The Arab states that emerged from the end of the Ottomans’ rule following World War I have always had uneasy relationships with Turkey, which is largely seen as the continuation of the Ottoman Empire and a troubled Ottoman-Arab history.
Over the past century relationships between the Turks and the Arabs, however, have been influenced more profoundly by suspicion and mistrust and sometimes, to borrow some ethnologists’ description of France and Algeria, complementary enmity.
While Arabs accuse the Ottomans of subjecting them to imperial rule, Turks claim that the Ottomans saved the Arab world from the Mameluks, the slave-warriors of medieval Islam, whose 300-year raealm spanned Egypt and the Levant. They also claim that the Ottomans stood as a bulwark against the ambitions of the Christian kingdoms in Europe, which had waged the Crusades of the 13th century to reclaim the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
More recently, Turkey has been lambasted for its increasingly assertive foreign policy in several regional conflicts while sometimes intervening militarily in hot spots, compelling many Arab capitals to adopt a cautious approach to Ankara.
Turkey’s attempts to reclaim its role as the preeminent actor on the regional stage have come at an enormous cost, and in many Arab countries they have led to strained diplomatic relations, fuelling anti-Turkey sentiments, including calls for a boycott of Turkish goods and tourism.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been conducting his country’s foreign policy with aggressive posturing and alarming rhetoric, is seen to be behind the attempt to establish new boundaries for Turkey’s power in the Middle East.
In recent months, however, Erdogan has been sending signals that he is remaking his polarising foreign policy and looking to reset Turkey’s neighbourhood ties with a broader strategic shift in the face of growing isolation.
One of the principal markers of Erdogan’s new foreign policy road map is Egypt, which Turkish officials have been wooing after years of animosity. The shift which entails a new course on political Islam strikes a note of realism absent in Erdogan’s strategic thinking.
Relations between Ankara and Cairo took a historic dive following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Erdogan was a close ally of Morsi’s during the Islamist’s turbulent single year in office and since his fall relations between Ankara and Cairo have deteriorated sharply.
Many of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other Egyptian opposition figures took refuge in Turkey and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) provided them with facilities to launch anti-government propaganda.
Egypt and Turkey’s relations have hit rock bottom over other complex issues, including Libya, Ankara’s endeavours to further expand its regional influence and conflicting maritime interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.
But Turkey is now launching a charm offensive seeking to repair strained ties with Cairo, restoring diplomatic ties which have been in deep freeze for some eight years.
Last week Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey will send a delegation led by its deputy foreign minister to Egypt in early May before a scheduled meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri.
Ankara has taken some concrete steps to start a new chapter with Cairo including asking Egyptian opposition TV channels operating in Turkey to moderate their criticism of the government.
Another sign of a thaw came after Turkey showed preparedness to lessen its confrontational interventions in Libya and began helping to resolve the civil conflict there.
Turkey has also declared it is resuming talks with Greece over their disputed maritime border and plans to restart UN peace efforts for Cyprus, a de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The thaw could have repercussions around the Mediterranean with Egypt having cooperation agreements with Greece, Cyprus and Israel on exploiting natural gas in the sea.
Though positive signs of a return to normal relations with Ankara are emerging in Cairo, so far there have been few actual steps being taken towards full engagement.
Given its grievances, Erdogan’s unpredictability and his erratic foreign policy, Egypt seems determined to stand up for its own interests and ensure that Turkey should respect the principles of noninterference.
Egyptian commentators did not mince words about Cairo’s precondition for the resumption of normal ties which include expelling the Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Turkey, clamping down on exile activity in Istanbul and the extradition of exiles wanted for violence.
On the regional level, Egypt also wants to see Turkey’s full withdrawal of forces from Libya and a halt to its provocations in the Mediterranean regarding its controversial Mediterranean gas exploration efforts.
Turkey, meanwhile, is extending its hand to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two other key regional rivals which have been threatened by Turkey’s aggressive strategic repositioning.
One key sign of a regional policy shift is ending Turkey’s noisy campaign to shame the oil-rich kingdom for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, which triggered a sharp turndown in bilateral relations.
While Turkey’s rapprochement with its neighbours are generating a favourable response in Arab countries, whether this will be a strategic shift remains an open question, one that only Erdogan will be capable of answering.
There seems to be a growing consensus in the Arab world that Ankara is not ready to fully realign with the Arab heavyweights and that Arab-Turkish relations will remain rocky for the foreseeable future.
Experts identify few factors behind Erdogan looking for a way to turn his neighbourhood policy back. They point to the shifts and adjustments as consequential to changes in domestic, regional and global contexts.
Erdogan and his ruling AKP party are losing popularity after dominating Turkish politics for almost two decades. Turkey’s opposition parties are increasingly cooperating to challenge Erdogan in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2023.
Meanwhile Turkey’s economy faces fresh turmoil after years of unpredictable economic policy triggering fear of economic collapse and undermining Erdogan’s popularity.
But one of the main reasons behind Erdogan changing course from ideological consideration to realpolitik has been Turkey’s increasing regional and international isolation.
After two decades of outstretching and trying to gain regional power influence, Turkey has been able to achieve only very limited results by leveraging its military, political and diplomatic power.
The resolution of the GCC regional crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt were at loggerheads with Qatar has deprived Turkey of taking advantage of intra-regional conflict.
There has also been a major shift from the Turkey-friendly Trump administration to a less friendly Biden who would have Erdogan tone down his foreign policy posturing to avoid challenging his administration’s Middle East agenda.
Despite Ankara’s positive signals to various parties that have suffered from Erdogan’s erratic neighbourhood policy, it is highly unlikely that Arab relations with Turkey will be in full bloom soon.
Erdogan’s behaviour of exerting influence and exercising control has done a lot of damage and it means that Arab countries need to ensure that bilateral relations will not oscillate too much and that Turkey will not be involved in their domestic politics.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly