This week Egypt and Turkey had a rare moment of political agreement, something that has not happened since the summer of 2013.
On Saturday, Cairo and Ankara both lent support to a ceasefire agreement that Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the UN-recognised National Unity Government, and Aguila Saleh, head of the elected Libyan parliament, had announced earlier the same day.
Al-Sarraj and Saleh committed, albeit in different terms and with different conditions, to end hostilities around Sirte and Jufra, a front that effectively splits Libya in two, and pursue a political process.
Cairo supported the ceasefire despite the fact Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the eastern-based National Libyan Army long supported by Egypt, rejected the ceasefire. Turkey, for its part, offered support though the ceasefire will prevent the GNA, its Libyan ally, from making any further advances.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned eight weeks ago that if GNA troops, which include large contingents of Jihadists, moved to breach the Sirte-Jufra line, Egypt would respond militarily, and with the support of the Libyan parliament and leaders of the Libyan tribes in the east of the country.
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for the Turkish president, said his country had no wish for a face-off against Egypt in Libya, a country in which Ankara believed Egypt had a constructive role to play.
Mohamed Abdel-Kader, editor of the quarterly Turkish Affairs produced by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, finds nothing new in the latest developments when it comes to “the overall picture of Turkish-Egyptian bras de fer”.
He is convinced that beyond the ceasefire in Libya — and no one yet knows whether it will prove sustainable — there is no space for further rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara.
Abdel-Kader argues that the ceasefire in Libya was only possible because Egypt made it clear to Turkey and other international powers that it would not backtrack on a military response should “the Jihadists cross, possibly with long range missiles, the Sirte-Jufra line.
“What we are seeing is a moment of conflict management. The two countries are still deeply opposed,” he says.
Ankara, argues Abdel-Kader, depends on using militants alongside its military power to execute its regional and foreign policy agendas. “This applies not just to Libya but elsewhere in Africa where Turkey is seeking military bases. It has been shifting Jihadists from one country to the other.
“Turkey has also used its military power to impose a regional agenda, which is basically about reviving Ottoman influence, though it cannot bring the empire back, in Iraq and Syria.
“The territories that Turkey has militarily occupied in both countries will only be regained by a counter-military offensive.
“Egypt is actually acting against these manifestations of Turkish military expansion and pursuit of hegemony, not just in Libya but elsewhere in the region.”
Increased coordination between Egypt and other Eastern Mediterranean states is just one aspect of Cairo’s campaign to draw a line under Turkey’s “expansionist moves”, says Abdel-Kader.
Meanwhile, by accommodating its allies, including Russia, over the ceasefire in Libya, Turkey is “playing politics rather than retreating from its plans to secure a strong presence in Libya”, which it hopes will include air and military bases.
For the time being though, says Abdel-Kader, Turkey is now “a lot more preoccupied with its confrontation with Greece over the Eastern Mediterranean”.
On Monday Greece announced it would hold military exercises in an area of the Mediterranean where Turkey has been exploring for natural gas. Erdogan sharply criticised the plans and said they would endanger shipping.
Abdel-Kader believes the future of Turkish-Egyptian relations “could possibly include a suspension of public criticisms between the two but is unlikely to see a shift towards détente, let alone a serious rapprochement for which there is simply no base”.
A more likely scenario, however, is continued confrontation.
“Neither Turkey nor Egypt will willingly abandon their plans to pursue their own economic interests and explore for further reserves of natural gas in the East Mediterranean, and neither will abandon their attempts to build strong footholds across Africa.”
Underwriting the confrontation are the conflicting positions of Cairo and Ankara on the role of political Islam in the region.
The real fallout between Egypt and Turkey began in the summer of 2013 with the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
“Turkey is in alliance with Qatar, which also supports political Islam, while Egypt is in alliance with other regional powers that oppose political Islam. Neither side will abandon its allies or its agenda.”
Abdel-Kader notes that in Gaza, across Egypt’s eastern border, Turkey has been acting with Qatar to scupper a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel.
“Egypt is trying to get Hamas to agree to a deal that will avert another flare-up with Israel while Turkey and Qatar are pushing Hamas in the opposite direction.”
Earlier this week, in Istanbul, Erdogan met with Ismail Haniyah, head of the Hamas political bureau. The head of Turkey’s intelligence also attended the meeting. It convened just days after an Egyptian delegation had failed to secure the agreement of Hamas leaders in Gaza for an exchange of prisoners, and to move towards a long-term truce with Israel.
Abdel-Kader also notes that “Turkey and Qatar have been hosting Egyptian Islamists opposed to the regime in Cairo for more than seven years.
“What we are seeing at the moment,” he says, “is no more than a period of relative tranquility.”
Had there been a possibility for even a partial détente then the Egyptian authorities would have given a green light to the Egyptian-Turkish business council that had been lobbying hard to get the free trade agreement between Egypt and Turkey renewed this year as originally scheduled.
“But Turkey offered no sign of good will and in response the Egyptian authorities decided to let things continue as they are, neither renewing nor dropping the agreement.”
This agreement was approved, albeit reluctantly, by President Hosni Mubarak in December 2005.
“Even then the Egyptian state was aware that Turkey harboured expansionist plans. Cairo chose to cooperate in order to deny Ankara unattended access to the Middle East and Africa.”
When Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi came to office in the summer of 2012 relations between Egypt, Turkey and Qatar grew closer. “But it was not about trade coordination between Egypt and Turkey but rather the support of both Turkey and Qatar for an Islamist regime,” says Abdel-Kader.
Any thaw in relations between Cairo and Ankara now depends on Erdogan being replaced in the parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2023. His potential rivals include the mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, and the prominent economist Ali Babacan who defected from Erdogan’s party long ago.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, says Abdel-Kader, is busy with squabbles centred on the political ambitions of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, “who has succession schemes.
“It is very hard to anticipate what will happen next. Erdogan is not planning to give up power and will do everything he can to stay in office.”
In the latest edition of Turkish Affairs, Abdel-Kader published a book review on the political coup that had helped Erdogan stay in power beyond the established constitutional terms.
“Erdogan’s coup is not a military coup, it is a political coup that includes a range of coercive measures against all those who oppose him, including top generals and leading state officials.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.