international analysis and commentary

Egypt-Turkey relations: an assessment

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Over the last decade, and especially after the worsening of the Libyan crisis in 2019, Egypt and Turkey have been among the protagonists of the Mediterranean political scene. They each proposed aggressive policies and rhetoric – against one another – aimed at expanding their roles and ambitions in terms of leverage and influence in the transnational and geopolitical dynamics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Egypt’s al-Sisi and Turkey’s Erdogan

 

In this pattern, Cairo and Ankara tried to protect and expand their interests (energy, trade and security) in connection with other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, creating different political blocs and searching for geo-strategic opportunities. Nevertheless, these approaches revealed several multidimensional limits to their regional stances, in which Cairo and Ankara reached few goals to uphold or justify their confrontational foreign policy. Although the unsolved issues in which they are rivals (from Libya to the offshore gas disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, passing through their growing geo-strategic interests in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa) are numerous, today Egypt and Turkey could have a great chance to close this chapter of controversies in their bilateral relations.

The reset is a fundamental part of an ongoing broader process involving the whole Middle East. While Ankara attempted to de-escalate its long-running disputes with Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, Egypt rekindled its relations with Qatar. Behind these divisions were different ideological and political views in which Libya has become one of the main theaters of confrontation, where the polarizing fight against “political Islam” has strengthened the tensions between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side, and Turkey and Qatar (proponents of political Islamist activism) on the other. Since 2011, this axis, indeed, proposed an Islamist agenda on the domestic camp and, in general, supported Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist and revolutionary groups in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Somalia to expand their connections and shift the regional geography. This meant a transformation of a regional strategic status quo that contrasted with Egypt-Gulf conservative perspectives (shared by Israel). At the same time, these initiatives were an undoubtful Turkish attempt to bolster itself as the principal actor in the management of gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and to promote its role as “kingmaker” in Libya, acting against the same Egyptian interests in these areas.

 

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Although less aggressive than in the past, the conflictual dynamic between Egypt and Turkey survives and remains uncertain in its evolutions. Proof of this is the recent energy deal (October 3, 2022) signed by Ankara and Tripoli Government of National Unity (GNU), which allows Turkish and Libyan companies to carry out joint explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean – consequently rejected by Cairo and Athens.

However, the current de-escalation between Egypt and Turkey should not be jeopardized because it is part of this path of regional normalization and détente started in January 2021, after the GCC summit in al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, during which Riyadh and Doha defined the first steps of this process ending the Gulf blockade against Qatar (2017-2021). Not surprisingly, the resumption of bilateral talks between Cairo and Ankara was a consequence of this pattern and it culminated in early 2021 with the launch of a series of parallel roundtables.

The most important of these was a two-day exploratory talk in Cairo (May 5-6, 2021) between the deputy foreign ministers and other diplomats of both countries. The stated intent of the meetings was to try to fully restore bilateral relations after years of enmity through concrete and open discussions on multiple issues (economy, trade and security). These talks were also the first step forward in relations between Turkey and Egypt since 2013, when a coup ousted the democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Egypt and Turkey downgraded their diplomatic relations and contributed to regionalizing some tensions in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.

Turkey and Egypt divided by the Eastern Mediterranean

 

Many regional, international and domestic factors could contribute to détente, putting both regimes under great pressure. If this rapprochement is an indirect consequence of the current international context marked by the multidimensional effects related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it is also true that those situations created heavy economic, social, political and security problems on several levels for both countries.

First, in their domestic contexts: in fact, the escalating conflict between Moscow and Kyiv has further increased the threat of food insecurity and countries like Egypt and Turkey heavily rely on grain and wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine – which together account for 29% of the world’s wheat supply. At the same time, the food crisis and a further increase in the price of bread could severely destabilize MENA countries (as in the Egyptian case) or exacerbate a looming economic and financial downturn (as in Turkey). These conditions create several threats in terms of social instability that in Egypt could lead to new protests against the regime, and in Turkey to popular disaffection with policies implemented by the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is a situation of great importance for both, considering that the ghost of the Arab Spring hovers in Egypt whenever there are unsustainable problems, while in Turkey the upcoming 2023 elections – that fall on the centennial of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey – raise the stakes.

Both countries’ domestic weaknesses also translate into less capacity for action in foreign policy. In fact, as mentioned above, normalizing relations with Egypt represents for Turkey a chance to end its isolation while opening up new chapters of cooperation, especially in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Cairo is interested in reducing tensions with Ankara provided that Turkey immediately stops its support for the political Islam party Muslim Brotherhood, de-escalates tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and reconsiders its political role in several open issues.

 

Read also: Turkey’s moves in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean: ambitions and interests

 

Libya is the focal point of this process and here both countries need to consider a compromise in their ambitions. For Ankara, this requires full acceptance of the reality that Libya is existential to Egypt. Meanwhile, Cairo is not satisfied with its Libyan partners (the LNA and Khalifa Haftar) after years of inconclusive sieges against Tripoli, and has long been concerned about how turmoil in Libya can breed instability in Egypt. At the same time, both Cairo and Ankara consider a possible resumption of violence on a large scale in Libya to be economically and militarily unsustainable.

From that point of view, it could be of primary importance to dismantle the power struggle between Egypt and Turkey to neutralize some of the rising competitions in the Mediterranean. In fact, the Libyan conflict and the Eastern Mediterranean disputes are deeply connected and without resolution of these two questions it is impossible to promote a regional de-escalation culminating in a diplomatic solution. In this scenario, resolving the Libyan crisis could become a turning point in de-escalating tensions in the Mediterranean and a platform or model to be replicated in Eastern Mediterranean dynamics to encourage a holistic approach to creating a regional framework of economic cooperation, informal dialogue and political interdependence – useful in overcoming the existing fault lines, pursuing full normalization as a regional model.

This is all the more true when viewed from the third level, the international dimension: we can see some elements, for example, in the Egyptian and Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa and in particular in the Nile dispute. In fact, Turkish neutrality in the controversy between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could encourage the rapprochement and, maybe, increase the chance of cooperation also in this area, which is geo-strategically important for Cairo and Ankara.

Contextually, both players have great interest in restoring their relations with Washington, a key player in different international dynamics in which they are involved: from GERD to the Eastern Mediterranean, passing through Libya and Syria. A need that has become even more urgent especially after the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE diminished Egypt and Turkey’s roles in several dynamics in the wider region. This could result in a loss of political significance for Egypt and Turkey and have an important geo-strategic impact for both: for Cairo, the construction of new pipelines and transport routes in the Eastern Mediterranean could potentially reduce transport revenues from the Suez Canal – an important source of income that generates around 2% of Egyptian GDP – and further weaken Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean in favor of other coastal states (Israel in particular) or give it a disadvantage in its decades-old disputes with Greece and Cyprus over sea borders and offshore gas fields.

In light of this, a reconciliation between Cairo and Ankara could help to strengthen their geopolitical ambitions and secure their long-term interests. But despite the mutual declarations in favor of a rapprochement, several fractures remain unsettled, including the issue of Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. After the Cairo meeting in 2021, no new high-level meetings have been held between the two countries and no other meetings are foreseen in the near future. Moreover, compared to its Gulf allies, Cairo seems much more cautious and hesitant, settling for quiet institutional engagement with Turkey on issues relating to Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa.

 

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In addition, in terms of leadership, there have been no meetings between Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. This fact is crucial to understanding the complexity of this mutual mistrust. In fact, for years Erdogan criticized the 2013 coup in Egypt, not recognizing the legitimacy of Al-Sisi and his government. On the other hand, Egyptian authorities pressured their Turkish counterparts to make clear concessions: one example is the request for an immediate stop to support for dissident networks close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey – although on this point Ankara showed more willingness to satisfy Egyptian demands. The Egyptian government has also repeatedly urged Turkish leadership to take a public position in favor of the Al-Sisi regime. In addition, in late August 2022, Turkey decided to appoint a new ambassador to Cairo to fill the diplomatic post that was left vacant for nearly nine years, but received no feedback from Egypt.

Therefore, what prevents the advancement of normalization between Egypt and Turkey? What is clear is that both players share a mutual mistrust – especially from the Egyptian side –, and although bilateral economic relations continue to grow, Egypt and Turkey’s conflicting geopolitical interests are still limiting their dialogue efforts.

Cairo endures to accuse Turkey of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs. Conversely, Ankara seems interested in using this rapprochement to weaken the conservative bloc in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and to relaunch its leverage in the Arab world. Thus, in general, a minor Turkish presence in some theaters that Egypt considers existential could de-escalate tensions. This means that Egypt, more than Turkey, is interested in promoting a tactical détente and not a full and complete normalization because both countries are conscious of each other’s ambitions in the wider MENA region and wary of new escalations.

Nevertheless, mutual fears would seem to be stronger than urgent needs. That is why all this seems to look like a gradual and almost official engagement between the two sides rather than a full return of relations after a decade of tensions. In other words, both parties seem to be interested in an agreement, but it is unclear what this deal might look like. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine any bargain without overcoming ideological differences, conflictual geopolitical interests, as well as mutual mistrust.