The Turkish military presence in Libya remains the key snag in Ankara’s efforts to mend fences with Egypt. By Fehim Taştekin in Al-Monitor on March 25, 2023.
Faced with the toughest reelection race in his two-decade rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been eager to show that he can mend what he has broken in Turkey’s regional ties, hoping to boost his sagging popular support. But just like Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears reluctant to make plans for a formal reconciliation meeting with Erdogan before the May 14 polls.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks in Cairo Saturday in a bid to advance fence-mending efforts, becoming the first Turkish foreign minister to visit Egypt since bilateral ties broke over the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, a close ally of Erdogan’s government, in 2013.
Also last week, Assad ruled out a meeting with Erdogan until Turkey’s « illegal occupation » in Syria ended, denting expectations of Turkish and Syrian officials coming together in Moscow as part of four-way talks also involving Russia and Iran.
The Turkish-Egyptian normalization process had remained limited to two rounds of exploratory talks since it kicked off in 2021. Cairo cast doubt on the dialogue in October after Ankara signed fresh accords with the Tripoli government, but hopes of progress rekindled the following month as Sisi met with Erdogan at the opening of the World Cup in Qatar, shaking hands with the leader who had called him a “putschist” and a “murderer.”
Following his talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Cavusoglu spoke of Turkey’s desire to improve ties in all fields, including diplomacy, energy, transportation and joint military drills. He voiced hope that the presidents of the two countries would meet after Turkey’s elections, calling for “rapid action and close collaboration in all fields to bridge the nine-year gap” in bilateral ties.
After his meeting with Sisi in Qatar, Erdogan had said that the two had “a 45-minute conversation with a narrow scope,” adding, “Let our ministers launch mutual visits on a lower level now and we’ll expand our meetings afterward.” So, what is causing the process to protract?
The thaw between Qatar and its Arab neighbors made it easier for Turkey to seek reconciliation with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but in the case of Egypt, the easing of regional polarization has not been enough, given complex bilateral issues linked to the energy rivalry in the eastern Mediterranean, the Libyan conflict and the Muslim Brotherhood.
To start with, Sisi appears pleased by Erdogan’s measures to curb the activities of Brotherhood exiles in Turkey. As part of gestures to Cairo, Ankara has imposed restrictions on several television stations run by Egyptian dissidents. According to Al-Ahram’s Ashraf El-Ashry, Cairo has received assurances that Turkey would not collaborate with the Brotherhood.
Yet, Ankara has yet to meet Egyptian expectations for a change in its Libya policy. Sisi’s government sees the conflict in Libya as a threat to Egypt’s national security and holds Turkey largely responsible for the current situation in the country. The Turkish military presence in Libya, coupled with that of Syrian militias, Ankara’s plans to secure permanent military bases in the country and its signing of strategic agreements with Tripoli have all irritated Cairo.
In 2019, Ankara inked a maritime delineation deal with Tripoli in a bid to strengthen its hand in the eastern Mediterranean, prompting Egypt to retaliate by signing a similar deal with Greece. Turkey doubled down with energy exploration and military cooperation deals with Tripoli in October, to which Egypt responded with a unilateral declaration on a maritime border with Libya. For Cairo, Ankara’s signing of strategic and military deals with the Tripoli government, whose legitimacy has been disputed since Libya failed to hold elections in 2021, has been a reason to doubt Ankara’s good faith.
Meanwhile, another Egyptian concern in Libya appears soothed. Cairo had worried that Turkish support would make Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood a leading political actor, which in turn would open channels to nurture the Brotherhood in Egypt. But since last year, Turkey has sought contacts with Libya’s eastern forces, in a significant policy shift that has diminished the Brotherhood’s weight in Libyan politics. With its concerns subsiding, Cairo now backs the eastern-based Libyan government led by Fathi Bashagha, who had links with the Brotherhood in the past.
Yet Cavusoglu’s remarks after his trip to Cairo show that key points of contention remain intact. Speaking to journalists on Monday, the minister defended the Turkish presence in Libya and argued that the Turkish-Libyan deal on maritime zones in the eastern Mediterranean was not against Egypt and that the one between Egypt and Greece was not against Turkey. Referring to Turkey’s efforts to restore ties with Egypt and Israel, Cavusoglu said Ankara did not expect Egypt and Israel to forsake their ties with Greece and Cyprus in return, but vowed that Turkey “will not surrender its rights” in the region.
Any expectation that Turkey’s normalization drive will change the equilibrium in the eastern Mediterranean to its liking is overly optimistic. Egypt may favor some form of Turkish participation in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, but it would like to preserve its partnership with Greece and Cyprus. The Turkish argument that a maritime delineation deal with Turkey would give Egypt an economic zone larger than the one it has under its deal with Greece has failed to impress Cairo. According to Ashry, Turkish-Egyptian partnership in the energy field appears unlikely unless Turkey resolves its problems with Greece and the Greek Cypriots.
Additionally, Cairo sees Turkey’s military operations in Syria and Iraq as meddling in the Arab world — a position reflected in recent Arab League statements rejecting “foreign interference” in Arab affairs. Turkey’s moves to expand its influence in Africa, including a plan for a naval base in Sudan during Omar al-Bashir’s rule and efforts to forge military ties with Ethiopia amid the latter’s dam row with Egypt had also infuriated Cairo.
In sum, that the two sides feel the need for continued discussions on Libya and the eastern Mediterranean shows that they have yet to find common ground. The Al Arab newspaper makes a similar observation. Egyptian sources say the problem of mistrust in Ankara has yet to be overcome and Erdogan should take concrete steps to demonstrate that his regional policy has changed.
Remarkably, economic ties have stayed on course despite the diplomatic rupture. Cavusoglu said an array of steps were discussed in Cairo to further boost economic exchanges, including the establishment of joint economic and trade bodies, the resumption of RoRo services between the two countries and a long-term deal for Turkey to purchase liquefied natural gas from Egypt.
Turkish investments in Egypt have reached $2.5 billion. In 2022 alone, they were worth nearly $180 million, a 30% increase from the previous year. While Turkish exports to Egypt amounted to $3.7 billion last year and in 2021, Egyptian exports to Turkey rose 32.3% to reach $4 billion in 2022.