Monday, April 14, 2008

Mubarak's Chutzpah

Mubarak's Chutzpah - Cairo treating India with contempt
New Delhi hopes that an award named after Nehru might mitigate and assuage Egyptian sensitivities

New Indian Express (Chennai), April 14, 2008

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On Thursday a section of the Indian media reported that Egyptian diplomats in New Delhi were hoping for a summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries before India goes to polls sometime next year. Following Tuesday Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the first summit meeting with a host of African heads of states. Later that evening an eminent panel headed by Vice President M H Ansari announced that the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for 2007 would be bestowed upon India's long-time friend and President of Iceland Dr Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

What is common to all the three developments that happened in the first week of April is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak! Cairo's hope for a summit "before" the next Lok Sabha election is an unconcealed euphuism for its leader being the chief guest at the 2009 Republic Day celebrations. If other Middle Eastern leaders such as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (2001), Iranian President Mohammed Khatami (2003) and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (2006) were given such honours, how could India ignore Mubarak?

At the African summit, Egyptian President was the most noticeable absentee. Some leaders make powerful statements by their presence and some by their conspicuous absence.

Mubarak opted for the latter. His action is yet another reminder of not only the state of IndoEgyptian relations but also the contempt with which Cairo treats India and its leadership.

This is in quiet contrast to his attitude towards others where Mubarak uses his charm offensive. He was in Beijing 2006 when China hosted a summit meeting with African leaders in November 2006. Indeed just weeks ago, he had a highly successful visit to Moscow. For long New Delhi, however, has not figured in his radar screen.

Thirdly, the panel which announced the Nehru award for 2007 could not be unaware that for over a decade the prize money and citation for 1995 is gathering dust because Mubarak could not find time to come to New Delhi and receive the honour.

In July 1997 with much fanfare and also with some diplomatic calculations, a panel headed by the then Vice President K R Narayanan selected the Egyptian leader for the Nehru award for 1995. Besides recognising his contribution to international peace, especially to the Middle East peace process, the move was aimed at garnering some diplomatic mileage.

Even since India normalised relations with Israel in January 1992, a chill wind was blowing from Nile as Cairo emerged a major critic of India's new-found fondness for Israel. Hence, New Delhi hoped that an award named after Nehru, who is still remembered and revered in the region, might mitigate and assuage Egyptian sensitivities. Partly for this reason soon after the normalisation of relations with Israel, it opened the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo.

More than a decade later, however, the Nehru award is yet to be conferred upon Mubarak. On two occasions his visit was cancelled at the last minute. Once President Narayanan was indisposed and on another occasion, turbulent events in the region prevented Mubarak from making his trip. But ten years is far too long even for genuine diplomatic excuses.

As per the procedure, the panel that selects the Nehru award is headed by the Vice President with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court functioning as the ex-officio member. Since July 1997 when the award for Mubarak was announced, India had three Vice Presidents and as many as ten new Chief Justices.

Avoiding names, in December 2002 the government told Rajya Sabha that the Nehru award for 1995 "was awarded in the year 1997.

Despite concerted efforts having been made, the Awardee has not yet been able to come to India to receive the award."

For their part, the Egyptian diplomats were equally ingenious. Without offering any reason or explanation for the inordinate delays, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry proudly claims that New Delhi "continuously renews the invitation to President Mubarak to … receive the prize." Indeed, Mubarak has also skipped or avoided multilateral summits organised by India such as the G 15 summit in 1994.

The behaviour of Egyptian leader is in complete contrast to the attitude of many other leaders and figures. During the past decade New Delhi has become the favourite destination of many world leaders, East and West and Developed and Developing.

Among others, it has hosted two sitting US Presidents, heads of states of all the major powers, scores of western leaders and Third World personalities. Many countries of the Middle East have discovered the growing importance of India and want to capitalise on its economic growth through high-profiled visits. Egypt was not one of them. Even the highly publicised visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003 was insufficient to galvanise the Egyptian indifference.

By conferring honours named after leaders such as Nehru, India hopes to promote its interests and influence in different parts of world. Unlike political leverages and economic clout, cultural diplomacy resents the soft power and is both effective and harmonising. The attitude of Mubarak, thus, raises serious questions about the rationale behind such cultural diplomacy.

The Egyptian failure to arrange Mubarak's visit for nearly a decade also indicates the current status of Indo-Egyptian relations. This is in contrast to the heydays of friendship between Nehru and President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Both leaders met over a dozen times and Cairo was a constant stopover for many of Nehru's sojourns to Europe.

World has changed a lot and so is the Egyptian attitude. While Mubarak could not be forced to come to India, the latter could learn something out of this bitter experience. If India and its leaders are less important, there is no reason for New Delhi to be generous towards Cairo. Having treated the award named after India's first Prime Minister with such distain and contempt, Egypt now wants a sweetener.

But expecting Mubarak to be the Chief Guest at next year's Republic Day celebrations is nothing short of chutzpah.

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