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Turkish-Egyptian reconciliation: The prospects of success and of failure

March 15, 2021 at 11:16 am

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flashes the Rabaa salute as he gives a speech during a meeting at his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) party headquarters in Ankara, on 20 August 2013. [ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images]

In recent days, there has been an increase in Turkish statements on the possibility of restoring relations between Turkey and Egypt. The pinnacle of these statements was the one made on Friday evening by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he confirmed that high-level communications were taking place to elevate relations between the two states.

Turkish statements and Egyptian apathy

The Turkish statements about a rapprochement with Egypt started a month ago. In the beginning, they were issued by advisors or media spokespersons. Then they moved to the level of ministers, and eventually to the level of the presidency.

The statements made last September to Arabi 21, by the Turkish president’s advisor Yasin Aktay, stirred up sluggish waters in bilateral relations. He described the Egyptian army as the “great army” and stressed that contacts between Ankara and Cairo had never been severed. However, he affirmed that talking about the resumption of full relations does not express the true reality because of the remaining issues between the two countries, including Turkey’s objection to military coups and its support for human rights.

In the days following Aktay’s statements to Arabi 21, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu commented on the topic by stressing that intelligence relations between Turkey and Egypt were continuing. He noted that meetings were held between him and the Egyptian foreign minister on the periphery of international conferences. He also highlighted that when Egypt signed the maritime demarcation agreement with Greece and Greek Cyprus, it took into consideration Turkish rights to marine resources.

The Turkish statements resumed some days ago, with the foreign minister’s announcement of the possibility of signing a maritime demarcation agreement between Ankara and Cairo and of launching an unconditional dialogue. Those remarks were then crowned by the declaration on Friday by President Erdogan that intelligence communications between the two countries have continued and about his hope that security and diplomatic contacts will elevate relations.

In contrast to the positive Turkish statements made since last September, the Egyptian authorities have dealt with the matter with an official apathy. Egypt did not officially nor directly respond to the positive Turkish statements, but responded through journalists and former diplomats. The response seemed to be a prepared and coordinated discourse stressing the importance of translating words into deeds and the necessity that Ankara consents to Egyptian conditions regarding its role in Turkey and its embrace of Egyptian opposition figures.

Despite the flow of Turkish statements during the last week about ongoing talks to improve relations with Egypt, Cairo was content with an intelligence source stating to Reuters that Turkey had indeed made diplomatic contacts with Egypt and that it looks forward to expanding relations between the two countries. The source added: “Egypt expects from any country looking forward to establishing normal relations with it to adhere to the rules of international law and good neighbourly principles, and to cease its attempts to intervene in the internal affairs of the region’s states.”

A media source speaking to Arabi 21 quoted an Egyptian Foreign Ministry diplomat stating that his country values the Turkish statements, but is awaiting action. He added that the resumption of relations is: “Conditional upon measures Tukey knows it would have to take first.”

READ: Developments in Turkish-Egyptian relations 

Factors that may aid reconciliation

Several changes have taken place in the region and around the world, and these may indeed drive the wheel of reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey. The most important factors are as follows:

Firstly, Turkey accomplished an important victory in Libya through its troops and air force’s involvement in supporting the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in its defence of the capital, Tripoli. The government succeeded in stopping General Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Egypt and its Gulf allies. It forced him to retreat to eastern Libya after his troops had reached the outskirts of Tripoli. Such a military change led to mobilising political dialogue among the parties involved in the Libyan conflict after Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had realised Haftar’s failure and his inability to achieve a military victory. This is what led to the change in their strategies in Libya.

Egypt expressed this change of strategy by opening up to the GNA in Libya and reopening the Egyptian consulate in Tripoli after closing it for six years.

With Egypt’s realisation that it had become impossible for its ally Haftar to win the battle, and considering that Turkey was the only state that had forces on the ground in Libya, officially and by virtue of a deal with the internationally-recognised government, it concluded that it needed to improve its relations with Turkey to safeguard its interests in Libya.

Ankara knows, too, that the internationally-recognised Libyan government will not be able to seize control of all Libyan territories through military action. It found it in its best interests to contribute to stability within Libya by means of an agreement with Egypt on Libyan files that are of common concern.

Secondly, Egypt realises that Turkey holds essential cards in the region. On the one hand, it has established itself as a principal player in Syria, whereas the Arab states are entirely absent from this burning arena. Additionally, through its coalition with Doha, Turkey has managed to foil the Gulf-Egyptian siege of Qatar. In addition to this, there are its economic and political roles in Iraq and other Arab states. Turkey’s strategic position may motivate Egypt to receive the Turkish signals that call for reconciliation, because settling the disputes between the two sides through conflict is no longer possible in the shadow of the strong strategic position Turkey has, and the elements of power possessed by Egypt in its capacity as the biggest Arab state.

Thirdly, despite the continuing Turkish-Egyptian disputes since the military coup of July 2013, trade relations between the two countries have continued and are even on the rise. Trade exchange between the two countries in 2018 exceeded $5.24 billion. In the meantime, between them, the two states are seeking to increase imports, exports and investments.

Trade relations, which benefit both countries and serve their respective interests, may constitute the gate through which relations are improved, especially in the shadow of the economic recession from which the entire world is suffering due to the coronavirus.

People protest outside the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul on 2 March 2019 [OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images]

People protest against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi outside the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul on 2 March 2019 [OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images]

Fourthly, Egypt and Turkey cannot resolve the East Mediterranean crisis and the problem of excavating for energy resources through conflict or force. Neither can dismiss the rights of the other party. According to Turkish statements, this prompted Egypt to consider Turkey’s rights when signing the maritime demarcation agreement with Greece.

