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What could Libya expect from re-elected Erdogan and warmer Cairo-Ankara ties?

June 8, 2023 at 8:30 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes statements after cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkiye on June 06, 2023 [Aytaç Unal/Anadolu Agency]

To really see how important Turkiye is, both regionally and internationally, look at the list of heads of states, governments and foreign ministers who rushed to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his election win a few days ago. Big and small, friends and potential foes rushed to offer their congratulations, either to the President directly, or through the Foreign Ministry.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin was the first to send in his message of congratulations, calling Mr. Erdogan “dear friend” and citing his “independent foreign policy” as a particular reason for his win, which will further “strengthen” Ankara-Moscow relations. Putin is certainly happy with Erdogan’s foreign policies, at least when it comes to the war in Ukraine. President Erdogan ignored the stringent sanctioning the West imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine last year. He also played a central role in mediating the grains deal that allowed Russian and Ukrainian wheat to be exported to the world via Turkiye.

For Western leaders, congratulating President Erdogan was something hard to swallow. Joe Biden in Washington and Emmanuel Macron in Paris did not really like Mr. Erdogan and might have hoped that he would lose the elections, too. Now that he has won, they found themselves obliged to offer niceties, if not as a matter of diplomatic protocol then as a matter of their respective national interests. Turkiye, after all, is a NATO member and its refusal for Finland and Sweden to join the alliance has been a headache for big members like the US, France and the United Kingdom. It took months of lobbying before Ankara agreed to let Finland in, but still holding Stockholm’s application.

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The alliance needs both countries in to bolster its Baltic flank on the Russian borders which became an important expansion policy after Russia invaded. At the same time, Turkiye, while still an important NATO member, is increasingly getting closer to Russia through trade, diplomacy and regional coordination—something that is irking Western capitals.

Regionally also, many congratulations poured in to stroke Mr. Erdogan’s big ego. Turkiye, under him, has become a major and sometimes critical player, shifting war outcomes and attempting to further project its economic and military power.

For instance, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, an Erdogan ally, not only sent his message of good wishes but also attended the inauguration ceremony with his wife, who is rarely seen in public.

Turkiye has been a supporter of the Tripoli-based government for years. Turkish troops and their loyal Syrian mercenaries are still on Libyan soil, after they first arrived there in early 2020 to defend the capital against attacking Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

Mr. Dbeibah counts heavily on Mr. Erdogan’s support, both militarily and diplomatically. Since he became Prime Minister in Libya, after bribery-marred United Nations elections, he made ties with Ankara central in his foreign policy.

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Emboldened by his rather big win of 52.14 per cent of the votes, the Turkish President appears to be making some shifts and, possibly, re-alignment of his regional policies. The first signal of such change of policy came when he replaced his long time loyal Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, with another loyalist, Hakan Fidan. Mr. Fidan has headed the country’s National Intelligence Organisation for 13 years—nearly the same period as Mr. Erdogan has been in power.

Ankara’s regional military activities over the last decade has been a pillar to its foreign policies, be it in Libya, Syria, Iraq – raiding Kurdish camps – and Qatar, supporting the tiny Gulf country when it was boycotted by its neighbours in 2017 and helping it secure the world Cup in 2022.

Mr. Erdogan’s policies towards Libya, for example, are likely to remain unchanged. His troops will remain there for a long time to come, bringing them home only when it suits him. Libya’s strategic location, its under-exploited wealth of hydrocarbon and long Mediterranean coast make it impossible for Turkiye to leave Libya any time soon.

This, however, is likely to remain a contentious issue in Ankara’s ties with Cairo, which is also another important neighbour to Libya, with its own allies in Libya. Indeed Egypt and Turkiye have been supporting different sides in the Libyan conflict, including in the 2019-2020 war that saw General Haftar’s forces, supported by Cairo, defeated at the gates of Tripoli by Ankara’s allies. However, Ankara and Cairo have been fixing their relations over the last few years, through public officials’ visits after long contacts through secret channel.


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When President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi phoned President Erdogan to congratulate him on his election victory, both presidents agreed to, immediately, exchange ambassadors ending the rupture in ties between the two countries.

In the Libyan context, this means both Ankara and Cairo are determined to avoid any serious frictions over Libya and it will also play positively in the internal affairs of the fractured country. Both countries have, nominally, supported the United Nations-led political process aiming to organise legislative and presidential elections in Libya. However, Cairo and Ankara are likely to support different candidates if and when elections for president take place. But whatever happens between Cairo and Ankara, it is unlikely to flare up to something similar to what happened back in 2019, when Cairo and Ankara were threatening each other.

The political process in Libya, in many cases, tends to end up in winner takes all, with little room left for losers. But in the regional context if, say, Cairo and Ankara can co-exist in Libya, it could well be win-win for both—both countries appear to be accepting this idea.

However, in the foreign policy sphere, Mr. Erdogan is unlikely to hit the ground running with his new government, now that he has won the elections. He is faced with complicated and hard to solve domestic policy issues, particularly the economy. Inflation in Turkiye is hovering at around 40 per cent, eating away the purchasing power of the very people who voted for him. Unemployment is estimated to be more than 13 per cent. Mr. Erdogan also faces the slow and painful healing process after the two devastating earthquakes that hit Turkiye last February, killing more than 50,000 people while displacing millions more.

READ: Servile Western leaders queue up to congratulate Erdogan

Whenever he re-launches his foreign policy, Mr. Erdogan is likely to follow a less conformational approach, with attempts to make more friends and fewer foes, and Libya could be a test case.

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