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Will the Page Turn on Turkish-Egyptian Relations?

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H. A. Hellyer,  Ziya Meral, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 19, 2021,

Relations have long been complicated between Egypt and Turkey: two powerful countries who share lively economic links and queasy political relations. But recently Ankara has been edging toward a rapprochement. What’s going on?

For almost a decade, Turkey and Egypt have had a complex and constrained relationship. Yet despite almost eight years of poor rapport, Turkish officials have made upbeat declarations about Egypt over the last few days. The Economist’s Piotr Zalewski reports that the Turkish foreign minister said, “contacts at the diplomatic level have started,” while the Turkish presidential spokesperson told Bloomberg news that Egypt was the “brains of the Arab world” and emphasized that Turkey was looking forward to a partnership with Egypt. Even the Turkish president himself, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has expressed support for resetting relations. Ankara offered to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is crucial for Cairo, given that Addis Ababa’s construction of the new hydroelectric power project threatens access to Nile waters for Egypt, as well as Sudan. But will Turkey’s conciliatory efforts translate to a sustainable, transformative policy shift? If so, what is its scope?

HOW A BRIEF HONEYMOON SOURED

It feels like a lifetime ago, but Egypt-Turkey relations took a historic leap forward during the mid-2000s, when both Cairo and Ankara were searching for economic opportunities. The signing of a free trade agreement in 2005 enabled years of increased trade between the two countries—which has continued briskly until the present day, despite tensions. In 2011, Erdoğan adeptly judged which way the wind was blowing and was among the first to call for then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to stand down. Erdoğan visited Cairo shortly thereafter, where he was feted among Egypt’s political elite and the then rising Muslim Brotherhood.

However, despite certain ideological affinities and similar political alignments, the Muslim Brotherhood movement—and particularly its Egyptian mothership—is not the same as the party Erdoğan leads in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Even if affinities exist, the two parties have very different intellectual histories and references, with marked divergences in political outlooks, especially regarding secularism and the state. When Erdoğan spoke favorably about the development of secularism in Egypt, Brotherhood figures reacted publicly in a deeply negative fashion to Erdoğan’s remarks. And when the Brotherhood began to lose public support in late 2012, Ankara had already put its proverbial eggs into a single Brotherhood basket.

Additionally, there were political sensitivities in Ankara over the precise scenario that occurred in Egypt in 2013. Military takeovers of Islamist-leaning governments strike a deep chord in the consciousness of the AKP and its voters, as Turkey has a history of military political activities, particularly against Islamist-leaning governments. In fact, while the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was being ousted in 2013, Turkish military officers were on trial for their role in forcing the Islamist former Turkish prime minister Necmettin Erbakan out of government in 1997. Preventing another military takeover in Turkey was a key focus of the early AKP years. These parallels gave developments in Egypt deeply domestic and personal resonance for Erdoğan and AKP voters, partly because of what the coup meant for Turkey’s influence in Egypt – as Ankara’s allies lost power – and by extension the region; but also because AKP supporters, unsurprisingly, related to the ousted Egyptian government.

NEW MOVES AND NEW MOTIVES

While Turkish officials are now warming their public rhetoric on Egypt quite substantially, there have been few positive rejoinders from Cairo. On the contrary, Cairo has publicly insisted little has changed, with Egyptian figures claiming that Turkey needs to respect the principles of noninterference. Privately, there are reports Cairo has conditioned the resumption of good relations on Turkey’s withdrawal of forces from Libya and a de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean with regards to disagreements over maritime borders.

If Cairo isn’t driving the conversation, and Ankara is, what are the main motives for Ankara? How has the geopolitical environment changed in such a way that it is more beneficial for Turkey to edge closer to Egypt—and disadvantageous for it to do otherwise?

Firstly, it became clear months ago that the permissive atmosphere that former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration had provided was coming to an end—ironically, a strategic loss for both Cairo and Ankara, who benefited greatly from Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Ankara is already facing U.S. sanctions over the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles it bought from Russia, as well as trouble over the Halkbank case in which the United States accused the Turkish state bank of bypassing sanctions on Iran. Continued strains with Cairo are not particularly helpful against a background of U.S.-Turkish tension. 

