Turkish elections are scheduled to be held on 14 May. President Erdogan and his ruling party, who came to power in 2002, are increasingly in need of some positive indicators, both internally and externally, to improve their chances of winning those critical elections. The elections are being held exactly a hundred years after Ataturk established the Turkish Republic on secular foundations and got rid of the Ottoman Sultanate and the cloak of its religious heritage, on which he put all the blame for the empire’s defeat and demise and the its social backwardness.
After twenty years of consecutive successes in parliamentary and presidential elections, Erdogan today faces an opposition that has been able for the first time to unite its ranks against him and to agree on one presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is the leader of the Republican People’s Party, the largest Turkish opposition party. He is supported by the Kurdish minority and smaller parties, some of which are headed by former supporters of Erdogan, such as Ahmed Davutoglu and Ali Babacan.
Neutral opinion polls so far indicate that it will be a neck-to-neck heated electoral race. It threatens Erdogan and his party, perhaps for the first time in the past two decades, with losing both the presidency and the parliamentary majority, or at least one of them. There is no doubt that the Turkish economic crisis, the delay in government aid reaching the victims of the recent earthquake and the increased burden of hosting Syrian refugees have all contributed to the decline in support for Erdogan and his party.
Erdogan has tried to mend his relations with the Arab countries, for which he harboured hostility because of his support of the Muslim Brotherhood and his betting on political Islam to control governments in all the Arab Spring’s countries and beyond. In the last two years, he worked hard to reconcile Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so that the two countries would help him getting out of his economic crisis.
Normalisation of Turkish relations with Egypt would deprive Erdogan’s political opposition of using the criticism that his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed over Turkish strategic interests with important countries such as Egypt.
Despite the deterioration of political relations between Egypt and Turkey since 2013, the two countries’ trade and economic relations have grown. However, Turkish normalisation with Egypt did not take place at the same speed as with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Contrary to the Turkish president’s aspirations, Egypt slowed down further normalisation due to outstanding bilateral and regional problems. Egyptian officials wanted to see Turkish moves on the ground before the completion of this normalisation process.
After two exploratory meetings at the level of deputy foreign ministers, the countries’ heads of state met in Doha on the sidelines of the opening of the FIFA World Cup last November. They agreed to raise the level of consultations to the two foreign ministers, to give some momentum to rapprochement and to resolve outstanding issues. This was translated into a visit by the Egyptian foreign minister to Turkey at the end of February, followed by a visit from his Turkish counterpart to Cairo in March. It is expected that Egypt's foreign minister will make another visit to Turkey before the end of this week.
The current stage in the development of relations between the two countries raises a number of bilateral and regional issues for Egyptian decision-makers to consider. They require discussion and study, as well as examination of their repercussions on Egyptian interests.
I will try here to present some recommendations to maximise the Egyptian benefit from the expected improvement in relations with Turkey. This improvement, in my opinion, is coming regardless of the outcome of the Turkish elections. If opposition wins, it will expedite the rapprochement with Egypt. If Erdogan is victorious, he will no longer be politically embarrassed in front of his Islamist supporters when he goes back on his slogans of the past ten years.
First: regional issues
The global strategic system is going through a transition from American unipolar hegemony to multipolar competition. Therefore, the largest regional powers, including Turkey, would have more influence on many regional issues. Turkey has invested economically and militarily in many conflict areas around us, which gives it influence in those areas. Of these, we should be most interested in three: Libya, Ethiopia and Syria.
It is clear that the United States and many European countries are now readjusting their policies, which used to give Turkey a mandate to balance the Russian presence in Libya (and in Syria). The West is gradually moving to encourage a political compromise between the Libyan east and west that would enable a central government to control the country’s oil and gas resources. The relative importance of these resources has tremendously increased due to the Ukrainian war and Libya’s geographic proximity to European markets.
No wonder that we witnessed last month an American initiative and another from the United Nations’ envoy to help warring Libyan parties overcome their differences. Egypt’s response to these initiatives should not be limited to rejecting or ignoring them. Rather, we should present amendments to make them acceptable to us and achieve our interests. We can reach an understanding with the Turkish officials about a common position in this regard.
Russia's transfer of thousands of Wagner mercenaries from Libya to Ukraine and Russia's need to transfer more of them increases the possibility of reaching an Egyptian-Turkish-Russian agreement for pulling out all the mercenary forces from Libya. Later on, about a thousand Turks and the same number of Russians would remain on Libyan soil. I think we should leave dealing with these foreign troops to the new Libyan government that will be formed if a consensual political solution is reached.
There is no doubt that both Egypt and Turkey will not abandon their Libyan allies, nor their fair share in the Libyan wealth and their relative weight in forming the new government. Egypt will not need to change its non-recognition of the agreements concluded by the Al-Sarraj’s and Al-Dibaba’s governments with Turkey regarding the maritime borders or Turkey's exploitation of Libyan oil and gas fields.
Egypt can reach an understanding with Turkey that facilitates reaching a Libyan political solution that enables the Libyan parties to form a new government, while taking into account Egyptian, Turkish, Western and Russian interests at the same time.
2- Renaissance Dam
Turkey is the second largest investor in Ethiopia next to China, and more than 200 Turkish companies operate in Ethiopia. Turkey also provides military aid the government, helping it to win the most recent civil war. Turkey has offered to mediate between Sudan and Ethiopia to resolve border disputes between the two countries. I believe Turkey would be willing and able, along with other countries called upon by Egypt, to persuade the Ethiopian government to accept a compromise with Egypt on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
3- Eastern Mediterranean
In return, Egypt can benefit from the alliance relations it has established in the Eastern Mediterranean with both Greece and Cyprus in order to formulate a process that enables Turkey to obtain a share of the gas in the waters separating it from the two countries. I am not suggesting here to go into legal polemics over agreements that have existed for more than a hundred years. Nor am I daydreaming of a foreseeable resolution of the dispute over Turkish Cyprus, which is not recognised by the overwhelming majority of UN member nations.
What I have in mind here is the model of the Lebanese-Israeli agreement that was reached to divide the offshore gas fields between the two countries. It was reached via American mediation, with the help of French and Italian gas companies and the State of Qatar, without the two countries even having diplomatic relations or direct negotiations.
Normalising relations with Turkey while further developing cooperation with Bashar Al-Assad's government could open the door for Egypt to participate in the Astana negotiations to conclude a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Syria, solve the refugee problem, and reach international security guarantees in northern Syria.
Second, bilateral relations
1- On the bilateral level, it is possible to revive the Turkish line of credit agreement worth $1 billion, with a small interest rate (Libor) which was concluded in 2013. Egypt did not benefit from it to finance Turkish exports and projects, given that it was signed before the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. There were ready agreements for Turkish investments in Egypt in the fields of solid waste recycling and private contractors to help solving the problem of urban slums.
Likewise, there was an agreement between Erdogan and President Sisi (when he was defense minister in May 2013) to open a similar Turkish line of credit worth $200 million to finance Turkish arms sales to Egypt and joint military production projects between the two countries, which have also been frozen since that date and can be considered for resumption.
2- Egypt can benefit from the experience of Turkish businessmen in the textile industry in Egypt. They export hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of their products to American and African markets. I recommend establishing a partnership with them to solve the problem of Egyptian public sector textile factories.
3- Turkish manufacturers in Egypt use gas and cheap labor in Egypt, and sell their products to the large Egyptian market as well as the foreign markets, in which Egypt enjoys easy access and customs tariff exemptions. They provide an attractive model for more Turkish investments in Egypt. At the same time, the value of our liquefied gas exports to Turkey has increased to more than $2 billion in the past two years. Perhaps we need to determine our priorities and the economic feasibility of each of the two options: using gas to encourage foreign industrial investment or exporting it to foreign markets.
4- In 2011, the Arab gas pipeline, which starts in Egypt and passes through Jordan, Israel and Syria, fell about a hundred kilometers short of Turkish territory. We are now preparing to use this line to provide Egyptian gas to Lebanon, and we are studying to use it in both directions. It opens the door in the long term to connect it to the Turkish network, which will receive large quantities of Russian gas during the next few years.
5- For security reasons, Egypt has already stopped the sea line of transport by RORO trucks between Turkish and Egyptian ports on the Mediterranean. These trucks were transporting Turkish and European goods to the Arabian Gulf via Egypt after the Syrian war caused the closure of the land route through Syria. The Turks transferred that sea line to the Israeli port of Haifa, so that trucks could set off from it across Jordan to the Gulf. If competent Egyptian authorities find it economically feasible to resume the operation of this line through the Egyptian ports and roads, we must use those trucks on their way back to Turkey and from there to the European markets for shipping Egyptian exports to those markets.
6- Cultural cooperation represents an important aspect of the opportunities for marketing Egyptian literary and artistic production in the large Turkish market. Turkey, which has population of 85 million, produces 88,000 book titles in all fields every year, while Egypt produces 22,000 titles annually and the rest of the Arabs produce 18,000.
In other words. 300 million Arabs read less than half the number of books read by 85 million Turks every year. This requires a more active effort of literary and artistic translation from Arabic into Turkish. I believe Egyptian literature, films and TV series can enjoy a wide Turkish audience similar to that enjoyed by Turkish series and films in the Arab world.
7- Many Turks are interested in sending their children to learn Arabic and Islamic theology at Al-Azhar and the other Egyptian universities. However, the number of those students has diminished in the past two decades due to the deterioration of the quality of education in those public universities, the inclusion of some outdated religious ideas in the teaching syllabi and the lack of clean and healthy public university dorms at international standards.
Solving these problems can bring Egyptian universities back to the list of host universities in the Middle East competing for this important educational activity that provides economic, tourism and scientific returns. Some Gulf countries have recently surpassed Egypt in the number of patents produced on their territory by students and professors, most of whom are foreigners.
Finally, the development of Egyptian-Turkish relations requires a comprehensive approach involving all state agencies and research centers to draw up an integrated strategy that suggests Egyptian initiatives and ideas, whether on the bilateral or regional levels. We should not wait for Turkish moves and initiatives to interact with.