Egypt and Turkey: Squaring the circle

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 18 May 2021

Despite recent friendly moves towards Cairo any rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt remains distant

Egypt and Turkey: Squaring the circle
Egyptian and Turkish delegations in Cairo earlier this month

The ramifications of the meeting between diplomatic delegations from Turkey and Egypt in Cairo on 5 and 6 May — the first such meeting since 2013 — continue to intrigue analysts.

At the end of the two days of political consultations Cairo and Ankara said they had agreed to evaluate the outcome of the talks and determine the next steps.

In a joint statement the two countries said discussions were “frank and in-depth” and “addressed bilateral issues as well as a number of regional issues, in particular the situation in Syria and Iraq, and the need to achieve peace and security in the East Mediterranean region”. Turkish sources told Al-Shark news website the reconciliation talks also covered Turkey’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey has invited a delegation from Cairo to visit Ankara to continue discussions though no date has been announced.

While no official statements have been made by Cairo on the results of the two-day normalization talks, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu both commented publicly.

Speaking after Friday prayers in Istanbul on 7 May, Erdogan said “the Egyptian people and the Turkish nation have a unity based on history” and that, “as friends, we strive to restore our historical unity with the Egyptian people”.

The following day, Turkey’s foreign minister said that he could soon meet face to face with his Egyptian counterpart. Speaking at a joint news conference with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maliki, Cavusoglu said “the two days of talks this week led by the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey and Egypt were held in a positive atmosphere” and “the two sides discussed bilateral issues, along with regional developments.”

According to Cavusoglu, neither side set preconditions for further meetings.

Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayat, political analyst with the Egyptian Centre for Political Studies, told Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia that Erdogan’s and Cavusoglu’s comments on the talks in Cairo could be understood in different ways. He argued that while Erdogan’s emphasis on restoring “historical unity with the Egyptian people” rather than the Egyptian regime does not point to a restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries anytime soon, “Cavusoglu’s are more encouraging, and his insistence neither side set preconditions suggests he wants the consultations to continue.”

Al-Zayat believes any normalisation of relations between Egypt and Turkey will take time. “There is a general Turkish policy aimed at improving relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates after years of deterioration which led to Turkey’s isolation in the Arab world,” he said, adding that Cairo and Riyadh are likely to be consulting closely over on how to respond to Ankara’s overtures.

Cavusoglu paid a fence-mending visit to Saudi Arabia on 10 and 11 May and met with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The visit came after Erdogan and Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz spoke on the phone for the first time since the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Following his meetings in Saudi Arabia, Cavusoglu told reporters “dialogue between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will continue”. Bin Farhan refrained from commenting.

Saudi political analyst Mubarak Al-Ati told Al-Hurra channel that there is clearly a degree of coordination between Cairo and Riyadh over their responses to Turkish offers of reconciliation. “Egypt and Saudi Arabia are adopting a disciplined and reserved openness towards Turkey,” he said. “Saudi Arabia closely followed the consultations between Egyptian officials and Turkish diplomats and wants, like Cairo, to ensure Ankara is serious about reconciliation before making concrete moves in this direction.”

He believes that Saudi Arabia is waiting to see how talks between Egypt and Turkey develop, and that “any progress on the Egyptian front will automatically lead to a progress on the Saudi front.”

MP Mustafa Bakri told Al-Ahram Weekly that differences over the status of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish-sponsored mercenaries in Libya mean talks aiming at reconciliation will progress very slowly. “Turkey opposes labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and insists Turkish forces in Libya are there because of a bilateral agreement with the Libyan government,” he said.

Turkish political analyst Mahmoud Alloush told Sky News Arabia that in order to facilitate a rapprochement with Cairo the Turkish authorities had issued directives to halt criticism of Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on the Brotherhood-affiliated and Istanbul-based Al-Watan, Al-Sharq and Mikameleen channels. He also noted that Turkey and Egypt now both support the new government in Libya, effectively placing them on the same side.

Cavusoglu told Turkish broadcaster Haber Turk that “in the past, Egypt and Turkey were on opposing sides in Libya… but right now we don’t see Libya as an area of competition with Egypt or any other country.”

Alloush argued that Turkey is aware of Libya’s strategic importance to Egypt’s national security and that “Turkey’s presence in Libya right now does not constitute a threat to Egypt.” He added that Cairo “should understand that Turkey has its own strategic interests in Libya”.

Turkey is unlikely to end its military presence in Libya in the absence of economic guarantees, says Bakri: “Turkish businessmen want to link the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Libya to the protection of their Libyan investments.”

According to some press reports from Turkey, Erdogan is unsure of Cairo’s willingness to meet his own demands, such as siding with Turkey in its disputes with Greece and Cyprus over gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, in exchange for ending his support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

While Al-Zayat thinks the issue of Turkey ending its support for the Brotherhood in return for Egypt relinquishing its alliance with Greece and Cyprus is likely to have been discussed during the 5-6 May consultations in Cairo, “Egypt takes the position that it is up to Turkey to move to improve its relations with Greece and Cyprus as a step towards resolving current rivalries between the three countries.”

Cavusoglu has stated explicitly that Ankara is willing to sign a deal with Cairo over maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “Egypt will profit from this.”

Al-Zayat believes Ankara has reached a point when it must decide whether or not it wants to improve its relations with influential Arab states: “It is facing a choice between these countries and the Muslim Brotherhood and I believe, at the end of the day, that Ankara will conclude its interests with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are much profitable than its links with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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