On Sunday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his re-election for a third presidential term.
Within hours after the phone call being announced the presidency issued a statement confirming speculation that diplomatic relations between Cairo and Ankara, severed 10 years ago amid tensions over political changes in Egypt in the summer of 2013, would be upgraded.
“The page was already turning two years ago when Erdogan began to reconsider the foreign policy decisions that had got him into so much regional trouble,” says an Egyptian diplomat.
He added that in the wake of diplomatic and security consultations conducted over the past two years, Cairo is now reassured that Erdogan is no longer the problematic leader of the past, even though he is unlikely to revert to being the engaging and cooperative figure he was in 2003 when first elected prime minister.
It was a post he held until 2014 when constitutional amendments allowed him to stand for, and win, the presidency.
The Egyptian diplomat, joined by a number of foreign diplomats in Cairo, argues that Erdogan, who secured a win in the Sunday run-off with only 52.14 per cent of the vote, is no longer the charismatic and dominating leader who emerged on the political scene with plans to re-launch Turkey as the leader of the Arab-Muslim majority countries that were once part of the Ottoman Sultanate.
“Those ambitions are over. He now realises he cannot do it and has opted instead for a path of pragmatic cooperation,” commented a Cairo-based European diplomat who served in Ankara during Erdogan’s second term as prime minister. Facing challenging economic conditions, Erdogan can no longer afford to play “the Sultan wannabe”.
He needs investments to help support the Turkish lira which has undergone catastrophic devaluation in recent years, and it is highly unlikely, added the European diplomat, that Erdogan still entertains hopes of Turkey being admitted to the EU. Which means he needs to focus more on expanding and improving relations in the immediate vicinity, including with Syria, Egypt, and Arab Gulf states.
Amr Al-Chobaky, political commentator and senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, agrees that “in his new and last presidency, Erdogan will work on expanding the rapprochement and reconciliation” that he has pursued over the last 12 months, and expects to see the Turkish president “push to upgrade relations” with key regional players, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
“Erdogan will probably strive for close economic partnerships with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, similar to the one he has with Qatar,” says Al-Chobaky.
Arab diplomatic sources say that there is a considerable interest in pursuing economic cooperation with Turkey in both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on condition that Erdogan refrains from interfering in their internal affairs. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not share the political ideology that Qatar does with Erdogan, they will be happy to talk business if Erdogan commits to halting support for the political Islamic movements both perceive as a threat.
The all but a total U-turn that Erdogan introduced to his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest political Islam group in the region, over the past year or two was key to the thaw in Ankara’s relations with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian diplomatic sources argue that in the coming months Erdogan, now past his last electoral stop, could well make more moves to contain the space he has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Erdogan is a pragmatic politician. No one really believed he would shift position on the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of a presidential election in which he desperately needed the Islamist vote, but he did,” said a retired Turkish diplomat. He added that this does not mean he will abandon the Islamists completely, pointing out that Erdogan’s pragmatism has allowed him to maintain close ties with Russia while also providing military assistance to Ukraine.
“Erdogan is a leader with many faces. He has his squabbles with the West, but he cooperates well with Western countries under the umbrella of NATO,” says Al-Chobaky.
Al-Chobaky believes Erdogan will use the first months of his presidency to normalise diplomatic ties with the Bashar Al-Assad regime, though without abandoning Ankara’s influence over, and relations with, the Syrian opposition in the north of the country. In 2011, Turkey intervened militarily in Syria to support the anti-Assad opposition.
To contain public unease about the impact of Syrian refugees on the economy Erdogan hopes to return at least a third of the three million Syrian refugees in Turkey back home, says Al-Chobaky, arguing that normalising relations with Damascus, with Iranian and Russian help, will help him achieve this.
Regional diplomatic sources also say Erdogan is likely to be lining up two significant meetings for the early months of his new presidency. The first, expected to be scheduled this summer, is with President Al-Sisi, and will most likely take place in Cairo. The second, with Al-Assad, is expected to be held within the format of consultations bringing together Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Syria.
While the meeting with Al-Assad will focus mainly on the north of Syria, the meeting with Al-Sisi will have a wide-ranging regional political and economic focus. Egyptian sources agree that Al-Sisi and Erdogan will discuss a variety of regional sticking points, including Cairo and Ankara’s divergent positions on Libya.
Other issues are likely to include maritime demarcation between Egypt and Turkey, cooperation on East Mediterranean gas, the complex of relations between Egypt and Turkey on the one hand and both Egypt and Turkey’s relations with Greece and Cyprus on the other, and possible avenues for Egyptian relations with one of Turkey’s closest allies, Iran.
Al-Chobaky does not expect any meaningful shifts in Erdogan’s relations with Israel. In 2011, Turkey downgraded diplomatic relations and suspended military cooperation with Israel over Israeli attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Ties were resumed in 2016 but were cut again two years later over further Israeli violations against the Palestinians. Last year, Turkey and Israel decided to resume full diplomatic relations.
It is significant, says Al-Chobaky, that the resumption of Turkish-Israeli relations coincided with Erdogan’s fixing ties with Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, noting that the mood of reconciliation is part of a wider political trend that has been unfolding in the region, including Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and Syria’s return to the Arab League.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly