Strategic studies

Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement: indications of timing and mutual advantages

Introduction

The last quarter of the year 2020 has witnessed dramatic changes on the international scene, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), while some countries began reviewing their foreign priorities in pursuit to adjust them with what match their strategic interests and their national security as well.

Moreover, there are a relative changes have occurred in the nature of the political alliances which continued over the past 10 years, especially in the regions of the Arabian Gulf and The Middle East, which led to the emergence of pragmatism in some countries that began to pay more attention to their strategic interests as well as the threats surrounding them.

The change which occurred in the United States of America – at the level of the administration of the White House – with the advent of the current president Joe Biden to power, was the driver to these developments, as he adopts a policy different from his predecessor Donald Trump. As soon as the general features to the foreign-policy orientations of Biden’s administration have appeared, the interactions in the region have accelerated. As the third Gulf crisis has been settled at the Al-Ula summit in January 2021, and the rivalry over the conflict in Libya ended after reaching a political settlement between the sides to the crisis, and the latest developments in Yamen about pacification in parallel with the emergence of political interactions in other issues in the entire region.

In light of these transformations, some promising signs appeared in the course of the Egyptian-Turkish relations. During the past two months, the two sides exchanged publicly diplomatic messages on various levels, which revealed their desire to reconnect with each other partially, after a break at the political level since 2013; In March – 2021, Turkish officials talked about the existence of contacts at the intelligence level between Cairo and Ankara regarding Libya, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced the beginning of the return of diplomatic contacts between his country and Egypt with the aim of returning relations to their normal path without preconditions [1]. Further confirmation came by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said: “Our economic, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation with Egypt is continuing.” [2]

The Turkish statements aligned with developments in the position of Cairo, where in parallel, made amendment in its foreign policies. Such amendment began to appear in some common issues with Turkey on the basis of positive neutrality and common interests, which read by Ankara with a correct reading, especially after Cairo launched on 18 February, 2021, the first global bid for oil and natural gas exploration in the Gulf of Suez, Western Sahara and the Eastern Mediterranean. [3]. Upon closer look at the this bidding it seems to us that Egypt has taken into account the Turkish continental shelf stipulated by an agreement made with the Government of National Accord in Libya in 2019.

The remarkable point to note here is that the Egyptian move was not limited to the clear flexibility of indirect situations, but rather it was formalized through official Egyptian institutions. Including foreign affairs, intelligence and the media. On 14 March, 2021, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry announced during his meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Relations Committee, “Egypt is always seeking to continue the relations between the Egyptian and Turkish peoples, adding that communication at the political level with Turkey is possible if there is a coordination in positions and actions in some issues ”[4]

According to these positions, which reflect in its general framework, a mutual Egyptian-Turkish desire for a initial restoration of relations. As a result, several questions have raised about the reasons, motivations and type of this rapprochement, especially since the exchanged messages have recently moved from the security level to the political level. After Turkey on April, 2021, has announced that a Turkish delegation headed by the Deputy Foreign Minister will visit Egypt at the beginning of this May. In addition, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has announced on 20 April that it had submitted a proposal for the President of the Parliament to form a friendship group with Egypt and Libya. [5] Which raises another question about the content of these communications, and is it a comprehensive return to relations, or a joint tactical coordination in some issues? And how will all this be reflected in the important issues in the region?

This paper addresses these questions with the aim of answering them with an objective, neutral view

First: A description of the current Turkish-Egyptian relations:

What distinguishes the relationship between Egypt and Turkey, is that it did not witness a state of permanent certainty and stability, as it has taken upward and downward paths from one phase to another, especially at the time of cold war which witnessed tension between the two countries, when Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Egypt made rapprochement with the Soviet Union. [6]

In the current era, the relationship between both countries, witnessed a major development, especially during the term of the former president Hosni Mubarak, who played an important role in defusing the crisis that resulted from Hafez Assad’s support for the “PKK” terrorist organization. Then the relationship has witnessed another surge during the rule of the late President Mohammed Morsi, but in 2013 it tended towards decline and severance of political ties. then it was limited to the level of the Chargé d’Affairs, due to the discrepancy that occurred about the internal developments that took place in Egypt, which led to the rise of the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to power.

However, despite all the crises, the door was left open to any possible return to the relationship, and also to preserve the bridges of communication, which was evident in the continued security and economic dealings, as Turkey ranked third and fourth among the list of importing and exporting countries to Egypt. In addition, the trade volume between the two countries reached 5 billion US dollars between 2018 and 2020. These figures reflects the efficacy of the efforts of the two state institutions in affirming the necessity of continuing the interactions between the two countries without subjecting it to the divisive sphere of influence that remained confined to the level of political leadership. [7]

Before going into the dynamics of rapprochement between the two sides, we highlight the points of disagreement between them, in order to know the circumstances in which the rapprochement occurred recently, and points of disagreement between the two sides can be summed up in its general framework as follows:

  • The Turkish stance regarding the arrival of Sisi to power in Egypt in 2013, as a result, Turkey embraced the opposition leaders, which responded by Egypt through political rejection and escalation against this position that contributed to worsening of the relationship at the political level.
  • The nature of contradictory alliances in which the two sides entered has contributed to complicating the relationship and removing it from bilateral disagreement into the collective, this was more evident through the emergence of what has become known in the media as “the politics of axes” in the region.
  • The differences in visions and stances in the East Mediterranean gas issue, where the two countries concluded contradictory agreements that reflected negatively on their common interests, Egypt partially demarcated its maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus, and participated in the establishment of the “East Mediterranean Gas Forum” with external parties who chose to exclude Turkey from it. In return, Turkey demarcated its common economic zone with Libya on November 27 – 2019. [8].
  • The difference in positions towards the Libyan crisis between the east and the west of the country, which would have triggered a military confrontation at the conflict lines between Sirte and Jufrah, had it been for the bilateral process of restraint and containment that led to the reinforcement of efforts and the achievement of a political settlement in 2021.
  • The emergence of another contradiction between both countries regarding the third Gulf crisis (the Siege on the State of Qatar) that began on 5 June 2017, when Egypt was one of the four parties to the blockade, while Turkey was and is still one of the most important strategic partners to Qatar. [10]

However, with the end of this latest crisis – along with other issues in Libya and the emergence of a relative calm in the eastern Mediterranean – it can be said that the differences between the two sides began to dissolve gradually, which is evident through the indicators of bilateral rapprochement.

Second: indicators of rapprochement:

Apart from what some media outlets eager to know who made the concession first; Egypt or Turkey, The indicators of rapprochement between the two sides go beyond this proposition. Based on the strategic importance of both countries, and the history, values, principles, relationships, and cultural heritage that they share, it can be said that Egypt and Turkey need each other, and neither of them can surpass the other no matter how long the dispute lasts. Turkey, in turn, realizes that Egypt is one of the largest Arab countries, and has characteristics and resources that qualify it to be a center power – according to Ahmed Dwadoglu in his book “The Strategic Depth” [11] – and Turkey views it as its African gateway. In addition, Egypt has shared borders with Palestine, which made it the focus of attention and interest of many countries that have a long history with the Palestinian issue, and Turkey is one of these countries.

With regard to Egypt, it is fully aware of the importance of Turkey, from the point of view of its link between Asia and Europe, up to the commercial and economic importance, as well as its effective role in the region, which made it share many issues, risks and opportunities with Egypt.

Accordingly, the indications of rapprochement between both countries came in the form of common desire and based on a common historical awareness – at least – of the risks facing them, the most important of which are at the regional level: the issues of Eastern Mediterranean gas and Libya. As Egypt did not fully respond to the French-Greek bloc against Turkey on the island of Crete [12]. Although there is a maritime border demarcation agreement with Cyprus and Greece in 2003, the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, through its management to this file, was able to curb its participation in the regional confrontation against Ankara, and this was evident in 2020 when Egypt signed a maritime agreement with Greece, in which the experts noted that Egypt has taken into account Turkey’s reservations on the maritime borders and islands; In addition, Egypt did not join the quadripartite forum that Israel announced on 16 April, 2021, which included Israel, the Emirates, Greece and Cyprus. With the aim of strengthening relations between them and benefiting from the resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. [13]

Moreover, in Libyan that witnessed practical indications of a convergence of positions between Ankara and Cairo, one of them was on the security and intelligence level. When we looking at the New Cairo approach in Libya – which came after the failure of the Khalifa Haftar project – Egypt took several steps, and has sent more than one diplomatic and security delegations to Tripoli and its government, and announced its desire to reopen its embassy, which had been closed since 2014.

Perhaps Cairo’s awareness of the importance of its national security in its common western border with Libya, as well as the importance of preserving its commercial and economic interests with it, prompted Egypt eventually to adopt a new strategy apart from its old alliances. In addition, the engagement of Turkey in the Libyan crisis in 2019 shifted the balance of power in it, and reset it again, which Cairo read as a fait accompli that cannot be ignored.

The Egyptian positions earned the respect of Turkey, as it showed its respect for Cairo’s efforts, and took into account its national security concerns and its vital role in achieving Libyan stability. Accordingly, these positions were translated by Turkey’s commitment to cease the military operations at the contact lines (Sirte – Al-Jufra). When the United Nations pushed the efforts of political settlement at the beginning of 2021, Egypt and Turkey had a major role in achieving the settlement. According to sources that confirmed for Barq, some kind of coordination took place between them out of media in the areas of security and intelligence, and these measures were a positive indirect indication of imminent return of relations.

 Despite the importance of these developments, they remain useless without looking at the motives that led to the emergence of the rapprochement indicators and their subsequent developments.

Third: the motivations for rapprochement:

  1. International and regional changes
  2. Biden’s administration

The arrival of Joe Biden, the Democratic president to the White House, posed common challenges to Egypt and Turkey, that changed their traditional policies that are followed in the era of the former President Donald Trump, who supported Egypt in the internal issues such as human rights and provided a kind of support in the issue of the Renaissance Dam. In return, Turkey succeeded in removing a green light to move and expand in some areas, including: Syria (Operation Peace Spring in northeastern Syria), Libya (in Tripoli), and the southern Caucasus (Nagorno Karabakh). [15]

However, these policies have been modified in the era of Biden’s administration, which is clearly going in the opposite direction to the policy pursued by Trump, as the outlines of Biden’s administration in the Middle East are moving towards concluding a deal with Iran that give free rein to Iran for more chaos in the region, and at the same time returning it to the international scene.

These measures led to a kind of apathy in the course of US relations with Egypt and Turkey, and generated a feeling of the necessity to rearrange and engineer the bilateral relationship, so that to contain the new agenda of the US’s administration so as to avoid a clash with it.

The options available for Egypt and Turkey were to head to Europe to strengthen the relations and create a kind of temporary calm in the problematic points; Turkey for example has held the first official talks with Greece in January 2021 since they were suspended in 2016 due to the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean and the dispute over the Cyprus issue [16]. It also held out-of-media talks with France with the aim of developing a roadmap to settle the contentious issues.

As for Egypt, it has intensified its contacts with France, Germany and Russia. To secure a kind of regional support that would counter and support the actions of Biden, who previously stated that “Egypt will no longer obtain open checks.” [17]

  • Israel’s expansion

The Israeli expansion in the region from Arab Mashreq (the eastern part of the Arab world) and the Gulf to Morocco, up to the Horn of Africa and the southern Red Sea, led to a growing Egyptian-Turkish concern for their interests. Especially with regard to the projects of transporting the gas and energy to Europe and the resulting threat to the Suez Canal.

Israel has another major project that would directly affect Egypt’s water security, such project would also harm Turkey’s role in transporting gas via its pipelines to Europe, which is a project to transport UAE oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. In reference to the creation of an alternative route in the future to the Suez Canal, where it is known in media as “Ben Gurion Canal,” as this project is the most dangerous to Egypt and its water security. Israel recently has begun to construct a large port in Ashkelon to accommodate the huge ships and container carriers that will sail across the Mediterranean, which means that there is an effort to transfer the strategic importance of trade in the Middle East from Egypt to Israel. [18]

  • Resolution of the blockade crisis:

The resolution of the third Gulf crisis opened the door to pacify the relation between some countries and others. As the reconciliation paved the way for Turkey to strengthen its relations with Qatar and Kuwait, and to make a partial smooth for its relations with Saudi Arabia, and to some extent with the Emirates, and thus Egypt believes that it has an interest in normalizing its relations with Turkey. According to what already mentioned above, the solution to the Gulf crisis contributed to the convergence of views between Egypt and Turkey in several issues; Such as: Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Sudan.

  • Internal accounts (Egypt-Turkey)

There is a set of internal accounts that explain the current positive flexibility between Egypt and Turkey, which can be considered from the scope of the interests and threats for both countries. As for Egypt, it is surrounded by a set of dangers that have negatively affected its regional role and political performance, such matter that Egypt attempts to avoid at the current phase, as its eastern front is still under pressure from armed organizations in Sinai, in addition to the threats relating to its national security in its shared western border with Libya and southern Sudan due to the Renaissance Dam crisis. Furthermore, Ethiopia is preparing to implement the second phase of the filling of the dam this May; which will negatively affect the country’s water wealth in the upcoming years. [19]

Based on an institutional awareness in Egypt, especially after the emergence of external challenges imposed by Biden administration, Cairo desired to defuse the crises in the issues in which it was involved with some countries, in order to devote itself to facing the greatest danger to them (the Renaissance Dam crisis).

In the eastern Mediterranean crisis, Cairo began to create a new approach to ensure its gas economic shares and to attract the investments of major countries’ companies. This vision was reinforced by the exploration tender that it launched on 18 February 2021, intending to attract companies to explore marine areas that are not affected by any conflict with other countries. [20].

In order to ensure that these areas are not in dispute, Egypt extended the communications bridges with Turkey to defuse the crisis that erupted through the Eastern Mediterranean Forum in 2019, as well as the recent agreement that Egypt signed with Greece in 2020. According to some experts, Cairo has deliberately left some loopholes in this latest agreement to enable it to make an amendment to it in the future by introducing new parties to it, such as Turkey, because Egypt is fully aware that any maritime demarcation with Turkey will bring to it larger shares than what would be obtained with its agreement with Greece; For this reason, Turkey announced more than once in April of its desire to sign a maritime agreement with Egypt. [21]

There are other reasons that pushed Egypt to seek a positive settlement with Turkey, such as the marginalization and downsizing that Egypt felt from its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean issue, as Greece signed on 1 March, 2021, tripartite electrical connection agreement with Israel and Cyprus to lay the longest electric cable across the Mediterranean, which will connect the electrical networks of the three countries [22]. Moreover, the same countries had signed an agreement between them at the beginning of 2020 to establish the EastMed pipeline to transport gas to Europe. [23]. As a result, the Egyptian government then considered these projects a threat to its ambition to turn into a global platform in the gas industry, which prompted it to review the alliance in which it was engaged with those countries in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

On the other hand, the de-escalation of the conflict in the Libyan landscape, has become a necessity to ensure Egypt’s national security, which Egypt believes that it could be possible through coordination with Turkey to fill the security vacuums. Especially after the map of the conflict changed in light of the rapid developments in Libya. The Gulf reconciliation affected Egypt’s position on the Libyan crisis, and prompted it to change its priorities, especially since the reconciliation itself may lead in the future to narrow the divergences in views with some countries, and thus it became necessary for Cairo to coordinate with Ankara that shares with it a bundle of issues, interests and concerns.

In the same context, the objective circumstances that pushed Egypt to bring about a rapprochement with Turkey; Egypt is seeking to benefit from Turkey in many issues such as its endeavor to achieve a breakthrough in the issue of the Egyptian opposition inside Turkey. Although Turkey has a vision that different somewhat from Cairo’s ambition in this issue, this issue witnesses a change recently in Turkish stance towards the opposition, as regular reports indicated that Ankara notified those in charge of the Egyptian media in Turkey to control their media discourse [24]; This means that this issue will remain presented in the open political give and take between the two countries.

With regard to Turkey, it seeks to dismantle the alliance formed against it in the eastern Mediterranean issue, which consists of Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France, hence any success in attracting Egypt in its favor would contribute – even in principle – to weakening this alliance, Especially since Egypt began to resent it – as mentioned previously – because the alliance concluded agreements in insolation from Cairo. Perhaps Turkey’s strategic goal in concluding a maritime agreement with Egypt is its desire to achieve a major breakthrough within this alliance, which recently conducted naval exercises in conjunction with the indications of Egyptian rapprochement with Turkey. [25]

Ankara also aspires, behind its rapprochement with Egypt, in addition to calming its fronts with the various parties in the region, to devote itself to put it house in order and solve some political and economic problems, which are among the priorities of the ruling party in Turkey; Such as: the debates raised on the issue of the constitution, economic reforms, and all the way to the 2023 elections.

Fourth: the horizon of rapprochement

in the light of fast-paced development between Egypt and Turkey, the discussions has become widespread about the level of this rapprochement, especially since the existence of many obstacles that could undermine these efforts, among them the dissatisfaction of Egypt’s international allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Israel, as they have many leverages on Cairo in many issues.

Moreover, there are other obstacles regarding the agreements that the Egyptian government signed with these countries, so how will the fate of these agreements, which contradict any Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement? But it is still early to talk about these results; Especially if Egypt were to proceed with the search for a compromise solution that specifically satisfies all parties in the file of the collective clash in the eastern Mediterranean gas.

However, the indications of the Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement indicators in the short-term cannot be ignored, and the question currently being raised is about the extent of rapprochement, will it reach the level of the president of the two countries, or will it be limited to the sub-presidential level?. From this point, there are two views emerged among the observers in this regard:

The first: consider that there is no impossible in politics, and based on the two sides’ awareness of the bundle of interests, and their participation in overlapping issues and several concerns, it is possible that the rapprochement reach the level of the president, and those observes expect that the presidents of both countries will shake the hands of each other at the end, but this expectation is unrealistic, as the discussions are confined to coordinating some issues in a manner commensurate with the nature of the changes in the international scene.

The second:

Other observers believe that that the rapprochement would be confined in the short and medium term to the level of high-ranking officials in the executive authority below the presidential level, the observers argue that it is difficult for both sides to overcome all the points of disagreement, the most important of which is related to the contradictory orientations and the different visions of some issues in the region, which began their interactions since 2011. In addition, the issue of the Egyptian opposition is considered one of the most important thorny issues, and it will remain subject to interactions and backlash in the future.

Conclusion

Based on what mentioned earlier, the nature of the rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey can be described at the present time as a tactical shift, which can be halted at certain point to be imposed by the international circumstances led by the current US President Joe Biden in his endeavor to reset alliances, relations and the balance of power in the region, and Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement therefore became a temporary calming which its development to higher levels depends on the will of the two parties and their relentless pursuit of overcoming common difficulties and challenges together.

If this development in relationships between both countries occurred, it would be reflected in the rest of the issues in the region, and it would also rearrange and engineer the political geography of the Middle East. As Egypt and Turkey have the potential to move together in more than one geographical area, and they have common interests in Sudan and Africa, and it is possible for Turkey to benefit from the case of the Egyptian-Sudanese alliance to revive its agreements with Sudan that concluded during the era of ousted President Omar al-Bashir. At the same time, Egypt could benefit from Turkey in several areas; the most important of them is field through concluding deals regarding Turkish drones, in addition, Egypt can also benefit from Turkey’s vital role in Africa, as Turkey has many investments with several countries. Such as: Chad, Niger, Somalia and Mali. It should be noted that the rapprochement may be reflected in the resolution of some of the region’s issues in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The two parties have an influential and multiple presence in the region’s issues, which cannot be ignored.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Barq for Policies and Consultations.”

All rights reserved to Barq for Policies and Consultations © 2021

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[2] https://bit.ly/3tucse5

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[3] https://bit.ly/3v76sbD

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[4] https://bit.ly/3ghKqyF

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[5] https://bit.ly/2QLabwj

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[6] https://bit.ly/2RC1apQ

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[7] https://bit.ly/3gkShv7

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[8] https://bit.ly/3egQt3E

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[9] https://bit.ly/2QyxSYL

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[10] https://bit.ly/2CKFAs8

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[11] https://bit.ly/3svuCKU

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[12] https://bit.ly/3sxqV7w

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[13] https://bit.ly/3uUk5uq

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[14] https://bit.ly/3am53G3

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[15] https://bit.ly/3svqTwQ

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[16] https://arbne.ws/3amcYmE

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[17] https://cnn.it/3suaOYv

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[18] https://bit.ly/2OY7TJM

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[19] https://bit.ly/3tuV7BN

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[20] https://bit.ly/3v2dT3K

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[21] https://bit.ly/3gkoSRS

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[22] https://bit.ly/32r1Hxi

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[23] https://bit.ly/3gmX1R4

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[24] https://bit.ly/3svqTwQ

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[25] https://bit.ly/3sts0xj

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[26] https://bit.ly/2P0paCh

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