Tensions in this region, which is energy-rich and economically necessary for both countries, will continue so long as a maritime demarcation agreement has not been signed between them. Therefore, rapprochement and reconciliation are essential to enable them to exploit the gas available in the marine areas of their economic influence.

Fifthly, there is also the change of US administration following Donald Trump’s defeat in the elections. The latter’s relations with Turkey and Egypt were positive to some degree, and his policy tended to exercise a minimum level of pressure on Turkey and Egypt. In contrast, the new administration poses an inherent danger to both countries’ interests because of Biden’s critical position on Turkish policies and his pledges to the liberal team within the Democratic party that is opposed to Egypt’s violations of human rights. Such danger renders Turkish-Egyptian reconciliation a common interest for both countries.

Will’ Egyptian reconciliation preconditions’ fail?

Although political and strategic reckonings lead to the belief that an actual reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt is likely, Cairo’s proclamations by anonymous official sources or by the authorities through state-controlled media do not portray an Egyptian seriousness in contrast to the Turkish desire to proceed towards reconciliation.

In addition to the tepidness of official Egyptian statements compared with the high-level talk in Turkey, all the statements attributed to official sources or made by journalists and political analysts in Egypt agree on the necessity that: “Turkish words are translated into actions.” Some Egyptian commentators even spoke of “conditions” that Turkey was expected to meet before any reconciliation.

Speaking by phone to Al-Hikayah TV programme, presented by Amr Adib, renowned Egyptian journalist Emad Al-Din Adib stated that President Erdogan would have to call Al-Ittihadiyah Palace and ask to speak to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to apologise to him to open a new chapter in the relations between the two countries.

In the meantime, Ahmad Al-Khatib, the managing editor of Al-Watan newspaper – which is owned by the Egyptian Intelligence Agency – announced via his Facebook page that Egypt had ten conditions for accepting reconciliation with Turkey. The most notable of these conditions, according to him, are the following: Ankara’s pledge to adhere to international law in the question of maritime demarcation, compliance with the demands of Egypt’s European allies (Greece and Greek Cyprus) in this regard, including the Gulf states in those negotiations, an apology by Turkey for the offences made against those states, to end support for terrorist states, the complete withdrawal from Libya and non-intervention in its affairs, to start a gradual withdrawal from Syria, putting an end to the activity of Egyptian opposition figures, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood, closing their satellite channels and extraditing those wanted by Egypt.

Although these statements are not official, Egyptian media is under the state’s total control and acts in complete obedience to instructions issued by the authorities since the July 2013 coup. The statements also concur with diplomatic statements relayed to Arabi 21 by an Egyptian media source, stating that Cairo: “Would not comment on the Turkish statements as long as there is nothing new, that the Turkish side is releasing their statements unilaterally, that Cairo has nothing to say, that its position is fixed in this regard and that Ankara must address our concerns.”

READ: New winds are blowing in Turkey and the Arab world 

Expected scenarios

If political and strategic factors drive in the direction of a reconciliation between the two countries, the rhetoric of conditions proclaimed by Egypt through its official and media channels may complicate the prospects of reconciliation for the reasons outlined below.

Firstly, Egypt does not have strategic or political supremacy at present over Turkey. Both countries are in equal need of restoring relations because this serves a common interest. Consequently, Turkey is not obliged to meet the conditions, despite its keenness to enter into reconciliation, simply because it benefits both parties, and not just Turkey alone.

Secondly, political events in the past years have proved that Turkey has an abundance of pragmatism. This made it offer concessions in significant instances in the relationship with Russia and over the Syrian issue due to the nature of Syria’s military situation. However, it proved at the same time that it does not concede where it does not feel obliged to do so, or when the matter has to do with its national security, as in the cases of northern Syria, Libya, the energy resources exploration crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as in its insistence to reveal the details of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The latter caused an international embarrassment for the Saudi crown prince. The humiliation continues to this very day, despite the harm incurred upon Turkish economic interests by this position. It is thus believed that Ankara, though prepared to reconcile with Egypt, wants this to happen without any preconditions. This is the position expressed by Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who affirmed that talks are based on the nonexistence of any preconditions.

Thirdly, during the past three years, regional conflicts have shown that the language of conditions does not work in the region. Each party has strong cards that can be of help in the conflict and negotiations. The Gulf crisis is a good example of this. Egypt and three Gulf states failed in their bid to impose their 13 conditions on Qatar and eventually had no option but to restore relations and lift the siege they imposed on it without any known conditions. This is expected to be the fate of the Egyptian conditions for reconciliation with Turkey, if ever these conditions were true.

Fourthly, many Egyptian journalists focused on the necessity of shutting down Egyptian opposition TV channels inside Turkey and on expelling or extraditing opposition figures as a price for reconciliation. This shows that Cairo is not thinking strategically. On the one hand, it subjects important relations with a country like Turkey to an inessential condition. On the other hand, it ignores Ankara’s international obligations not to extradite political opposition figures to a state with no fair judiciary, such as Egypt. The same would apply to the demand for closing down the TV stations and other media outlets. Egypt knows that these Turkish obligations are part of the components of its soft power. It is, therefore, unexpected that it would abandon such obligations for the sake of relations that Ankara knows are needed by both countries, and not just by Turkey.

Consideration of the various factors impacting the relationship between Turkey and Egypt leads us to conclude that reconciliation will not occur if it emerges that the conditions referred to by the Egyptian media are true. However, should those conditions merely be part of the game of negotiations so as to get better results, and should Egypt act according to its own economic and political interests rather than the interests of its Gulf allies, especially the UAE, tangible progress may be accomplished in the relationship between the two countries. Until that happens, Cairo should act wisely and make decisions according to political calculations, and not as amateurs who build their stances on a foundation of conditions that have no connection whatsoever to politics or strategic reckoning.

Translated from Arabi21, 13 March, 2021.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.