Facing increasing international isolation, while pressure is increasing on Ankara with the recent US sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday expressed his intention “to strengthen relations with Egypt, if current diplomatic contact between the two countries leads to positive results.”
In recent years, relations between Cairo and Ankara fluctuated from very friendly to extremely tense. They fractured in 2013 when Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was warmly supported by Erdogan, was ousted in a coup by current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi immediately started a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood, something which angered the Islamist President of Turkey. The two Presidents on many occasions traded barbs and both countries withdrew their ambassadors.
Erdogan, who espouses an expansionist pan-Islamist ideology, saw the overthrow of Morsi as a serious blow and openly expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman to say that Ankara attempts to “influence public opinion” and is supporting “meetings of organizations that seek to create instability in Egypt.”
Both Turkey and Egypt are politically and culturally influential players in the Middle East but they follow opposite foreign policies. In fact, they formed or joined two opposing alliance networks.
As Dr Mawa Maziad, of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies, points out: “A regional fault line of power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa has emerged. Two alliance networks accentuated this rivalry: first, the Turkey-Qatar pan-Islamist alliance; and second, the Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, statist militarized-secularizing pact (also known as the Arab Quartet). The Arab Quartet increasingly converged on shared interests with Israel, as the Abraham Accords came to prove. The Arab Quartet and Israel also share mutual interests with Greece, Cyprus, and France, as opposed to those of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”
In the past few years, Turkey raised tension in the Eastern Mediterranean when it sent its ships to carry out hydrocarbon explorations in the Cyprus EEZ and in the Aegean Sea. Furthermore, it reached an agreement with the Government of National Accord of Libya for the demarcation of the EEZ between Turkey and Libya, ignoring the relevant rights of Cyprus and Greece under international law.
As Egypt is generally acknowledged to be a leading Arab state, Turkey realised that until Ankara does get some sort of dialogue going again with Cairo, its relations with most of the Arab world are likely to languish and be unproductive. This is increasingly damaging to Erdogan’s prestige inside the country as well as internationally.
Turkish Foreign Minister MevlutCavusoglu last week claimed that high-level contacts between Ankara and Cairo have resumed at the level of intelligence and Foreign Ministry. “Our contacts at diplomatic level had started,” he told Anadolu news agency.
However, according to several Egyptian and Arab media, an Egyptian foreign ministry official denied claims by the Turkish government that there has been resumption and restoration of ties with Cairo.
Another Egyptian diplomat told Al-Sharq newspaper that Cairo has no intention to negotiate a maritime deal with Turkey in the short run, adding that Cairo maintains its rejection of the maritime deal reached between Ankara and Libya’s Government of National Accord.
It is evident that the Turkish government now fervently wishes to restore diplomatic relations with Cairo, but Erdoganwho presents himself as the defender of Muslims all over the world is reluctant to denounce publicly the Muslim Brotherhood, a group designated by the Egyptian government as a terrorist organisation. Moreover, Turkey’s military presence in Libya and Erdogan’s anti-Sisi posture still remain major barriers to the improvement of bilateral relations.
Huseyin Bagci of the Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank in Ankara, explains Cairo’s reluctance concerning Erdogan’s overtures: “For tango, you need two, and Egypt is not so interested. Egypt wants to show to its public that Turkey has done wrong. Turkey is like a demanding gentleman who wants to dance. But the lady who’s been disappointed before by the gentleman, so it will take time to dance again. But Egypt will realize it’s in its interests economically, politically, technologically, diplomatically to work with Turkey.”