The arrival of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Cairo on Monday marked the beginning of a new and much upgraded phase of bilateral relations with Egypt, according to Egyptian Ambassador in Ankara Abdel-Rahman Salah. “It is a strategic partnership that we are getting into,” Salah said.
The visit of Erdogan comes against a backdrop of much attention in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world to the decision of Ankara to expel its own ambassador of Israel along with other senior members of the Israeli embassy in Ankara, over the findings of the UN Palmer Report on the Israeli attack on a humanitarian aid boat, Mavi Marmara, that was trying to reach Gaza in the summer of 2010 to help levitate the hardship suffered by Palestinians in the Israeli-besieged Strip.
The visit also comes at a time where a majority of Egyptians are calling on authorities in Cairo to follow the “Turkish example” of expelling the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, in order to retaliate against the killing of Egypt border guard soldiers in Sinai last month by the Israeli army during an attack on Gaza.
“Clearly both Egypt and Turkey are having issues with Israel, essentially over Israeli policies in the Middle East and especially with regards to the Palestinian cause, and we can expect to see more coordination between the two countries on these matters,” Salah said.
Of particular interest to both Cairo and Ankara, according to the Egyptian ambassador to Turkey, is the project to declare the Middle East an area free of weapons of mass destruction. With preparations being stepped up for a possible international conference on this matter next year, Salah said, Cairo and Ankara will be working closer to lobby support for the cause of removing all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons from the region, something that Israel is trying to block as it insists to keep its unchecked and officially un-announced nuclear arsenal.
According to Salah, Cairo and Ankara are also working very closely to lobby support for the legitimate demands of the Palestinians to have an independent state. This, he said, includes not just the support to the diplomatic demarche of the Palestinian Authority before the UN to solicit support for an independent Palestinian state but also to consider the possibility of an international conference on the Palestinian cause.
“But it would be a big mistake to reduce the wide and expanding volume of Egyptian-Turkish relations, whether on the bilateral or multilateral fronts, to matters related to Israel,” Salah insisted. He added that “there is so much more in terms of boosting economic relations, widening cultural cooperation and pursuing efforts that secure a fair attention to the demands and concerns of developing countries on the international agenda”.
Egypt and Turkey, the Egyptian ambassador in Ankara said, are using Erdogan’s visit to finalise the details of a strategic framework of cooperation “including those related to the establishment and operation of the Higher Egyptian Turkish Council for Strategic Cooperation”.
Strategic cooperation between Egypt and Turkey, Salah explained, will secure a boost in economic cooperation, trade and investments. “Already after the revolution there has been a marked increase in Egyptian exports to Turkey and there are more Turkish investments coming to Egypt,” he said.
Egypt and Turkey have already signed an agreement for free trade in 2005, which went into effect in 2007. During the visit of Erdogan, who is accompanied by economic aides and entrepreneurs, the evolution of trade between the two countries is subject to considerable and detailed discussion, Salah said.
The Egyptian ambassador in Turkey said that these discussions will open the way for more Turkish factories to be established in Egypt. “We expect that the current volume of Turkish investments in Egypt will be doubled during the next two years,” he specified.
Salah is also expecting the Erdogan visit and the wider channels of Egyptian-Turkish discussion to upgrade cooperation between the two countries to lead towards possible joint Egyptian-Turkish economic enterprises in Third World countries, especially in Africa “especially since Turkey looks at Egypt as the gateway” to the black continent, the Arab world and even the US market. Egypt has an edge due to the tax exemption it is entitled to in the countries of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (COMESSA) including Libya, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Sudan and the Arab states. Egypt is also a member of the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA) which includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. It also has Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) with the US and Israel.
Moreover, Salah is anticipating a wider range of bilateral cooperation between Egypt and Turkey in the transfer of technology and in research and development, especially in relation to energy generation and conservation.
On the international front, Salah is expecting more cooperation between the two countries in matters related to the dialogue of civilisations, the promotion of a positive image of the Muslim world and the combat of terrorism and trafficking in drugs.
The Egyptian ambassador is also expecting an increase in cultural cooperation, especially with Egypt planning to be the guest of honour at the Istanbul Book Fair in the autumn of 2012. “There is a growing interest on both sides to learn about the culture of the other. However, so far language has been a major handicap and we are hoping to give a boost to translation from Turkish into Arabic and vice versa,” Salah said.
This interview first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly