Ahead of the annual diplomatic postings statement, which usually comes out late spring or early summer, Cairo nominated Amr Al-Hamami as its ambassador to Ankara. A simultaneous announcement was made in Ankara on the nomination of Salih Mutlu Sen as Turkey’s new ambassador to Egypt.
The announcement, say sources, allows both new appointees to work on preparations for a summit between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The summit is likely to take place within weeks, most likely in Ankara, and will be followed by a visit to Egypt by Erdogan. The re-launch of relations at such a high political level will allow officials in both countries to work on a range of economic cooperation schemes.
Al-Hamami and Mutlu Sen have been acting as charges d’affaires in Ankara and Cairo during the past few months during which diplomatic and security consultations between Egypt and Turkey have been ongoing. Diplomatic representation between the two Mediterranean countries was curtailed 10 years ago after Ankara opposed the political changes that occurred in Egypt in the summer of 2013.
“So much has happened since then, both for Egypt and Turkey and also for the region,” commented an Egyptian government source. He explained that tension between Egypt and Turkey was related to Ankara’s decision to host the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood “and to allow them to lobby against the Egyptian state” and that “once this ended, things were ready to move forward and for other points of disagreement to be managed through political consultations.”
Key sticking points related to the “influence” Turkey was exercising in Libya, Egypt’s western neighbour, through “militants it had brought to support a political faction in Libya that was opposed to” Cairo, to political lobbying against “the Egyptian state” and the support Ankara was extending to Islamist groups perceived in Cairo as political adversaries.
“In 2013, and for a few successive years, Egypt and Turkey subscribed to conflicting political agendas and had conflicting political allies. Now this has changed and the two countries are both interested in economic cooperation,” says the source.
According to a Turkish source, the tension in relations with Egypt “was never popular with the Turkish diplomatic establishment — even though it was very popular with the political party of Erdogan”. When Erdogan decided it was in his interests, he convinced his political constituency to allow for the accommodation of key Egyptian demands, including the suspension of Istanbul-based Muslim Brotherhood aligned satellite TV channels, in return for finding “some settlement for the hosted leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood without endangering the safety of any of them”.
“This,” says the Turkish source, “was accepted by Cairo as it too wanted to turn the page.”
Egyptian and Turkish sources say progress towards this week’s resumption of full diplomatic relations started slowly in 2019 with security talks in Libya when it became very clear that both sides were keen to avoid a full-fledged confrontation on Libyan territory.
A consensual agreement on de-escalation allowed for talks over the controversial maritime boundary treaty that Ankara had signed with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019. At the time, Cairo said that the GNA’s mandate had expired and it could not sign treaties.
According to the Turkish source, the Mediterranean is central to the relaunch of Egyptian-Turkish ties. Both countries, but especially Turkey, are interested in pursuing a bilateral maritime demarcation treaty to allow them to invest in further gas exploration.
Since the announcement of high-level talks between Turkey and Egypt in May 2021, maritime demarcation has been on the table of technical talks. It was not, however, on the agenda of the brief encounter when Al-Sisi and Erdogan met in Doha in November last year. Nor is the subject expected to come up in detail when they meet later this summer, despite the possibility of GNA leader Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah joining the two leaders in Ankara.
In the words of an Egyptian diplomat, “this is a whole new diplomatic scene”. Egypt, he explained, now has “easy going relations with Dbeibah and, at the same time, is less comfortable with the its onetime Libyan ally Khalifa Haftar “in view of his role in the current conflict in Sudan”.
Western diplomatic sources in Cairo confirm the involvement of Haftar’s aides in facilitating supplies of arms and militants to the Rapid Support Forces which have been in conflict with the Sudanese Armed Forces since mid-April. Egypt is keen to stop the conflict which is undermining the stability of its southern neighbour. It is also keen on the stability of the Sudanese armed forces. Much of Haftar’s reach-out to the RSF is managed through Wagner, the Russian mercenary group that has operatives and arms in the east of Libya.
The Egyptian diplomat added that Cairo has had “a clear word from Turkey” that it will pull all Ankara-supported militants from Libya if the presence of Wagner in the east of the country ends. This, he said, is a likely scenario given recent events in Russia.
Several Egyptian diplomats and government officials agree that Egypt’s rapprochement with Turkey, and the downsizing of cooperation with Haftar, is part of the new diplomatic scene that has been in the making for a couple of years. Other elements, they say, include the easing of relations with Qatar which mediated the first Sisi-Erdogan meeting.
In June 2017, Egypt joined its then closest allies, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in imposing a political and economic blockade on Doha for its support of political Islamist groups. In 2021, following Kuwaiti and Omani mediation, Qatar was re-integrated in the Saudi dominated Gulf Cooperation Council. Egypt joined the rapprochement and in November 2021 Amr Al-Sherbini presented his accreditation to the Emir of Qatar Tamim Al-Thani.
According to an Egyptian source, “today Qatar is closer to Egypt” than other GCC partners. “Things changed a great deal when Qatar reduced its support to the Muslim Brotherhood and began to pursue political and economic cooperation with Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he said.
In addition to Qatar, Libya and Turkey, the same source said that Egypt is now contemplating “a shift in its relations with Iran”. He confirmed that “there have been talks and mediation from both Iraq and Oman for some time” and that the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia will “facilitate the chances” for ambassadorial relation between Cairo and Tehran. However, he added that “bilateral issues” will have to be agreed on before such a step is taken, mainly to do with “security issues and “religious matters”.
In 1979, Iran severed relations with Egypt to protest its hosting the ousted Shah. Since then, there have been a few attempts to resume full diplomatic relations, all aborted due to Cairo’s concern over the failure to reach clear agreements on security issues that include Tehran’s support of militias and Islamist militant groups in the region, and to resolve concerns over Shia missionary activities.
“There are plenty of opportunities for economic cooperation with Iran but without a clear agreement on these matters it is hard to see things moving forward,” says the source. He added that talks that have taken place in the past eighteen months between the two sides indicate that both have the political will to move forward and that some high-level political Egyptian-Iranian encounter on the sideline of a regional meeting could be expected sometime before the end of this year. He also confirmed that an “upcoming official announcement” on the resumption of direct flights between the two countries might also be in the offing.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly