In a step aimed to ease tensions with Egypt, a delegation led by Turkey’s deputy foreign minister will visit Cairo in early May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week. The delegation will lay the groundwork for a later meeting between Cavusoglu and Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Diplomats say Ankara has grown increasingly alarmed by Egypt’s strengthening relations with Greece and Cyprus, and the emergence of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
“The reconciliation between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain on one hand, and Qatar on the other, has added to Ankara’s sense of isolation,” said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Professor of international relations Tarek Fahmi expects the delegation’s visit to be an effective icebreaker, to be followed by the resumption of full diplomatic relations.
In reaction to Cavusoglu’s statement, Shoukri said contacts between Egypt and Turkey are “confined to limited diplomatic channels at the moment” and “actions are the only way to restore relations with Turkey to their normal position”.
In a statement delivered before parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, Shoukri said that Egypt would be willing to put in the groundwork necessary for establishing normal relations with Turkey only if Ankara adopts positions more in line with Cairo’s foreign policy objectives, including non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and the maintenance of mutual respect.
Cairo and Ankara are at odds over maritime boundaries and gas rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and over developments in Libya.
Turkey described last year’s maritime demarcation deal between Egypt and Greece as null and void, and has refused to recognise a similar deal signed with Cyprus in 2013.
The growing cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus was most recently reflected in the signing of a tripartite military cooperation deal earlier this month. Under the deal, the three countries will expand joint military exercises and training activities.
Strengthening Egyptian, Greek, and Cypriot ties, and the establishment of the EMGF, designed as a vital platform bringing together regional gas producers, consumers, and transit states to boost the market for gas and including Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and France as members, has prompted Ankara to search for new allies.
Ankara was excluded from the EMGF and is embroiled in difficult negotiations to demarcate its border with Greece, a subject expected to top the agenda of Cavusoglu’s meeting with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias scheduled in Ankara today.
According to observers, Erdogan’s short-term priority may well be to canvas Egypt for support during Ankara’s ongoing dispute with Athens over the drawing of maritime boundaries, and by extension, sovereignty over valuable gas reserves.
Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with Egypt have raised concerns in Greece and Cyprus. It is no coincidence, says the anonymous diplomat, that “the Greek Foreign minister visited Egypt this week and met Shoukri”. He argues, however, that “Cairo’s relations with Ankara are unlikely to affect its relationship with other EMGF members.”
Libya, the other major point of contention between Cairo and Ankara, “is important to Egypt because it is linked to Egypt’s national security, including the Sirte-Jufra red line that delimits the western boundary of what Cairo perceives as its security realm,” explained Fahmi.
Turkey provided political and military support, including mercenary fighters from Syria, to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) at a time when Egypt and the UAE backed its rival, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
Last August, the UN-sponsored peace process resulted in a ceasefire between the rival factions. According to Fahmi, for the first time in six years Cairo and Ankara seem to agree on Libya, though “foreign fighters and mercenaries have yet to leave Libya as the UN has called in a clear message to Turkey.”
Since 2013 Turkey has also provided a safe haven to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a platform to attack the Egyptian government via broadcast television stations and news sites.
Last month, Turkey asked three Muslim Brotherhood-linked satellite TV channels broadcasting from Istanbul to stop airing programmes critical of Egypt. While the move surprised many, it was not the first indication of a change of heart in Ankara.
Also last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara is ready to open a “new chapter” with the Gulf and discuss Eastern Mediterranean agreements and developments in Libya with Egypt.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Kalin described Egypt as “an important country in the Arab world” and as the Arab world’s “brains and heart”.
Ties between Cairo and Ankara grew strained in 2013 after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who was supported by Ankara. Later the same year, Cairo expelled the Turkish ambassador in reaction to Ankara’s repeated criticisms of Egypt. Turkey responded by declaring the Egyptian ambassador persona non grata.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly