After a nearly nine-year rift, the pace of rapprochement between Egypt and Turkiye is accelerating, as the two countries attempt to overcome points of disagreement, turn the page on the past and forge a political and strategic reconciliation that could bring significant gains for both.
Progress in some files, and obstacles dissipating daily, amidst dramatic regional changes that redraw balances and reassess accounts in light of Gulf reconciliation with Qatar, Saudi-Emirati convergence with Turkiye and improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In just three months, the foreign ministers of the two countries exchanged visits three times – twice in Ankara and the third in Cairo – amid severe indications of the imminent resumption of ambassadorial exchanges between the two countries, after a diplomatic break in 2013, following the overthrow of the late Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, and Turkiye’s harbouring of Egyptian opposition figures opposing the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Last Thursday, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, visited Ankara in response to an invitation from his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who visited Cairo on 15 March, after Shoukry had preceded him with a visit to Turkiye to express solidarity following the devastating earthquake in February that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in Turkiye and Syria.
The amicable atmosphere and rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara may be crowned with a summit at the level of the two countries’ presidents this year, which would represent a qualitative shift in Egyptian-Turkish relations if Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were to meet with his Egyptian counterpart after shaking hands on the sidelines of the Qatar World Cup in November 2022.
The two countries have been engaged in exploratory talks since 2021, led by Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, Sedat Onal, and his Egyptian counterpart, Hamdi Loza, reinforced by the Turkish Charge d’Affaires in Cairo, Salih Mutlu Sen, taking up his duties last June and the participation of an Egyptian intelligence delegation in an international meeting hosted by Turkiye on the Libyan crisis last July.
The desire for rapprochement is vital for both Cairo and Ankara, with each side seeking to achieve considerable gains, minimise the losses of the rift, and overcome the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war, given the two countries’ need for high-level coordination on several issues and hotspots in the region.
This convergence comes in the context of internal and external challenges for both parties and changes in the shape of regional alliances that have witnessed Emirati and Saudi advances – Emirati convergence with Israel, and Saudi conjunction with Iran – all of which have led to a decline in the regional and international standing of both parties, according to Egyptian political researcher, Hamdi Abdel Aziz.
It is worth considering that, in recent years, Turkiye has pursued a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbours, ahead of the presidential elections next May, which explains its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and Egypt, as well as easing tensions with Cyprus and Greece.
In contrast, the economic crisis in Egypt is putting pressure on El-Sisi, who will face an electoral challenge next year and needs new alliances to help him overcome this crisis, save his local currency from collapse and stop faltering in repaying billions of dollars in loans.
Egypt seeks to enhance bilateral cooperation with Turkiye and attract a valuable share of the Turkish investment pie that is expanding in Africa and neighbouring countries, especially as the volume of trade between the two countries has reached $7 billion and is expected to reach $20 billion in the coming years, according to the Turkish Charge d’Affaires in Cairo, Salih Mutlu Sen.
Around 200 Turkish companies operate in Egypt, providing thousands of job opportunities, with direct investments amounting to $2 billion, which may jump in the future to between $4 and $5 billion, according to Nihat Akinci, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Egyptian-Turkish Businessmen Association.
Turkiye is seeking to reach an agreement with Egypt that would enable trade between the two countries in their local currencies, so that Egypt imports from Turkiye and pays in Egyptian pounds, and Turkiye imports from Egypt and pays in lira, which would limit the drain on each country’s national currency, ease the demand for dollars in both countries and increase the volume of investments between them.
The Libyan File
From economy to politics, Turkiye has become a significant player in the Libyan file, necessitating Egyptian negotiation and coordination with it, to untangle the crisis in the neighbouring oil-rich country and to draft a roadmap that would end the ongoing power struggle since 2011 and lead to reconstruction, which would be in the interest of both Cairo and Ankara.
Abdel Aziz, in his conversation with Middle East Monitor, states that, despite tensions and the rift, the two countries have maintained a level of economic cooperation that has undoubtedly contributed to the development of quiet understanding about their relations and the exploration of common ground to achieve their interests in important security and strategic issues, such as Libya, Syria and maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Libyan file tops the priorities at the negotiation table between the two countries in pursuit of a radical solution, which Mevlüt Cavusoglu expressed in his statements during a press conference with his Egyptian counterpart, saying, “We will cooperate more closely on Libya from now on. In our meeting today (last Thursday), we saw that our views do not differ greatly, in essence. However, we think differently about some methods.” He added that the two countries would work on a roadmap for holding elections in Libya and could train and strengthen a joint army that would bring together forces from the east and west of Libya.
Ankara and Cairo each support a different faction in Libya, with Turkiye backing the Government of National Accord led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (headquartered in Tripoli). In contrast, Egypt supports the Fathi Bashagha government (headquartered in Sirte) backed by its ally, Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Gas and Opposition
Turkish observers say that Ankara is exerting pressure on the Libyan file in exchange for untangling the crisis of demarcating maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which would allow it greater gas exploration rights. Turkiye sees attracting Egypt as a gain in confronting Greece.
Turkiye seeks to resolve the issue of demarcating maritime borders and preserving its rights in the Eastern Mediterranean gas fields, with Ankara’s desire to eliminate the burden of importing more than 85 per cent of its gas needs, in addition to the possibility of playing a future role in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum alliance (comprising Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Italy).
An Egyptian political analyst, who preferred not to be named, spoke to the Middle East Monitor, saying that “interests are reconciled”, confirming that the reasons for the rapprochement between the two countries are more significant than the disagreement. They need each other in the gas file and cooperation in the Mediterranean Sea and the exploitation of economic waters without problems between them regarding maritime borders, in addition to the need in files such as Libya, Syria, Sudan and Palestine.
These strong motivations for reconciliation do not deny the existence of differences and unresolved security and political issues, such as Turkiye’s position on Islamic currents, which opposes the stance of the Sisi regime, precisely the part of the Muslim Brotherhood group and the opposition residing in Turkiye.
However, current transformations are reinforced by several variables, most notably the death of Morsi in June 2019, whom Ankara demanded to release. Secondly, Turkiye’s bet on the Egyptian opposition over ten years did not bear fruit. Instead, perhaps Sisi’s opponents have become a burden on the Turkish decision-maker, which could justify restricting channels and programs broadcast from Turkish territories and launching a sharp attack on the Egyptian regime.
Three Istanbul-based Egyptian opposition channels, Al-Sharq, Mekameleen and Watan, which Cairo claims are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, have stopped broadcasting from Turkiye, or have cancelled some of their political programs and anti-Sisi rhetoric. Additionally, Egypt’s demand to hand over dozens of opposition figures in Turkiye is being overcome after many of them obtained Turkish citizenship, or some opposition leaders and media personnel left Turkish territories and moved to other countries.
According to the statements of the Egyptian Foreign Minister, preparations are underway for a summit at the level of the two countries’ presidents to crown the path of upgrading relations that began years ago, but took shape during the past month and a half, and will be a new starting point for these relations.
It is realistic to acknowledge that the two countries are on their way to turning the page on the past, especially since arranging a presidential summit between Erdogan and Sisi, which may take place after Eid Al-Fitr or the upcoming Turkish presidential elections, carries solid implications for the two countries’ desire to accelerate the pace of normalisation between them and to formulate clear understandings that may establish extensive cooperation, initially through the gateway of the economy and, secondly, under the banner of mutual interest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.