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Normalisation between Egypt and Turkiye: The winners and losers

June 5, 2023 at 4:00 pm

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

In a move fraught with significance, both the Egyptian and Turkish sides rushed to formally announce the upgrading of diplomatic relations and the mutual exchange of ambassadors, following the victory of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his third presidential term in the elections of 28 May.

Perhaps this external manoeuvre is the first diplomatic step taken by Erdogan after winning the run-off against his rival, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, and receiving a congratulatory call from Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. This call was preceded by a handshake at the opening of the Football World Cup last November, attended by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Further steps towards full normalisation between the two countries are expected, amid arrangements for a presidential summit between Erdogan and Al-Sisi planned for this year, to conclude economic and intelligence cooperation agreements and finalise matters of mutual interest, particularly those relating to Libya, Syria, Eastern Mediterranean gas and the Egyptian opposition.

Strong Impetus

It appears that Cairo was in a state of anticipation before announcing the latest move, waiting for the results of the run-off in the Turkish presidential election, especially given the hopes harboured by Arab and Gulf capitals for a possible victory of the opposition candidate. However, the election results dashed those hopes, meaning Erdogan will remain President of Turkiye until 2028.

READ: The challenges facing Erdogan’s new cabinet

The victory has strengthened the importance of the role played by the Turkish President in various matters on both the regional and international stages, pushing several countries, including Egypt, to finalise their choices. This relates to accelerating rapprochement and normalisation with Turkiye, turning the page on disputes, and even seeking to reap quick gains.

President Erdogan is keen to persist with a policy of “zero problems” with influential countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel. He aims to attract massive investments to his country and sign agreements to rejuvenate the Turkish economy, particularly after the devastating earthquake last February, which claimed the lives of 50,000 people and cost the country a staggering $84 billion in losses, equivalent to 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Union of Companies and Business in Turkiye.

Moreover, the Turkish President aspires to secure his country’s membership in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which includes seven countries (Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy and France) collaborating to transport gas from the Middle East to European markets. Erdogan aims to prevent the Forum from becoming a staunch adversary to Ankara and to break this isolation, given that many of Turkiye’s opponents belong to the Forum group.

On the other side, the Egyptian President appears to be in dire need to invigorate his country’s economy and increase Turkish investments, which stand at $2.5 billion, through 200 Turkish companies operating in Egypt, including 40 major companies, according to Jihad Akin, President of the Egyptian-Turkish Businessmen Association.

The trade volume between the two countries reached about $9.7 billion in 2022, of which $4.5 billion were Turkish exports to Egypt, while Egyptian exports to Turkiye exceeded $5 billion. There are expectations of an increase in trade volume to $20 billion annually in the coming few years, according to the Turkish Chargé d’Affaires in Cairo, Mutlu Sen.

The two countries aspire to reactivate the Rome shipping agreement, frozen since 2015, with the aim of utilising Egyptian ports to transport Turkish exports from the Turkish ports of Mersin and Iskenderun to the Egyptian ports of Damietta and Port Said on the Mediterranean, before subsequently transferring them to the Arabia port on the Red Sea, and then transporting them on Turkish ships to Gulf countries.

In another context, President Al-Sisi is well aware that rapprochement with Erdogan will impose more pressure and restrictions on the Egyptian opposition, especially the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (designated as a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities), who reside on Turkish soil. This could expedite their deportation or, at the very least, halt their media and political activities completely.

WATCH: ‘This is a Turkish Republic; go back to your own country’

Pressure on Al-Sisi’s regime is increasing with the continuation of the Russian-Ukrainian war for the second consecutive year, the outbreak of war in Sudan, Egypt’s southern gateway, and a new refugee crisis, in addition to an unstable situation on its western border with Libya. This necessitates coordination with Turkiye regarding the Libyan and Sudanese files, and perhaps requesting Ankara’s mediation in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis, given Turkiye’s influence in Addis Ababa.

For nearly a decade, specifically since the military coup against the late Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, in mid-2013, the Muslim Brotherhood, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria have been the most contentious issues between Cairo and Ankara.

The appointment of former Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Aidan, as Foreign Minister paves the way for a significant shift in relations between the two countries. As a trusted confidante of the Turkish President and the architect of Turkiye’s rapprochement efforts with several Arab nations, including Egypt, Aidan is expected to bring about meaningful change.

Winners and Losers

The announcement of an exchange of ambassadors is the first step in a roadmap that includes an anticipated visit by Erdogan to Cairo, discussions on the demarcation of maritime boundaries and the signing of economic agreements as a cornerstone to revive the economies of both countries. In addition, resolving outstanding issues will have a positive impact, particularly on the Libyan file, which also awaits a roadmap to hold presidential and legislative elections to end the country’s state of division. Consequently, both countries are expected to secure a significant share of the lucrative Libyan reconstruction project.

If the two countries find common ground on many issues, Turkiye would bolster its position in the geopolitical conflict with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, turning to regional gas and energy cooperation initiatives. This is particularly crucial as Ankara relies on Egyptian gas.

The restoration of Syria’s Arab League membership could possibly encourage Turkiye to foster understandings with the Syrian regime, securing its security interests and facilitating the return of Syrian refugees, which had been a popular election issue in the Turkish opposition’s favour, earning approval from Turkish voters who granted the opposition candidate 48 per cent of the votes.

The so-called “Turkish pivot”, as the political researcher, Hamid Al-Masri, terms it, can be interpreted in light of several issues which dictated this change. These include consolidating economic cooperation, delineating maritime boundaries, Turkiye’s exit from Mediterranean isolation and understanding the Libyan crisis and sharing interests after its resolution. This implies that both countries would benefit from these matters which impact their national economies and security.

In a conversation with the Middle East Monitor, the Egyptian pundit emphasised the pragmatism behind the convergence of the two countries’ leadership. He recalled a saying by the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius: “In politics, you cannot change men’s nature, but you can use them as they are.” He pointed out that the Egyptian opposition dossier has become a card in Ankara’s hand, and that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the biggest losers in this political shift. This shift indicates wider regional political changes, forcing them to re-evaluate the narrowing scope of their movement, adopting an independent political approach that distances them from being a pawn in regional axes, and making them more effective in their home country’s reform issues.

READ: Can Cairo torpedo the UN’s plans in Libya despite its rapprochement with foe Ankara?

A Powerful Card

Undoubtedly, rapprochement with Turkiye gives Egypt a powerful card in its regional options. This coincides with mediation efforts to initiate an Egyptian-Iranian convergence, implying Egypt’s desire to escape from Gulf pressures and break free from the sphere of Saudi-Emirati influence that has dominated the Egyptian decision-maker in recent years due to aids and loans, and whose investments have become limited to acquisitions and asset purchases.

According to a senior source in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the convergence between Egypt and Turkiye is a necessary one, aimed at reshuffling the cards and brokering comprehensive regional reconciliation imposed by global and regional developments, as per Al Jazeera.

We may, therefore, be on the verge of new alliances emerging in the region or, at the very least, settlements and arrangements between the two countries. This would be based on Turkish-Egyptian pragmatism, considering shared interests, and moving past points of disagreement, even if the issue is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has significantly dropped on the Turkish agenda’s priority list after the death of Morsi in mid-2019, and the ongoing internal and external divisions within the group.

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