Turkey took all by surprise on 18 March when it asked three Muslim Brotherhood-linked satellite TV channels broadcasting from Istanbul to stop airing programmes critical of Egypt .
The move came after a number of Turkish officials announced last week that Ankara wanted to open a new page with Cairo after eight years of frayed relations.
The latest of these was Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who told the media on 18 March that “a new chapter can be opened and a new page can be turned in our relationship with Egypt as well as with other Gulf countries to help regional peace and stability.”
Egyptian political analysts believe that Turkey’s latest reconciliation bid to Cairo has also come in response to a statement by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, who announced on 14 March that “official Turkish statements are not enough, and they should be supported by concrete actions. Actions are the only way to restore relations with Turkey to their normal position.”
Shoukri indicated that Egypt was closely following recent Turkish statements announcing the reopening of communication channels with Cairo.
“Egypt has always been keen on resuming normal relations between the Egyptian and Turkish peoples; however, political relations between the two countries in the recent period have been negatively impacted by the positions of politicians in Turkey, especially their negative attitude towards Egypt.”
Egypt has long complained that Muslim Brotherhood TV channels broadcasting from Turkey have been heavily involved in inciting violence against Egyptian police and army officers and that these channels have prevented friendly relations between Cairo and Ankara.
As a result, diplomatic relations between Egypt and Turkey have been downgraded to the level of charge d’affaires.
Media sources said on 19 March that Ankara had ordered the Al-Sharq TV channel, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated channel based in Istanbul, in addition to the Al-Watan TV and Mekamelin TV channels, to stop airing political programmes and talk shows critical of Egypt.
Penalties would be imposed if the order was not respected, it said.
A member of Al-Sharq staff told the Associated Press that the request was made during a meeting on 18 March in which all three channels were asked to stop criticising the Egyptian government so as not to affect ongoing talks with Cairo on restoring full relations.
“The Turkish officials said TV channels should not ‘attack’ or ‘criticise’ people and should exercise ‘objectivity,’” the staff member said.
Ayman Nour, a former Egyptian MP and head of El-Sharq TV, confirmed in televised comments that Turkish officials had demanded that the three Muslim Brotherhood-linked channels tone down their political rhetoric against Egypt.
But he insisted that “the channels were not ordered to shut down or stop airing programmes, and opponents of the Egyptian government were not threatened with expulsion from Turkey.”
“The possibility of closing down channels or expelling journalists or political opponents was never raised during the meeting,” Nour said, indicating that “the meeting was civilised in tone and involved no diktats.”
“A dialogue has just started between us and the Turks in the framework of changing the rhetoric and observing objectivity,” Nour said.
After the ouster of former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in a popular uprising on 30 June 2013, Nour fled to Turkey where he was appointed head of the anti-Egypt El-Sharq TV channel, which is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Foreign sources revealed that Turkish officials had told the TV channel’s managers during the meeting on 18 March that they could continue to make programmes about Egypt as long as these did not have a political agenda or content.
Abdel-Rahman Fares, a political analyst, tweeted that the request for the three Muslim Brotherhood-linked channels to stop their political programmes meant that these channels would lose their influence.
“The managers of these channels have two options now: either to shut down or to turn into entertainment channels,” Fares said.
Sources among Istanbul-based Muslim Brotherhood activists revealed to the foreign media that in their meetings with the managers of the three Islamist TV channels, the Turkish officials had raised the idea of “suppressing certain programmes and excluding certain presenters.”
“We rejected this suggestion,” the sources told the French news agency AFP, “and so all options are on the table, including leaving Istanbul and moving to another country if rules are imposed on us that we cannot accept.”
Yassin Aktay, an advisor to Erdogan, denied Ankara was planning to expel or hand over Egyptian opposition activists and Muslim Brotherhood elements to Cairo. “Turkey will not arrest anyone or hand anyone over,” Aktay said.
But the website Al-Arabiya.net said on 20 March that it knew from informed sources in Ankara that Turkey had given Muslim Brotherhood activists living on its territory a grace period of 90 days to leave the country and that the activists were planning to move to either London or Malaysia.
In Cairo, the reaction to the Turkish overtures was one of caution and reserved welcome. Information Minister Osama Heikal told Reuters on 19 March that he welcomed the news of Turkey’s decision to contain the political messages of the Muslim Brotherhood channels, referring to it as “a good initiative”.
Heikal said the decision “creates an appropriate atmosphere for discussing controversial issues.” He added that Egypt’s position had been constant and that it had worked to “develop relations with everyone according to common interests”.
Mohamed Kamal, a political analyst, said in an article on Monday that it was difficult to say whether Turkey had decided to change course in its relations with Egypt.
“We can’t say whether this is a new Turkish strategy or whether it is just a tactic by Turkish officials to serve a certain agenda,” Kamal said, adding that “it is no secret that Turkey’s aggressive policies in the Arab world and the East Mediterranean region, particularly against Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus, have led it into isolation.”
“The fact that they also used political Islam forces, as particularly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, to attack Egypt and other Arab Gulf countries has not done them any good either. On the contrary, it has done a lot of harm to Turkey itself,” Kamal said.
He added that the election of Joe Biden as the new president of the United States was a new fact that had also irritated Turkey and forced its president to change policies.
“Biden has voiced a lot of criticisms of Erdogan, and the fact that the US might impose new sanctions on Turkey because of its importing of Russian weapons is another reason that Ankara has decided to change course in its foreign policies,” Kamal said, adding that “Turkey is required to mend fences not only with Egypt, but also with Greece and Cyprus.”
“Turkey should understand that its recent reconciliation bids towards Egypt will not bear fruit unless it also moves to improve relations and reach an understanding with Greece and Cyprus,” Kamal said.
Gamal Zahran, a political science professor at Suez Canal University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Turkey’s apparent attempts to ease the tensions with Cairo that have arisen over recent months due to the war in Libya and gas-exploration deals in the Eastern Mediterranean, were good ones.
“But Cairo and Ankara will need time to regain trust, rebuild relations, and resolve disputes not only with regard to Political Islam, but also on issues related to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean countries,” Zahran said.
He added that “Turkey should understand that Cairo will not scrap its strategic alliance with Greece and Cyprus in order to reach an understanding with Ankara. Turkey should show that it is a friendly country and that its threats to resort to force over what it calls its gas-exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean will only lead to isolation. The best thing for it now is to change this policy and do its best to mend fences with Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus and the two Arab Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”
Egypt and Turkey’s long-standing conflict dates back to 2013 when Ankara refused to recognise the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo.
Turkey has since become more critical of Egypt, allowing Muslim Brotherhood activists to take refuge in Istanbul and to set up TV channels attacking Egypt and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.
Erdogan said in a press conference last week that Turkey had resumed contacts with Egypt, expressing the hope that this process would continue “much more strongly.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly