Turkey and Egypt are moving to restore fractured relations
Egypt, Turkey seek to reset fractured relationsEgypt and Turkey met for two-day talks to discuss ways to normalize the long-stranded relations; although Egypt seems in no hurry to mend ties, it welcomes the step as it discusses the various files that are causing the rift.
In 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the time Turkey’s prime minister, condemned Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a “tyrant.” Last week, Erdogan, now president, sent a high-level diplomatic delegation to Cairo for discussions of bilateral relations and regional affairs, the first such official talks since 2013. The multi-day talks were led by both sides’ deputy foreign ministers and represented the most concrete step the two countries have taken to date to repair their damaged relationship.
The Egypt-Turkey talks are among a series of diplomatic developments—including direct Saudi-Iran talks, Turkish engagement with Gulf countries, the resumption of U.S. diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear agreement, the approval of a coalition government in Libya, and the ending of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar—that suggests the Middle East may have an opportunity to step back from the interventionism and conflict that have come to characterize regional competition in the decade following the Arab uprisings of 2011.
None of these developments yet represents durable and sustainable change, but taken together they perhaps are reflective of a soberer mindset, cognizant of the costs of overreach. They also come at a time when a new U.S. administration has signaled a shift in both its priorities and its approach to the Middle East.
Egypt-Turkey relations were strained by the overthrow of then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and they have deteriorated further in the years since amid the region’s increasing geopolitical competition and polarization. Since the coup and its violent and repressive aftermath, Egypt and Turkey have viewed each other suspiciously and found themselves on opposing ends of various regional conflicts.
The core of the disagreement can be found in Turkey’s aggressive backing for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi emerged, during the transition that followed the ouster of Egypt’s longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
That posture evolved into a region-wide sorting along pro- and anti-Brotherhood lines that eventually settled into the creation of opposing geopolitical camps across the Middle East. Competition between these camps intensified as the instability ushered in by the Arab uprisings afforded regional players multiple opportunities to attempt to increase their influence and power, often through direct military means.
The focus of Cairo’s ire had initially centered on Ankara’s role in supporting and hosting members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had taken refuge in Turkey after the coup that brought Sisi to power. But the tensions between the two countries escalated in lockstep with increasing regional divides.
Egypt came to perceive Turkey as a direct threat to its national security interests due to Ankara’s military engagement in neighboring Libya; its increased naval competition in the Eastern Mediterranean focused on newly discovered gas fields and the demarcation of maritime boundaries; its efforts to establish a presence in the Red Sea on Suakin Island; and its stepped-up diplomacy in the Horn of Africa.
By the summer of 2020, military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey in Libya emerged as a possibility, as Turkish-backed Libyan forces moved eastward and Egypt declared the eastern Libyan city of Sirte as a “red line” that would trigger Egyptian intervention.
Faced with its own growing isolation, Turkey has been much more proactive and vocal in courting Egypt, often publicly, in recent months. It also took a series of high-profile steps to meet key Egyptian demands with respect to limiting the activities of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist opposition figures who had taken up residence in Turkey following the 2013 coup.
Most crucial from the perspective of Cairo was Turkey’s cooperation in pressuring three Istanbul-based satellite television channels to tone down their criticism of Egypt and its president in March 2021. It was the first overt step in Turkey’s efforts to mend relations with Egypt but had also been preceded by dialogue on Libya between the two countries’ intelligence services.
Turkey’s overtures will be a difficult challenge to navigate for an Egyptian regime unaccustomed to publicly backtracking from its stated priorities.
By contrast, throughout this process, Egypt has appeared more cautious and reticent in public. While both countries have been forced to back away from their previous hard-line positions and fiery rhetoric, the Sisi regime is less practiced in the possibilities afforded by diplomatic nuance. Egypt’s regional policies have been a direct reflection of its domestic ideological priorities of combating Islamism and militancy, and it has been rigid in its approach to these issues both at home and abroad. In this sense, Turkey’s overtures will be a more difficult challenge to navigate for an Egyptian regime unaccustomed to publicly backtracking from its stated priorities.
Nonetheless, Egypt has much to gain from a more predictable and less volatile relationship with Turkey. The two parties described their talks in a joint statement as “frank and in-depth,” and went on to state that they discussed “bilateral issues as well as a number of regional issues, in particular the situation in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the need to achieve peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”
On the Record
“This is a Jewish country… it’s a Jewish state. It is here to protect the Jewish people.” As tensions and protests escalated in East Jerusalem following attempts to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, defended that effort in an unvarnished fashion. The legal background to the current evictions highlights the divergent treatment of Jewish Israelis, who are afforded the opportunity to litigate claims over the property from which they fled during the 1948 war, while Palestinians are denied an equivalent right. Palestinians see these latest evictions, which an Israeli court froze pending further review, as part of a broader decades-long effort to change the city’s demographics and limit the Palestinian population.
“As to current Saudi-Iranian talks, they aim to explore ways to reduce tensions in the region.” Rayed Krimly, the head of policy planning at the Saudi Foreign Ministry, confirmed publicly for the first time the existence of direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks, which have taken place in Iraq, were aimed at defusing tensions between the two rivals that have fueled regional instability over the past decade. They have purportedly focused on the war in Yemen and the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Krimly went on to express his hopes for success, but cautioned that Saudi Arabia would make such evaluations only on the basis of “verifiable deeds, and not proclamations.”
On the Horizon
During his first trip to the region, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, undertook discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dispute has seen an increasing convergence between Egypt and Sudan, as the two downstream countries have expressed increasing alarm at Ethiopia’s unilateralism and its expressed intent to continue filling the dam’s reservoir without a broader agreement on water management among the three countries. Feltman stated that the Biden administration is “serious in settling such a sensitive issue,” which Sisi described to the U.S. envoy as an “existential issue” for Egypt.