A Turkish détente?

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Friday 24 Mar 2023

The high level visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Cairo this week, the first in 10 years, is definitely a good sign.


 The troubled region might be heading towards some degree of stability after more than a decade of conflicts and civil wars that involved the collapse of several key Arab states.

 Only a week before, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they agreed to restore diplomatic ties in two months, renewing several security and economic cooperation agreements. The United Arab Emirates had taken a similar step to improve ties with neighbouring Iran earlier, and along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt also ended a long-standing dispute with Qatar.

In the case of Egypt and Turkey, the near 10-year rupture in relations was not initiated by Cairo, which was always keen to maintain a positive and friendly stance on Turkey, considering its important and influential and regional role. It was the Turkish administration that refused to recognise the will of the Egyptian people on 30 June, 2013, failing to respect their political choice in electing a new president in 2014, and took the decision to sever diplomatic contacts and recall ambassadors.  

As Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri stated in the joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Egypt maintains long historic relations with Turkey, and the links between the peoples of the two nations have remained stronger and deeper than any political differences.

Even at the lowest point in relations, what is more, Cairo never sought to interrupt the thriving economic and trade relations between the two countries, and the trade balance stood at $9 billion, including $4 billion of Egyptian exports to Turkey. Turkish businesses and investments in Egypt, estimated by Foreign Minister Shoukri at $2.5 billion, continued to operate normally.

The leaders of the two countries, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have both expressed a serious desire to normalise ties, and turn a page. And there is little point regurgitating the reasons behind this dispute, or trading blame. Diplomatic talks between the two countries have actually been going on for two years, achieving slow but sure progress.

However, it was only after Al-Sisi and Erdogan met in Doha, Qatar in November while attending the World Cup that diplomatic contacts began to intensify.

Confirming good will, Egypt was among the first countries to send much needed medical and emergency supplies to affected areas after the disastrous earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria early last month, killing more than 50,000 people. While Foreign Minister Shoukri toured  the Turkish cities worst hit by the earthquake, offering condolences, Al-Sisi spoke with Erdogan over the phone to express Cairo’s readiness to offer any help needed.  

Yet, to restore diplomatic ties fully, ensuring that they stand on firm ground, the process must be gradual and involve resolving all outstanding issues. Turkey’s Cavusoglo rightly stated that the restoration of normal ties between the two countries will happen “step by step” over a short time.

Shortly after talks resumed between the two countries, the Turkish government agreed that it would not allow its territories to be used to conspire against Egypt’s security and stability. While accepting oppositional views, Cairo cannot tolerate Turkey sheltering members of outlawed organisations that have been involved in terrorist violence against Egypt, or in spreading rumours intended to impact the economy. 

The two countries also need to reach a clear understanding on Libya, the country with the longest border with Egypt to the West. There is already a renewed world effort to help Libyans hold their first transparent and fair elections since the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. While Egypt has been actively involved in hosting meetings aimed at helping rival Libyan parties to overcome their political and legal differences in order for those delayed elections to be held, Turkey will hopefully follow suit, using its influence in Tripoli to bring its allies in line with a view to reaching a compromise. 

One key requirement to achieve this goal is the withdrawal of all foreign troops and mercenaries from Libya, regardless of the context in which they were allowed into a country torn between its east and its west where two competing governments do not recognise each other. A new Libyan president and government could then look into all previous agreements signed by disputed Libyan governments on oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean to ensure that they do not violate international laws and maritime border agreements.

While working on these differences could take time, there are many issues on which Turkey and Egypt could cooperate to restore confidence. As the Turkish foreign minister stated, those include various fields from trade, transportation and business, to culture and education. It is indeed welcome news that Cavusoglu was accompanied by a business delegation that met Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, and committed to $500 million in new investments in Egypt.

Such gradual, concrete steps are what will make it possible for the two leaders to hold a successful summit in Cairo in the near future, ensuring that the restoration of full diplomatic relations will be a meaningful step.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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