Turkey’s strategic shift

Khaled Okasha
Wednesday 24 Mar 2021

What is Ankara seeking to achieve from its attempts at rapprochement with Egypt and why now

In March 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was attending a conference on the occasion of the Istanbul mayoral elections. The Turkish capital is one of the strongholds of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and it is where Erdogan kick-started his political career and where he enjoys the largest number of supporters. 

Erdogan was attending the conference to support then prime minister and AKP figurehead Binali Yildirim against rival Ekram Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party in Turkey.

Trying to explain to the audience the difference between the two contenders, the Turkish president, in his theatrical manner and in a way that surprised the attendees, invited the voters to choose between “voting for Al-Sisi,” a reference to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and used to refer to Imamoglu, and voting for Yildirim.

The voters voted for “Al-Sisi” – or Imamoglu – twice in two months when the elections were held for a second time. Imamoglu won by a landslide.

This is just one example, though an indicative one, of what Erdogan feels towards the Egyptian strategic line, which he summarises in the person of President Al-Sisi. The reference to the Egyptian president in a vicious electoral battle in Turkey reflects the Turkish feeling that its projects stand in contradiction to the Egyptian project symbolised by the leader of the 30 June Revolution in Egypt. President Al-Sisi is regarded by Egyptians as the leader of the country’s project, which was launched on the ground as soon as he rose to the helm in 2013.

It is legitimate for Turkey to feel the contradiction and threat represented by the Egyptian path. Since 2013, Cairo has adopted a set of constant principles that bolster the concept of the national state and support building institutions capable of carrying the burdens of the national project. The Egyptian project is necessarily independent and is intended to support its alliances and partnerships with countries that respect its interests and treat it as a peer and not as a dependent nation.

In the light of these principles, Egypt has successfully formed its Arab, African, Mediterranean and international relations. Over the past few years, Egypt’s foreign policies have become some of its most successful.

The Egyptian project stands in stark contrast to the Turkish one from two main angles. The first is Egypt’s rejection of foreign interference in the affairs of neighbouring countries, behaviour which Turkey has frequently exhibited since 2011 in several countries. The second is its rejection of support for non-state players hoping to make gains at the expense of regional countries. 

These problems were stated in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s statement expressing Egypt’s reservations towards Turkish attitudes and hoping that Ankara would change its behaviour before the rapprochement that various senior Turkish officials have been promoting towards Egypt can be effected. Some of these officials have gone so far as to claim in the Turkish media that meetings have been taking place and channels of communication have been open with Egypt for several years.

Egypt has denied these fabrications. Communication between Egypt and Turkey has not gone beyond minimum, routine channels, and it has never come close to the Turkish exaggerations, which are meant to save Ankara’s face.

It has been developments on the regional and international scene that have forced Turkey to make this transformation in its foreign policy – assuming it is serious – at the present time. The beginning was in Washington, with Ankara seeing that under the new Biden administration, which has not hidden its desire to reach a new agreement with Iran regarding the nuclear file, and with the acceleration of Egyptian Gulf reconciliation and lifting the siege on Qatar, there may be an opportunity for Turkey to be integrated into plans to counter the Iranian influence in the region. 

This is what Ankara is betting on, also hoping to achieve wins in other arenas, including the opportunity to re-infiltrate Gulf circles. This is the reason Turkey mentioned the Gulf countries when it spoke about its relations with Egypt, considering that if it managed to integrate itself into plans countering Iranian influence in the region, it would also be able to draw closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Amid the fast-changing developments in the Mediterranean, Ankara has given second thoughts to its moves, seeing Egypt as a gateway. The agreement of the Libyan parties to accept the settlement path under the auspices of the United Nations mission and the ballot that resulted in the election of a new head of the Libyan Presidency Council and leader of a transitional government in Libya that will prepare for general elections in December 2021 do not work in Turkey’s favour, despite the fact that it has pretended otherwise. 

Such steps have removed Ankara’s military grip on Tripoli. At the same time, Cairo’s openness to all the Libyan parties has been revealed, enhancing the possibility of reaching a peaceful solution to the Libyan conflict and preventing the disintegration of the country and its transformation into a lair for terrorists and mercenaries. This has been the approach that Cairo has adopted from the beginning, making future cooperation with Libya for the sake of development more likely.

Cairo realises that the Eastern Mediterranean file is the main driver of Turkish behaviour. Egypt is familiar with the magnitude of the complexities that Ankara has found itself besieged by, with these beginning to disturb its strategic position in its regional surroundings as a result of rapid alliances formed in the wake of the establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum. Turkey’s problems do not end with its deep economic crisis, and Ankara believes it can benefit from investment returns in the region and can once more be part of its energy-circulation networks.

Perhaps the fact that a rapprochement with Cairo will directly affect Ankara’s strategic interests is what drove the CHP to announce its desire to send an official delegation to Cairo in an attempt to restore Egypt-Turkey relations.

By taking this step, Turkey wants to mend the strategic rifts it has been enduring. Being pragmatic, the Turkish regime is searching for straws by which it can survive, even if one such straw is in Cairo, to which Ankara has been hostile for nearly a decade. But in order to do so, Turkey will have to use all its skills to try to deconstruct complexities that are fixed principles that Egypt is committed to preserving and bolstering.

*The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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