New Delhi, Aug. 24: As he heard fists pounding on his hostel room door last week, Lucknow-born 24-year-old Mohsin Iqbal wondered whether he had erred in staying back in Cairo during the semester break at its famous Al-Azhar University, where he studies.
He didn’t know who the fists belonged to. It could have been supporters of Mohamed Mursi, the first elected President of Egypt, propelled into power by the Arab Spring. Or it could have been backers of the Egyptian military that overthrew Mursi in July in a coup that has set off bloody street battles that have already claimed hundreds of lives and threaten to unravel into a civil war.
It didn’t matter once Iqbal opened the door and identified himself as Indian. “That immediately changed their expressions, their attitude,” Iqbal said of the intruders, who turned out to be young pro-Mursi supporters. “They became quiet, and I’ll always remember one of them saying that I would be safe, that neither side would hurt Indians.”
Over 200 Indian students are studying at Al-Azhar University and at least another 2,500 Indian professionals and businessmen are scattered across Cairo and the port cities of Alexandria and Port Said, according to community leaders and officials at the Indian embassy in Egypt.
But a half-century-old relationship of friendship dating back to the personal ties between Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s persistent care to avoid picking between the military and civilian leaders — a policy criticised by some — are today keeping Indians in Egypt safe.
“As of now, all members of the Indian community are safe,” Indian ambassador to Egypt Navdeep Suri told The Telegraph over the phone from Cairo.
Unlike 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was deposed, Egypt has seen few attacks on foreigners in the violence that has followed Mursi’s ouster.
But while many western nations have advised citizens against travelling to Egypt right now, India has issued no such advice till now. And New Delhi does not — at this moment — foresee a repeat of 2011 when it sent emergency Air India planes to evacuate about 3,500 Indians in Egypt.
That confidence stems from a combination of efforts taken by the embassy under Suri and the larger public perception in Egypt about Indians, said community members there and diplomats here.
The embassy has established a network of 25 “area wardens” across all neighbourhoods where Indian community members reside. Officials at the embassy speak daily to these wardens — community members in charge of Indians in their neighbourhood — to check on any problems the community may be facing.
Suri has spoken to representatives of each of the 22 Indian companies based in Egypt. The embassy posts regular advisories on neighbourhoods and street routes that it suggests Indians avoid on the embassy’s website.
Over the past weekend, the embassy made over 100 phone calls to Indian community members and Suri met representatives of the students studying at Al-Azhar University.
“These efforts have all made a difference,” said Ashish Walia, Cairo-based country head of German metallurgical engineering giant Messer Castolin Eutectic, who helped the embassy evacuate Indians from Egypt in 2011.
Those efforts have built on history. Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, and Nasser, Egypt’s tallest leader through the 1950s and 1960s, together founded the Non-Aligned Movement aimed at preventing the interests of newly independent developing nations from becoming trapped in the Cold War tussle.
India worked with Nasser’s successors, including Mubarak, and although it was warm to Mursi after he came to power, it carefully avoided committing itself too far.
When Mursi visited India this March, it offered help to the Egyptian army on the one hand, and assistance to the Egyptian election commission to conduct free and fair polls on the other.
“Things are bad in Egypt right now but as far as the Indian community is concerned, things are fine,” Walia said. “All sides see Indians as friends.”