Fehim Taştekin: « Turkey faces rough road to normalization with Egypt »

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Al-Monitor, May 7, 2021, Fehim Taştekin

Turkey’s reconciliation with Egypt is not likely to be easy, but progress after the first high-level meeting between the two sides could mark a new course in Ankara’s foreign policy and pave the way for its reconciliation with the Gulf heavyweights as well.

Turkey’s quest for fence-mending with Egypt led to the first high-level bilateral talks on the issue May 5, but Ankara could hardly hope for easy progress as normalization with Egypt depends closely on broader changes in Turkey’s regional policies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — well aware that Egypt’s terms for normalization reflect also the expectations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — phoned the Saudi king on the eve of the Turkish-Egyptian talks in Cairo. According to the state-run Anatolia news agency, Erdogan extended his good wishes “on the occasion of Qadr Night, to be marked this week, and the approaching Eid al-Fitr holiday” — never mind that the feast was more than a week away.

Tellingly, Erdogan has kept mum on a Saudi decision to close Turkish schools in the kingdom, which flew in the face of a good-will message from Ankara only days before. In a marked change of tone, a senior Erdogan aide had asserted April 26 that Turkey respected the way the Saudi judiciary handled the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and was seeking “a more positive agenda” with Saudi Arabia to repair ties.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had phoned his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, April 10 to extend his good wishes over the start of the holy month of Ramadan — a conversation that paved the way for the May 5-6 talks in Cairo, which marked the elevation of bilateral dialogue to the level of foreign ministries from the hitherto level of intelligence officers. At the meeting, chaired by the Egyptian and Turkish deputy foreign ministers, the two sides laid out their priorities for what is expected to be a road map defining the areas of cooperation on which Ankara and Cairo will focus.

In a statement ahead of the meeting, Cairo described the talks as “exploratory discussions” on potential steps toward normalization, both “bilaterally and in the regional context.” Diplomatic ties were downgraded to charge d’affaires level after the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, which was a close ally of Ankara. Turkey’s embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Alexandria have remained open, even as Erdogan frequently blasted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, calling him a “putschist” with blood on his hands.

The main issues between Turkey and Egypt pertain to the energy rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean, including maritime rights and the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum that has shut Turkey out, potential cooperation in Libya in the lead-up to the war-torn country’s elections in December, and the refuge Turkey has offered to Muslim Brotherhood members. Turkey intends to focus on energy cooperation in particular, arguing that Egypt’s maritime zone in the Eastern Mediterranean would have been 11,500 square kilometers (4,440 square miles) larger had it struck a delimitation deal with Turkey rather than the Greek Cypriots. Egypt’s priority, meanwhile, is Turkey’s withdrawal of its forces from Libya and an end to its patronage of the Brotherhood. For Egypt, concrete Turkish moves on those two issues, which mirror the interests of its Gulf allies as well, would be a sign that Ankara is stepping back from interference in Arab affairs.

A recent signal of how Sisi observes the interests of his regional partners came from his talks with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed April 24. The Egyptian leader called for continued coordination on developments in the Middle East to enhance Arab unity in the face of regional challenges, according to his spokesman.

Ankara’s fence-mending bid was dictated by its deepening foreign policy predicaments, including its isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean, the uncertainty gripping the maritime demarcation and military cooperation accords it signed with the previous Libyan government, and the growing Arab camp it has antagonized in the region. This, however, does not make Erdogan an easy interlocutor. He has sought to initiate a normalization process with simple gestures but is expected to draw Egypt’s attention to strategic interests and economic ties down the road.

Of note, Turkish-Egyptian trade has suffered little from the political wrangling, averaging about $5 billion per year in the 2014-2020 period. The Anatolia news agency, which was keen on vilifying Sisi until recently, is now running analyses on the opportunities Turkey could gain from normalization, highlighting the prospects for Turkish companies in infrastructure projects in Egypt.

But as if to show that Turkey is a tough nut to crack in Libya, top Turkish officials, including Cavusoglu and the country’s defense minister, chief of general staff and intelligence chief, descended on Tripoli May 3 while all eyes were on the expected Turkish visit to Cairo. Yet Turkey’s intended message appeared overshadowed by the one that Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Manqoush issued. Speaking at a joint press conference with Cavusoglu, she urged Turkey to cooperate “to expel all foreign forces and mercenaries from the Libyan territories.”

The blunt appeal came as a reminder for Ankara that it could hardly take for granted the accords it signed in 2019 with the now-defunct Government of National Accord, which it backed militarily in Libya’s civil war. Even pro-Turkish figures in Libya agree that the fate of the accords should be decided by the parliament and government the December elections will produce.

As for the withdrawal of forces, Ankara might view its Syrian mercenaries as a dispensable card but is likely to push the limits to ensure a lasting Turkish military presence in Libya. Whether Erdogan could pull it off remains to be seen now that Cairo has become the key to Turkey’s regional fence-mending and enjoys a rapport with various actors in Libya.

Another issue that keeps Egypt wary is Erdogan’s apparent search for a midway formula that would not require him to expel the Brotherhood exiles from Turkey. As part of overtures to Cairo in March, Ankara pushed the Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based TV channels to terminate several political programs, but the shows reappeared online several weeks later, a development Cairo has certainly noted.

Meanwhile, Brotherhood figures held talks in Ankara, seeking assurances for the exiles in Turkey. In a May 2 statement, a senior leader of the movement thanked Turkey for helping the exiles, which, he said, were viewed as “political refugees” by Ankara, and pledged that they would fully abide by Turkey’s laws and do nothing to harm its security.

Erdogan’s post-coup support for the Brotherhood was so fervent that he even adopted the four-finger salute used by Brotherhood followers, whose sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square was bloodily dispersed, turning the sign into a symbol of Ankara’s fallout with Cairo and animosity toward Sisi. He has continued to use the salute at his rallies, though at one point he seemed to realize the trouble this might cause and rebranded the salute as a symbol of Turkey’s unity — “one nation, one flag, one homeland, one state.”

Some in the Turkish media are busy discussing what will happen to “the Rabaa salute” now, but the real question is whether Erdogan could give up on the Brotherhood altogether. In Libya, for instance, Brotherhood members are the most ardent advocates of Turkey’s presence; hence, Erdogan might attempt a double game.

Some Egyptian observers believe Ankara might agree to extradite convicted Brotherhood members, but Erdogan could rather try to send them to a third country to avoid accusations of “sending them to death” in Egypt. Brotherhood members who have acquired Turkish citizenship make the situation even more complicated.

According to Egyptian sources quoted by al-Arab newspaper, Cairo is not pushing for the extradition of all Brotherhood exiles in Turkey or their removal to a third country and could make do with the extradition of several convicted figures such as Mahmud Hussein, Yahya Musa and Alaa al-Samahi. The sources also note that the latest Turkish visit to Tripoli has only hardened Cairo’s stance on Libya. According to former Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Hegazy, Cairo will never back down from its condition that Turkish forces and affiliated mercenaries leave Libya as it sees their presence there as a threat comparable to the Brotherhood.

In sum, Cairo would like to see tangible steps on the part of Ankara before it moves ahead with the normalization process. Establishment of trust could make the mutual reappointment of ambassadors an important milestone in the road map. Yet normalization between Turkey and Egypt goes beyond bilateral ties, entailing broader regional expectations for changes in Turkey’s foreign policy. A new course that makes normalization with Cairo possible could pave the way for normalization with the Gulf as well. The parties, however, are just at the beginning of the road.

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