Ankara-Riyadh relations have also become closer since it became clear Trump was on his way out. Indeed, even with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two regional rivals to Turkey, Ankara has shown a change of rhetoric, appearing to edge toward an improvement of relations. Moreover, the GCC regional crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt were at loggerheads with Qatar, a close ally of Turkey, has also come to an end, with Egyptian-Qatari relations showing improvement. With a less Turkey-friendly administration in Washington, DC, at least compared to the last one, it makes sense for the country to seek more regional friends, or at least to reduce its tally of regional antagonists. 

Secondly, Turkey is facing a new regional alignment of countries—Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel—that have formed an unlikely alliance over energy and maritime boundaries and routes. Added into the mix is French President Emmanuel Macron’s grand ambitions to be a game setter in the region vis-à-vis Cyprus, Lebanon, and Libya, alongside his calls for a stronger EU stand against the AKP-led government in Turkey. Turkey’s military capacity may provide Ankara with leverage to obstruct that alliance’s agenda in different parts of the Mediterranean. But Ankara’s positive signals toward different members of that bloc may also serve it well in disrupting the cohesion of the group.

Thirdly, in Libya, Turkey managed to halt Libyan General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign, in support of the previously UN-backed, and pro-Ankara, Tripoli government. But the Turkish effort only got so far, and it did not move closer to Egypt’s borders and red lines. With Cairo now opening up lines of communication with the new unity government in Tripoli, there is a clear imperative for Turkey to seize the opportunity to ease tensions with Cairo.

Does Ankara have a willing partner in this regard in Cairo? As noted, the public announcements from Egypt have been quite lukewarm. Reuters reports that the Egyptian foreign minister spoke on Sunday, repeating the standard line that “if real actions from Turkey show alignment with Egyptian principles and goals then the groundwork will be laid for relations to return to normal.” Such public messaging is to be expected. But in private, could Cairo be convinced of the need to normalize diplomatic relations for pragmatic reasons?

Possibly—but Cairo would seek something in return. From Egypt’s perspective, Turkey’s role in Libya is outsized, bringing land troops from what Cairo sees as an unfriendly power, originating across the Mediterranean Sea, to Egypt’s doorstep. Would Turkey withdraw those troops from Libya, or would Ankara try to settle on the establishment of mutual red lines to uphold some kind of détente? That is, so far, unclear.

Cairo might also seek the clamping down of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exile activity in Istanbul, particularly on their media channels, as well as the extradition of Egyptian exiles who are accused of violence on Egyptian soil. Again, it’s not clear what Ankara might agree to, although recent reports indicate that when it comes to the media, there has already been movement to limit the scope of political commentary by the exile stations.

Moreover, for both Cairo’s and Ankara’s political elites, there is an additional obstacle to consider in the case of complete normalization. For close to a decade, those elites have been deeply and vocally hostile to each other, very publicly. If there is to be a rapprochement, then a narrative that avoids accusations of political backtracking would probably require some crafting, if only for domestic buy-in in both countries. 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

For the last ten years, Turkey has been increasingly assertive in a wide plethora of foreign policy issues. So far, Ankara has been able to achieve limited results by leveraging its military, thus acquiring a seat at different negotiating tables. But lasting outcomes would require further engagements on the diplomatic level with regional actors.

With that in mind, perhaps this latest series of signals from Ankara reflects a recognition of its own limits, with Cairo as well as with other capitals, and a desire to show that Ankara wants to modify its regional role. It’s unlikely, however, that those capitals will take Turkey’s friendly overtures at face value, considering the recent historical record. It will likely take more time, and more effort, in different capitals and on different issues. Nevertheless, any signals that reduce potential for further conflict spillover in an often volatile region are to be welcomed, be they come from Ankara or elsewhere. 

Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar, is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and visiting fellow at Cambridge University.

Dr Ziya Meral is a senior fellow at the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

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