Back in September 2020, there were some positive statements by Turkish officials towards Egypt, and these led many people to believe that relations between the two countries could be restored.
In the following months, the rate at which such statements occurred gained momentum, capped by statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. At the same time, the Turkish government hinted that it would open a new chapter in its relations with other Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and with European countries with whom its relations had almost hit rock bottom. France and Greece come to mind in this respect.
However, all the attention was given to Ankara’s relations with Cairo, and Middle East observers started speculating about the possible timing of the normalisation of relations between the two countries and the nature of the understandings that would provide the basis for it. These included what concessions each of the two governments would accept in order for such an outcome to come true.
Expectations ran high, and the statements coming out of Ankara in the first few months of 2021 left the impression that the normalisation of relations with Cairo was almost a done deal.
While the Turkish government regularly made “positive” statements about the benefits that would accrue once relations with Cairo were restored, Egypt remained silent, however. This silence from the Egyptian authorities confounded many as to the reasons for it. Were the Turks exaggerating the prospects of restoring relations with Cairo, or was there a joint understanding between the two governments on a timeline for their restoration?
The fact of the matter is that Cairo was not quite sure of the true motives behind the Turkish overtures. Misgivings and a lack of trust in Turkish policies and their true intentions characterised the Egyptian reactions. Probably, this was also the reason why Cairo waited so long before announcing that a round of political consultations with Turkey would take place in early May. The announcement was also made at very short notice.
Cairo hosted the first round of the consultations, and it was expected that the next time such consultations or political talks were held Ankara would be the venue.
The official statement that came out of these consultations said that the two countries would review their results and act accordingly on the following steps to be taken. It was understood that a meeting on the level of the foreign ministers of the two countries would probably follow and with it the nomination of ambassadors. The statement went on to say that the talks had been “frank” and had covered both the bilateral relations between the two countries and regional questions on the situations in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Two regional developments followed the political consultations. One week later, Israel launched a military attack against the Gaza Strip that lasted for 11 days until Egypt and other international powers successfully pushed for a ceasefire. The other development that has had a direct bearing on Egyptian-Turkish relations has been the situation in Libya and the manoeuvring by pro-Turkish groups, particularly the Libyan followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, to exempt Turkey from withdrawing its forces from Libya as per the ceasefire agreement of 23 October last year in the context of the Libyan Joint Military Commission, commonly known as the 5+5 Commission.
Things came to a head at the Berlin II Conference on Libya that was jointly hosted by the German government and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 23 June. The Turkish delegation to the conference decided to take exception to the paragraph demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya.
The reservation goes to show, from an Egyptian point of view, that Ankara is playing a double game. On the one hand, it is making overtures to Egypt expressing its willingness to normalise relations with Cairo, but on the other hand it is not making the concessions required to normalise relations with Egypt. It should not be lost on whoever makes decisions in Ankara that Egypt will not move forward one inch in the nascent process of normalisation with Turkey before the withdrawal of all Turkish forces from Libya along with the Syrian militias contracted by the Turks to fight in the country. To believe otherwise would be counterproductive.
Today, the process of restoring relations between Cairo and Ankara to their pre-2013 level is on hold until Turkey makes up its mind on its strategic priorities in the Middle East and North Africa, being either expansionism or coexistence with the leading Arab and regional powers. To think that Turkey would be able to persist in its expansionist policies while improving its standing with Egypt is a non-starter.
From the outset, there have been serious doubts about how genuine Turkey is in opening up to Egypt and other leading Arab powers. Was it too credulous to believe that Ankara, given the Islamist ruling party in Turkey, would just relinquish the policies of the last ten years and start a new chapter with the leading powers in its neighbourhood? I guess it was always a long shot to believe that this could be the case.
The litmus test for improved relations with Egypt is whether Turkey will withdraw its forces from Libya or not. If the latter proves to be the case, relations between Egypt and Turkey will remain the same, being tense, implicitly confrontational and expressing a fierce regional rivalry across the board from Libya in the west to Iraq in the east and passing through Syria.
It is up to Turkey to decide whether it wants to coexist peacefully with its neighbours or whether it wants to keep rocking the boat by pursuing policies aiming to secure strategic footholds in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa region, whether through maintaining a permanent military presence and/or through its Muslim Brotherhood proxies and other groups.
The future of Egyptian-Turkish relations looks murky, and hoping they will see brighter days under the present Turkish president will be next to impossible unless there is a complete overhaul of Turkish foreign policy in the region. This is something that looks improbable under the present circumstances.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly