Egypt-Turkey: Testing the waters

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 7 Sep 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly looks at obstacles facing the normalisation of bilateral relations in the wake of the second round of Egyptian-Turkish exploratory talks

Egypt-Turkey: Testing the waters
Turkey has been pushing towards reconciliation with Egypt

The second round of exploratory talks between Egypt and Turkey took off in Ankara on Tuesday amid low expectations that it would lead to a breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Relations between the two have been tense since 2013 over Turkish interference in Egyptian affairs. Earlier this year, Turkey promised it would do its best to resume relations.

The first round of talks, explained Rakha Hassan, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, came at the request of various parties in Turkey that favoured normalising relations with Egypt, “namely the Turkish opposition, businessmen, and the moderate wing of the ruling party. However, Egypt cannot accept mere words from the Turkish regime. They have to be followed by deeds,” he said.

Meanwhile, the talks were an opportunity for Egypt to pinpoint issues necessary to normalise relations with Turkey, namely the need for Egyptian interests to be preserved and for Turkey not to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs and to stop sheltering members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

This was in addition to halting TV programmes attacking the Egyptian government. “Egypt has also asked Ankara to stop interfering in the affairs of the Arab states, especially Libya and Syria,” Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Professor of international relations Tarek Fahmi said that this week’s talks would not be merely exploratory but would aim to set priorities for both sides. Cairo has demands, including the halting of the media campaign against Egypt and procedures taken by Ankara with regard to granting nationality for Egyptians residing in Turkey, he said.

Positive steps have been taken on the bilateral level. TV programmes attacking Egypt presented by anchors Mohamed Nasser or Moetaz Mattar have been stopped, though others are still running. Egypt wants Turkey to deport Egyptian citizens convicted in court cases in Egypt including those accused of assassinating [former prosecutor-general] Hisham Barakat.

Fahmi said that there had been hardly any progress on the regional level, namely in Libya. Ankara’s behaviour in the Eastern Mediterranean region was also in violation of Greece’s territorial waters.

“The fact that the present round of talks is being held in Turkey indicates that Ankara is willing to respond to Egypt’s demands,” Fahmi said.

The talks, headed by Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Sanad Loza, came at the invitation of the Turkish foreign ministry. They were supposed to evaluate the outcomes of the first round of consultations, how far Egypt’s demands were met, and to agree on a course of action.

Commentators agree that both sides have good reasons to bridge their differences and resume diplomatic ties.

However, regional matters are expected to be more challenging. Hassan said that the Libyan issue was one of the main issues in determining the course of Egyptian-Turkish relations. Both sides have called for the withdrawal of mercenary fighters from Libya and are interested in a settlement, he explained.

“But what will be the fate of the Turkish military presence in Libya, a presence that is not acceptable to Egypt,” he asked. “Is the withdrawal of Turk­ish units from Libya a possible option for Ankara?”

Turkey provided political and military support, including mercenary fighters from Syria, to the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) at a time when Egypt backed its rival Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Another thorny issue will be Egypt’s alliance with Greece. It is not expected that Cairo will change its alliance policy in the Eastern Mediterranean in Turkey’s favour, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed during his meeting with Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades in Cairo this week that Egypt stood solidly behind Cyprus and against practices that may compromise its sovereignty, a reference to Turkey.

The two leaders reiterated the importance of enhancing their trilateral agreement with Greece. Turkey and Cyprus are locked in a border dispute, and Cairo and Ankara are at odds over maritime boundaries and gas rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey described last year’s maritime demarcation deal between Egypt and Greece as “null and void,” and it has refused to recognise a similar deal signed with Cyprus in 2013.

The growing cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus was recently reflected in the signing of a tripartite military cooperation deal in March. Under this deal, the three countries will expand joint military exercises and training activities. Last week saw the kick-off of the Egyptian-Cypriot military training exercise Ptolemy 2021 in Cairo.

Relations between Cairo and Ankara became tense after the ousting of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, was supported by the Turkish regime.

A few months later, Cairo expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo in reaction to Ankara’s repeated criticisms of Egypt. Turkey responded by declaring the Egyptian ambassador persona non grata.

Since then, Turkey has provided a safe haven for MB members and a platform to attack the Egyptian government via broadcast television stations and news sites. However, Turkey expressed a wish earlier this year to resume diplomatic ties with Egypt and to improve cooperation after years of tension.

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in a statement in March announced that diplomatic contacts between Turkey and Egypt had started without preconditions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara was ready to open a “new chapter” with the Gulf and discuss Eastern Mediterranean agreements and developments in Libya with Egypt.

In mid-March, the Turk­ish leadership made another con­cession: TV channels run by the Egyptian opposition in exile and headquartered in Istanbul were instructed to tone down their criticism of the Al-Sisi government. This paved the way for the first two-day exploratory meeting of the two coun­tries’ deputy foreign ministers in Cairo in May.

In a joint statement issued after the meeting, Egypt and Turkey said that the discussions had been “frank and in-depth”.

Although Ankara toned down or cancelled media shows that were directly attacking the Egyptian government, it attacked a judicial ruling issued against some Brotherhood members, which was considered by Egypt as interference in its internal affairs.

Fahmi saw two possible scenarios after this week’s round of talks — either a partial resolution of some differences, leaving others to be solved by time, or the gradual resumption of relations by taking slow steps.

Ankara is after a partial deal, while Cairo is after a full one.

“Both scenarios are likely; however, the first is more realistic,” Fahmi added.

A breakthrough in the current situation or the resumption of diplomatic ties is not straightforward, said a diplomat who talked on condition of anonymity.

Will Turkey be able to give up its ideological support for the Brotherhood? Will differences in the ideological foundations of the two regimes impede their rapprochement? Will Ankara make concessions in Libya? Or can the Tur­kish regime under Erdogan give up its role as the hub of Egypt’s opposition in exile?

These were some of the questions he asked, adding that their answers would provide insight on where the relation between Cairo and Ankara is headed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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