Over the past few months, Egypt’s resumption of ties with Turkey and Syria has been in the works, and observers have speculated that the same thing may be happening with Iran. In 2021, Egypt restored ties with Qatar.
While all these rapprochements have been taking place at broadly the same time, the details of their timing and their needs and outcomes have been different. Each has its own merits and challenges.
Egypt severed ties with Qatar, as did Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, after accusing it of supporting terrorism. It took almost four years for this conflict to be resolved.
The gains from the resumption of ties between Qatar and Egypt were beneficial all round. The Italian Institute for International Political Studies has said that “Qatar clearly recognises Cairo’s importance and centrality within Middle Eastern politics. Doha is eagerly pursuing several regional initiatives involving mediation and conflict-resolution in some of the most protracted regional conflicts. Against this backdrop, Cairo’s role will be extremely valuable in supporting such initiatives to bring peace and stability.”
Qatar needed the stabilisation provided by being welcomed back by all four nations.
Egypt also gained in terms of the economic cooperation that emerged. Another upshot for Egypt, even if not publicly announced, was that Qatar and its Aljazeera media network ceased to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.
The forthcoming rapprochements are just as noteworthy. The rapprochement with Syria was triggered by the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria last February, which prompted President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to call Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and to overlook any existing friction and disregard earlier conflicts.
He reiterated Egypt’s solidarity with Syria and its intention of directing all possible aid to it. This was a move that President Al-Sisi should be applauded for.
Egypt then stepped up its efforts towards readmitting Syria to the Arab League. In September, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met his Syrian counterpart, and by May the League had reinstated Syria after 12 years of absence.
Again, a resolution of the conflict between Syria and many Arab League members was imminent, but timing was of the essence. The Syrian president then went on to attend the Arab League Summit meeting in Saudi Arabia on 19 May.
While the Arab League readmitted Syria, many Western countries declared that they would not normalise their relations with Syria. Egypt went ahead in doing so out of its belief that Syria must return to the Arab League. This was a welcome move as it gave Syria the clout it needs to overcome foreign interventions, and it also provided the Syrian government with some of the leeway needed to get a grip on the current crisis.
Egypt clearly wanted to play an active role in ending the Syrian crisis – and it did so, reinforcing its fundamental role in the region. “Now that the military battles have tapered off, we must have a role in reinstating communication and in exploring the necessary steps that will lead to preserving the Syrian people’s capabilities, getting out of the current crisis, and restoring Syria’s position in the Arab world,” Shoukri said.
The earthquake was also vital in initiating serious moves towards a rapprochement with Turkey. President Al-Sisi called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer Egypt’s condolences and humanitarian aid, overlooking the strained relations that have been in place between the two countries since the removal of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Again, President Al-Sisi is credited with taking the initiative.
Many issues had instilled hostility between the two nations. Turkey had condemned the ousting of Morsi and the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from office in Egypt in 2013. It had further complicated matters by hosting Muslim Brotherhood members and terrorist propaganda channels affiliated with the Brotherhood on its soil.
Egypt and Turkey supported opposing sides in the Libyan as well as the Syrian conflicts. Egypt condemned Turkey’s intervention in Libya and was ready to act militarily on it. The subsequent Maritime Demarcation Treaty between Egypt and Greece left Turkey on the outside, while the partnership of several Middle Eastern countries after new discoveries of natural gas in the Mediterranean again excluded Turkey, all the more reason for Turkey to want a rapprochement.
During the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar last year, a cordial meeting took place between the two presidents. According to the news website Middle East Eye, the meeting was not accidental, and the Qataris had planned and brokered it for months. Soon afterwards, the foreign minister of each country visited his counterpart.
A rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt now seems within reach. Though their embassies have not been reopened, the ability to communicate between them will be extremely beneficial for both nations and for the whole region.
The Turkish authorities have already shut down the Muslim Brotherhood TV channels. It is to be hoped that a rapprochement will also foster more stability in Libya. Trade between the two nations did not slow down amidst the standoff, and the chances are that it will now continue to flourish.
After having severed ties with Iran for over seven years, Saudi Arabia normalised its relation with Tehran in March. It may have seemed like a given that Egypt would do the same, but Egypt is treading cautiously regarding this rapprochement. It has been over four decades since Egypt and Iran had political ties, though there was a resumption for the short period that the Muslim Brotherhood was in office.
A concern that will consistently play out in any rapprochement with Iran is the presence of its proxy forces in various countries in the region, especially in other Shiite societies, and its aid to militant groups including Hamas and Hizbullah. Like Turkey, Iran also supported Islamist rule in Egypt. In its relations with Iran, Egypt will need to try to avoid ruffling the feathers of Israel and the US, both of which consider Iran to be a major adversary.
Both Egypt and Iran are powerful regional players and influence the entire Middle East. Both will ultimately gain from standing together. Furthermore, Iran has made it clear that better ties with Egypt are necessary for it. During a meeting with Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei welcomed resuming ties with Egypt. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said that “the Middle East needs Iran and Egypt.”
Egypt will also gain from a rapprochement with Iran. Through its connection to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza, Iran may play a moderating role in the region if called upon to do so. Commentator Mohamed ElDoh on the website Geopolitical Monitor has said that “from a political standpoint, fostering stronger ties with Iran could potentially grant Egypt greater leverage and authority over various militant factions operating within Gaza, thereby bolstering Egypt’s strategic objectives on multiple fronts.”
He argues that the resumption of ties with Iran would enable Egypt to assume a pivotal role in facilitating a resolution between Iran and the international community on issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and its backing of proxy militias in the region.
“The establishment of a robust diplomatic relationship with Iran would not only strengthen political ties between both countries, but also foster closer alliances with other nations seeking a dependable Middle Eastern partner, such as Egypt, which possesses the strategic acumen to navigate the intricate geopolitical terrain of the region,” ElDoh says.
Clearly, these rapprochements between Egypt and other countries in the region have not come about within a “forgive and forget” perspective. Instead, they have been part of a deliberate and premeditated strategy.
The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly