Egypt-Turkey relations: A new direction?

Doaa El-Bey , Thursday 9 Dec 2021

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted last week that rapprochement with Egypt may be on the cards following the thaw in Turkey’s relations with the UAE.

Bin Zayed with Erdogan in the UAE
Bin Zayed with Erdogan in the UAE

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that, in the wake of positive talks with the UAE, Ankara was looking to strengthen ties with Egypt and Israel.

Ankara sees its new openness with the UAE as heralding better relations with Egypt given the nature of Cairo’s ties with Abu Dhabi, professor of international relations Tarek Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that Egypt’s good relations with Israel will allow Turkey to build a partnership with both Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Cairo has refrained from commenting on Erdogan’s statement in which he said Turkish ambassadors could return to Egypt and Israel.

Any improvement in Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Israel is likely to have regional repercussions, not just on Ankara’s position towards the Libya file but across the Eastern Mediterranean, adds Fahmi.

Erdogan made his statement within days of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to Turkey during which the two countries signed a raft of strategic agreements which Erdogan described as initiating “a new era” in relations. Erdogan is expected to visit the UAE in February.

Salim Çevik, a researcher at the German-based Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), says it is important to distinguish between “full normalisation of relations” and “the solving of all bilateral problems”.

“Turkey and Egypt do not need to sort out all the problems between them in order to restore diplomatic relations. Some improvement in current problems, and mutual recognition that diplomacy and dialogue is a less costly and more effective way of conducting relations than confrontation, is all that is needed for normalisation.”

Although two exploratory meetings have been held this year between Cairo and Ankara, moving bilateral relations forward remains dependent on addressing the tensions that caused the breach in the first place, in which respect Libya remains a major obstacle. Though unity and stability in Libya are in the interest of both countries, Cairo refuses to accept a long-term Turkish military presence in its western neighbour, while a complete withdrawal of Turk­ish units looks an unlikely option for Ankara to take. In the meantime, both countries await the results of elections in Libya, due later this month.

Çevik does detect at least the possibility of middle ground. Turkey, he explained, supports Abdul-Hamid Debeibeh, the current prime minister of the National Unity Government, and Fathi Bashagha, two figures Egypt does not necessarily oppose. And Turkey has already hinted about withdrawing Syrian mercenaries as long as other mercenary fighters are withdrawn.

“While Turkey and Egypt won’t be seeing eye-to-eye on Libya anytime soon, they are moving to ground that could allow diplomatic channels to open.”

The Eastern Mediterranean, and the energy alliance — the East Mediterranean Gas Forum — formed by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, is another challenging file for Ankara.

Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt are expected to expand tripartite cooperation and any expectations that Cairo will fundamentally change its alliances in Ankara’s favour are unrealistic. However, Ankara would probably be content with observer sta­tus in the East Med Gas Forum, which could then open up the possibility of finding further common ground.

Ankara, says Fahmi, is desperate for a toehold in gas negotiations in the East Mediterranean.

There is, too, the question of Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, though Çevik does not view it as a real problem.

“Erdogan is more pragmatic than ideological and his support for the Brotherhood was part of a narrative created for domestic political consumption,” says Çevik, noting that Turkey has already curtailed the group’s activities.

Fahmi is less sure. Even if Ankara gradually responds to Egyptian demands to extradite Brotherhood members from the country, what would Ankara do with members who have Turkish nationality or who work there, he asks. And while Turkey has already partially responded to Egypt’s demands by toning down TV programmes that attack Egypt it has not acted to close down the channels which broadcast them.

Though Turkey’s growing involvement in Ethiopia could also get in the way of the normalisation of relations, it will not, argues Çevik, derail the process. The armed drones that Ankara has agreed to sell Addis Ababa can be used by the Ethiopian government in its conflict in the Tigray region but they are not a game changer with regards to the military balance between Egypt and Ethiopia.

During the two rounds of exploratory talks to bridge the differences between Egypt and Turkey held earlier this year, Cairo asked Ankara to stop interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab states, particularly Libya and Syria, to halt its media campaigns against Egypt, and stop granting Turkish nationality to Egyptians living in Turkey.

Relations between Cairo and Ankara deteriorated following the fall of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Within months of the collapse of Morsi’s Brotherhood regime Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador in response to Ankara’s repeated criticisms of Egypt. Turkey responded by declaring the Egyptian ambassador persona non grata.

Turkish political analyst Nebahat Tanrıverdi believes that the real question about the ongoing process between Turkey and Egypt is whether or not it can survive the differences in the two countries’ approaches.

“While Egypt aims to resolve a number of disputes, such as Turkey’s military engagement in Libya and Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean conflict, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence and media activity in Turkey, Turkey would like to compartmentalise the disputes, resolving some but placing others on the back burner,” she told the Weekly. The restoration of ambassador-level ties should not, therefore, be seen as a final goal but rather a step in a process to expand both parties’ room for foreign policy manoeuvre.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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