Egypt-Turkey: A win-win reconciliation

Abdel-Rahman Salaheddin
Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Coming during a critical time at the regional level, the positive outcomes expected from the visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Cairo this week could be very substantial, writes Abdel-Rahman Salah


The visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Egypt this week aims to revive Cairo-Ankara relations to the state they were in a decade ago. 

The long-awaited visit comes at a time when both countries need each other in the face of many challenges, whether due to the development of conflict and competition within the international system, such as the Ukrainian war and the US-Chinese rivalry, or the regional competition to redraw the map of the distribution of power between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Israel. 

This regional and global competition sometimes overlooks the economic interests of both Egypt and Turkey, such as when the US proposed the idea of a land transport route between India and Europe through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

The Gaza war has also complicated regional interactions, such as the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations within the framework of a trilateral Saudi-Israeli-US deal that would also guarantee Saudi Arabia’s security, a smooth transition of power from the king to the crown prince and secure future US promises of a Palestinian state as an alternative to a peace agreement that cannot be reached at present.

Here, Erdogan needs to coordinate with Egypt to play an influential role in these interactions in order to maintain Turkey’s image as a regional power, both in the face of the West and in the eyes of the Turkish people. 

Egypt and Turkey seek to maximise their regional influence and play an international role as influential middle-ranking powers that can be the link between the Middle East and international decision-making centres, whether in Washington and the Western capitals, Beijing, or New Delhi. 

Since the turn of the 21st century, the deterioration of US relative power and the lack of credibility of the political and economic foundations that the Western liberal order has pretended to apply have been visible. 

This has had several manifestations: the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington; the failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; the Western world’s abandoning the principles of the free market during the 2008 global economic crisis; the failure of the Arab Spring revolutions supported by the US and the Western world; and finally Russia’s refusal of NATO’s expansion and its waging a war on Ukraine while the rest of the world is standing on the sidelines of this Western-Russian confrontation, which may extend to a nuclear exchange or a protracted war of attrition.

There is no doubt that Turkey’s relative military and economic capabilities compared to the rest of the Middle East enable it to exert influence as an influential regional power that can pursue policies independent of the international powers as long as those policies do not affect the vital interests of the main international centres. 

Turkish military exports, especially of drones and guided missiles, have become essential tools of this influence, notably in decisively shaping military confrontations in favour of Turkey in Libya, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and Ukraine. The countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, and Morocco, are racing to acquire these drones. Qatar has even purchased a Turkish factory to produce tanks developed using Turkey’s regional warfare experience. 

The Turkish foreign minister recently announced his country’s intention to supply Egypt with drones and their manufacturing technology as part of military cooperation projects to be discussed during Erdogan’s visit.

The current phase of relations between the two countries presents Egyptian policymakers with several bilateral and regional issues that need to be analysed for their implications for Egyptian interests. This article attempts to provide some recommendations to maximise the Egyptian benefits from Erdogan’s visit.

EGYPTIAN INTERESTS: Given the transition from the US unipolar dominance of the international system, the role and influence of major regional powers, including Turkey, in influencing many regional issues has become increasingly significant. 

Turkey has strategically invested on the economic and military levels in several conflict-ridden regions, particularly in areas relevant to Egypt, namely Libya, Ethiopia, and Syria.

It is evident that the US and numerous European parties are encouraging a political compromise between the Eastern and Western Libyan factions to control Libya’s oil and gas wealth. Turkish officials have expressed a willingness to reach an understanding with Egypt regarding Libya. 

Russia’s transfer of thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries from Libya to Ukraine, along with Russia’s need to transport more mercenaries in the same direction and to other regions like Sudan and other African countries, increases the possibility of reaching an Egyptian-Turkish-Russian agreement to evacuate all mercenaries from Libya. 

Both Egypt and Turkey are unlikely to abandon their Libyan allies or their fair share in Libyan resources and their relative weight in shaping the new government. 

Egypt does not also need to change its position rejecting agreements concluded by the governments of Fayez Al-Sarraj and Abdul-Hamid Dbeibeh with Turkey regarding maritime boundaries or Turkey’s exploitation of Libyan oil and gas fields. But it can reach an understanding with Turkey that facilitates a Libyan political solution, allowing the Libyan parties to form a new government while considering Egyptian, Turkish, Western, and Russian interests. 

Additionally, agreements can be reached on the cooperation of Turkish and Egyptian companies in projects in Eastern and Western Libya on an equal footing, while securing Libyan political support and financing for these projects.

With regard to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Turkey is Ethiopia’s second-largest investor after China, with over 200 Turkish companies operating in the country. The latter also receives Turkish military aid that helped its government to win the recent civil war in Ethiopia. 

Thus, Turkey can play a role in persuading the Ethiopian government to accept a compromise with Egypt on the GERD issue. In return, Egypt could leverage the alliances it has forged in the Eastern Mediterranean with both Greece and Cyprus to facilitate a process that enables Turkey to access a share of the gas in the waters separating it from these countries, without engaging in legal disputes over agreements that have been in place for over a century. 

This calls for the emulation of the model of the Lebanese-Israeli agreement reached to divide the offshore gas fields between them with US mediation and assistance from French and Italian gas companies and Qatar. Lebanon and Israel still do not have diplomatic relations.

Normalising relations with Turkey and enhancing cooperation with the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria could also pave the way for Egypt to participate in negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war, address the refugee crisis, and reach international security guarantees in northern Syria.

At the bilateral level, a billion-dollar Turkish line of credit to finance Turkish exports and projects in Egypt could be revived. The agreement was signed in 2013, but Egypt did not benefit from it as it came just before the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government of former president Mohamed Morsi. 

There were also agreements for Turkish investments in Egypt in the fields of solid waste recycling and slums development. Another frozen agreement was signed between Erdogan and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi (when he was defence minister in May 2013) to extend a $200 million facility to finance Turkish arms purchases by Egypt and joint military production projects. 

Such agreements can be reconsidered for funding projects such as importing and producing Turkish drones, torpedo boats, transport vehicles, and electric cars in Egypt.


BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES: Egypt can benefit from the experience of Turkish businessmen in the textile industry to increase its exports and deal with the problems of the Egyptian public-sector-owned textile factories. 

Turkish manufacturers in Egypt utilise cheap gas and labour, selling their products to the large Egyptian market as well as the US, African, and Arab markets where Egypt enjoys significant customs exemptions, presenting a model of profitable foreign investments in Egypt. 

Meanwhile, the value of Egypt’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Turkey exceeded $2 billion in the past two years, pushing overall Egyptian exports to Turkey last year to $5 billion. This is equivalent to Egypt’s imports from Turkey, resulting in a total trade balance between the two countries of $10 billion. 

In 2011, the Arab gas pipeline that extends from Egypt to Jordan, Israel, and Syria was about 100 km short of reaching Turkish territory. The two countries are now preparing to use this line to provide Egyptian gas to Lebanon and are considering using it in both directions, which opens the door in the long run to connecting it to the Turkish network, which will receive large quantities of Russian gas during the next few years.

Egypt has previously stopped the roll-on/roll-off  (RORO) maritime transport line between the Turkish and Egyptian ports on the Mediterranean Sea for security reasons. This used to transport Turkish and European goods to the Arabian Gulf through Egypt after the Syrian war caused the closure of the land route through Syria.

The Turks extended this sea line to the Israeli port of Haifa, from where trucks could depart through Jordan into the Gulf. 

If the economic feasibility of resuming this line through the Egyptian ports and along Egyptian roads is proven, Egypt must take advantage of trucks on their way back to Turkey and from there to European markets in order to ship Egyptian exports to those markets, with this line becoming an alternative to the land route between the Gulf and Israel to reach Europe.

Cultural cooperation between the two countries represents an opportunity to market Egyptian literary and artistic production in the large Turkish market, as Turkey, with a population of 85 million people, produces 88,000 books in all fields every year, while Egypt produces 22,000 books annually. The rest of the Arab world produces 18,000 books a year, meaning that 300 million Arabs read less than half of the books read by 85 million Turks each year. 

It is necessary to stimulate the literary and artistic translation movement from Arabic to Turkish. Egyptian films and TV series could have a Turkish demand comparable to that enjoyed by Turkish series and films in the Arab world.

It is clear that the opportunities for joint cooperation between the two countries regionally and bilaterally far outweigh the areas of competition or potential conflict between them, which makes me hope that Erdogan’s upcoming visit will see the birth of a new phase of close relations between the two countries that builds on commonalities and on past mistakes.

* The writer is Egypt’s former ambassador to Turkey. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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