The photograph was unprecedented and took everyone by surprise. After eight years of outspoken and persistent animosity towards the post-30 June political order in Egypt, the Islamist president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shook hands with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi at the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar on 20 November.
In the photograph of this surprising handshake the emir of Qatar can be seen in the background with a slight smile on his face, obviously satisfied, and maybe rightly so, at this opportunity to mend relations between two regional powers that his country is also seeking to build closer relations with in a fast-moving regional landscape.
The unexpected handshake has now become the subject of speculation and has raised expectations that Egyptian-Turkish relations could be headed towards better days that will serve the interests of both nations.
Official statements by the two sides have sounded upbeat and optimistic as to the future course of these relations. Some have said that Egyptian-Turkish relations have already warmed up and that the two countries have already exited from the very tense phase in their bilateral relations over the last eight years.
There are realists, and there are those who are overly optimistic. The latter say that the photograph shows that the two countries are on the verge of working out their diametrically opposed positions on various questions of strategic importance to both and on what compromises this might entail, whether in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, or Syria. Unsurprisingly, there is also the question of the role that the Muslim Brotherhood plays in the foreign policy of the ruling party in Turkey, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and thus in Turkey’s foreign relations.
The realists, on the other hand, have taken a more cautious approach to the meaning of the photograph. For them, the handshake between the two leaders was more ceremonial than substantive, despite the official statements made by both sides after it was taken that might lead to the conclusion that Egyptian-Turkish relations are about to witness a breakthrough.
The realists believe that the Egyptian and Turkish positions on the crucial questions mentioned above remain wide apart, a situation that precludes a real and sustained warming of their bilateral relations in the medium and longer term. However, they will not be surprised if there is a change of leadership and government in Turkey next year and if this makes a real difference to Turkey’s Eurasian geopolitical ambitions and to its ambitions in Africa and North Africa.
Their realism shows that they fully understand the underlying pillars of Turkish foreign policy, as set out by Erdogan in statements to reporters made on board his presidential plane on his return trip from Doha. Erdogan’s transparency in talking about what he expects from Cairo should lead to a sound reading of the true motives behind his attempts to “normalise” Turkey’s relations with Egypt.
As related by the official Turkish news agency Anadolu, Erdogan said that the “only” — his word — thing he “wants” from Egypt is that it changes its policies towards Turkey’s role in the Mediterranean. For the realists, this is the crux of the matter, since it presupposes that Egypt, a Mediterranean power par excellence in terms of its geography and history even before Turkey came into existence, should play second fiddle to Turkey. That’s something that isn’t in the cards. To expect Cairo to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s muscular foreign policy in the Mediterranean is a very long shot on the part of the Turkish president, to say the least.
Egypt and Turkey might decide to exchange ambassadors sometime in the near future, and perhaps their respective foreign ministers will meet sometime soon in the wake of the Doha handshake. However, the chances of normal, close, or warm relations between Cairo and Ankara are not on the cards as long as Turkey is bent on its Ottoman-like expansionism in the Mediterranean region, including in North Africa.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.