[Opinion] Why Turkey is attempting to restore relations with Egypt

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Türkmen Terzi

The Turkish government is seeking to restore its relationship with Egypt after nearly a decade of tensions between the two nations. Friction set in when Muslim Brotherhood president and Turkish ally Mohamed Morsi was unseated by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Ankara’s main agenda in approaching Egypt is to strengthen economic ties with the Arab world and to turn the eastern Mediterranean into a field of cooperation.

Earlier this year the Turkish government confirmed that it had resumed diplomatic contact with Egypt, with a Turkish delegation traveling to Cairo in May. Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal and his Egyptian counterpart, Hamdi Sanad Loza, presided over the second round of talks on bilateral relations and regional developments, in Ankara on Sept. 7-8. The Turkish Foreign Ministry subsequently issued a statement clarifying that the diplomats had taken steps to improve the relationship as well as discussing issues relating to Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.

NATO member Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system in addition to numerous human rights violations by the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) since a 2016 coup attempt has left Turkey isolated in from the Western world. Turkey’s relationship with the Arab world remains on shaky ground since Ankara has pursued a militarized policy in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the Middle East.

According to the international media, Turkey’s main aim in approaching Egypt is to secure Cairo’s support as it attempts to restore its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt’s biggest concern lies in Turkey’s military presence in Libya since Cairo supports the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).  Egypt has strongly criticized Turkey’s support for the radical Islamist group in the region and is especially concerned with eastern Libya, which borders Egypt.

Despite opposition in Libya, Turkey hopes to proceed in signing a maritime demarcation deal with Egypt to reap the benefits of recently discovered oil and natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean region. Ankara convincing Cairo to sign the maritime deal appears unrealistic considering the short period of time as the Egyptian government and Greece signed a maritime agreement in August of last year that demarcated between the two countries an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean, an area containing rich oil and gas reserves.

“The maritime agreement between Egypt and Greece saddened us since our relationship with Egypt is different from Egypt’s relations with Greece. This should be discussed,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated while expressing disappointment following the Egypt-Greece deal. Ankara currently hopes to garner Cairo’s support for the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal that was signed Nov. 27, 2019 between Ankara and Libya’s internationally recognized GNA. Following Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s resignation last September, Erdoğan and the head of Libya’s new interim government, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, met in April in Ankara and agreed to maintain the 2019 Mediterranean accord. This has angered Greece and Cyprus as the deal prevents the transport of gas without Ankara’s consent. The Turkey-Libya deal has been regarded as a counter-move to the maritime deal of Greece, Egypt, Israel and the Greek Cypriot Administration, which excludes Turkey.

Among Turkey’s expectations from its new Egypt policy is to gain Cairo’s support in realigning its relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Erdoğan was highly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, also known as MBS, following the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul in 2018. Erdoğan repeatedly expressed his belief that the Saudis intentionally planned for Khashoggi’s killing to take place in Turkey. However, Erdoğan refrained from directly accusing MBS. The head of Saudi Arabia’s Chamber of Commerce last year called for a boycott of Turkish products, while the two countries censored some of each other’s news websites, Riyadh has also accused Turkey of supporting political Islamist groups. There are in addition deep tensions between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey stemming from Turkey’s support for Libya’s GNA against the UAE-backed LNA. The Erdoğan government hastened to help Qatar in a Gulf dispute during an embargo imposed primarily by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in May 2017. After years of tension, Erdoğan, in a surprise move, hosted UAE national security advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan last month.  Following the meeting, Erdoğan confirmed that they had discussed possible UAE investments in Turkey.

Prominent Turkish journalists including Memduh Bayraktaroğlu have inferred that with Erdoğan’s health deteriorating, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, will become more dominant in Turkey’s security and foreign policy issues. Akar praised the Sisi government for respecting Turkey’s continental shelf limits in Egypt’s tender on hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean in March of this year. “We have many historical and cultural values in common with Egypt. When they are put to use, we think there may be different developments in the coming days,” Akar said during the Blue Homeland-2021 tactical exercise.

Turkey has largely lost its business market in the Middle East since the Arab Spring, and Erdoğan’s popularity has waned in the Arab world owing to Turkey’s support of radical Islamist groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya and many other parts of the Islamic world. Turkey’s recent Arab opening was not designed by autocratic Turkish or Arab leaders; the normalization initiative comes mainly from Turkish and Arab businesspeople since the coronavirus has not severely affected these countries. Despite political tensions, Turkey and Egypt have continued trade relations, with Turkey the fifth-largest exporter to Egypt in the last year.

Erdoğan is not likely to succeed in establishing close ties with Egyptian leader el-Sisi nor Saudi’s MBS after his harsh criticism of them. Erdoğan no longer has a strong economy that could rival that of the key US-allied Arab states — Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia — since the Turkish lira has lost 50 percent of its value against the US dollar since 2018 and its foreign trade deficit has risen by 180 percent. Turkey’s exports have declined by 17.8 percent in the last year, and Arab countries remain a key export market for Ankara.

Despite Turkey’s efforts to ease tensions with Egypt, as long as Erdoğan remains in power, Turkey will not succeed in fully restoring its relationship with Cairo and key Arab states since Erdoğan is continuing his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups in the Arab world.

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