his table at the café, he and his friend, dressed in a suit that had seen better days, rose to greet me. “Sir, meet Mr Nehru,” Mustafa said with a grand gesture, while ‘Mr Nehru’, with a huge smile on his wrinkled face, grabbed my hand and started shaking it vigorously. “Welcome to Egypt, Mr Gupta. I am Mohammed Gamal Abdel Nehru, very old friend of India,” he said, before I could get a word in edgeways. Coffee was ordered, a sheesha was fetched for me, and over the next hour Mustafa told me Mr Nehru’s story. Apparently, this diehard follower of Nasser was so besotted with India’s dashing first Prime Minister, so impressed by his rousing speeches centred on non-alignment and anti-imperialism, that he, a young man when he first saw the real Mr Nehru, had his name further amended. By then he had already added ‘Gamal Abdel’ to his name. Later, he named his daughter Indira Priyadarshini al-Hindi. Well into his seventies when I met him, Mustafa’s friend had vivid memories of how crowds would arrive at Cairo Airport to receive the Indian Prime Minister and rush to shake hands with him and Nasser. Unlike the practice now, when all of Downtown Cairo is shut down and the riot police ordered on the streets every time President Hosni Mubarak steps out of the Presidential Palace, which by itself is an extremely rare event, in those days security arrangements were non-existent and the two leaders would stroll out of the airport to cheering crowds and a military band playing a popular Hindi film tune.I could never quite figure out whether Mustafa and ‘Mr Nehru’ had pulled a fast one on me, which probably they had, and later laughed themselves silly, but what I could figure out during my assignment in Egypt was that the Nehru-Nasser era was long over as was the Non-Aligned Movement with Egypt firmly allied with the US, a fact which South Block appears loath to admit. Nothing else explains why the Ministry of External Affairs should have issued a gratuitous statement coinciding with Mr Mubarak’s arrival, “condemning the recent upsurge of violence in the Gaza Strip” and expressing “concern at the adverse effects of the closure of access points into the Strip on the prevailing humanitarian situation”. While waxing eloquent on the need to “restore peace urgently” and observe “basic humanitarian principles”, it chose to ignore the other details of the Gaza story: The incessant firing of rockets at Israeli civilians; the calculated move by Hamas to test Israel’s patience by becoming increasingly belligerent as the June 19 ‘ceasefire’, or hudna, brokered by Egypt, nears its end next month; and Ismail Haniya’s high-pitched tirade against Abu Mazzen as the Palestinian Authority election, scheduled for January, approaches. In any event, Monday’s stern statement, so blatantly loaded against Israel and brazenly glossing over Hamas excesses, would have impressed neither Mr Mubarak nor his 150-member entourage. Whoever thought of it in South Block is either ignorant of post-1979 Egypt-Israel relations or mistakenly believes that this is the best way to warm the cockles of Egyptian hearts when it clearly is not; Egypt is fully aware of India-Israel relations. But the fact that the bogus barrier erected by Nehru, who placed spurious Arab nationalism above genuine national interest, no longer separates New Delhi and Tel Aviv does not necessarily bother Cairo. Mr Mubarak, in his characteristic blunt manner, told a Delhi newspaper, “The world has changed since Nasser and Nehru.” He should know: Since 1981, when he took over as President after Anwar Sadat’s assassination by Islamists on October 6, 1981, he has been at the helm, charting the course of Egypt’s destiny in the post-Nasser world. Sadat may have made the first break with the past and given an unceremonial burial to Nasserite bunkum, it is Mr Mubarak who has ensured that Egypt does not lapse into rabble-rousing Arab nationalism which, in today’s context, is inseparable from radical Islamism. While he may belong to an era long past, he has the far-sight to realise that the only antidote to the spreading venom of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been scoring remarkable results in recent elections, is rapid economic development, not through US aid but industrial investment, and modernisation, not by opening Egypt’s doors to America’s urban trash culture but through IT and IT-enabled services. In this, his son — and heir apparent — Mr Gamal Mubarak plays an important role.As visits by heads of state go, Mr Mubarak’s two-day sojourn has not been spectacularly different. The clutch of agreements and MOUs that were signed are not going to make a substantial difference to India-Egypt relations, apart from reaffirming interest in what is described as ‘strengthening of bilateral relations’. Yet, the very fact that Mr Mubarak came to India 25 years after his last visit, when he was in New Delhi to attend the 1983 Non-Aligned Summit hosted by Mrs Indira Gandhi, is indicative of Egypt’s renewed interest in forging closer relations with India. This time, it is not about meaningless anti-American posturing and vainglorious Third World rhetoric, but doing business that is profitable to both Indians and Egyptians. Bilateral trade has been steadily inching northward and Mr Mubarak says he is hopeful Indian investment in Egypt touching $ 2 billion soon. And, like Mr Narendra Modi, the darling of investors in India, he is eager to see “big Indian enterprises such as Tata, Essar and Reliance, who have already chosen areas of investment opportunities”, to invest in Egypt. Gujarat State Petroleum Company has obtained a concession to dig for oil and gas. Excited by the possibilities, Egypt is willing to set up an exclusive industrial zone for India.The Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, with which he was honoured in 1995 but was actually handed over to him on Tuesday, was not the reason why Mr Mubarak visited India. That was at best incidental.

The Pioneer Editorial Page Wednesday, November 19, 2008

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