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Erdogan's visit to Egypt: possible gains and compromises

February 16, 2024 at 2:30 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd L) meets with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (2nd R) as he arrives in Egypt for an official visit in Cairo, Egypt on 14 February, 2024 [TUR Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar – Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Cairo has several implications. It holds expected gains and possible concessions from both sides, amid an urgent and mutual need for more rapprochement and bilateral cooperation.

The visit, which took place on Wednesday, was a turning point in the course of relations between the two countries. It comes after a political separation that extended over a decade, following the overthrow of the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in the coup of 3 July 2013. Those events had prompted Ankara to shelter members of the Egyptian opposition.

Erdogan’s last visit to Egypt was in November 2012, but the two presidents’ handshake in late 2022 on the sidelines of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar paved the way for restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. Relations were brought back at the ambassadorial level in July 2023, and then the two presidents met twice: once on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in the Indian capital, New Delhi, last September, and then at the Arab-Islamic Summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in November.

Implications of the visit

The Erdogan-Sisi summit, held at the Ittihadiya Palace, east of Cairo, shows pragmatism and political realism which managed to move from disagreement to rapprochement. They both understand that cooperation between them will enhance their influence in the region and reduce the gravity of the repercussions of the hot situation in the Middle East, especially in light of the continuing war on Gaza and the outbreak of tension in the Red Sea, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen.

The prolonged Israeli war on the Palestinians, now raging for the fifth month, is laying heavy burdens on Cairo and Ankara, which are seeking to stop the displacement plan, stop the war of annihilation against the people in Gaza Strip, and save the region from the flames of a conflict that will certainly affect their strategic and economic interests.

READ: Turkiye, Egypt sign joint declaration on cooperation

With this visit, Erdogan culminates a series of discussions and consultations between the two countries, which began in May 2021, with the aim of dissolving differences, stopping media bickering, resolving the issue of the Egyptian opposition residing in Turkiye and coordinating the files of Palestine, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The visit was celebrated by Egyptian officials and media as being an expression of common interests. Both countries are suffering due to economic crises and strategic shifts imposed by the Gaza war, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Coronavirus pandemic and Gulf reconciliation. This has prompted Ankara to turn towards Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and later Cairo, which has also turned towards Qatar, Turkiye and Iran.

Intelligence and diplomatic estimates, according to observers, indicate that one of the most important reasons for the chaos witnessed in the region is the lack of coordination between Cairo and Ankara. This has created a state of skirmishes and clashes, fuelled by regional parties that have no interest in Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement, or zeroing out problems between the two countries.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who previously held the position of intelligence chief, is clearly aware of this. He is the architect of the new transformations, as he is Erdogan’s secret keeper and the strong man in the decision-making circles. These circles currently want to end all problems, as part of a zero-problems policy that Ankara has pursued over the past few years.

Goals and gains

According to Fidan’s statements: “The normalisation process between the two countries has been largely completed and is important for security and trade in the region… We must have serious relations with Egypt for the sake of security in the Mediterranean.”

It seems that Ankara’s agreement to provide Egypt with unmanned combat air vehicles and other technologies comes as a token of the desired cooperation and as a gesture of the Turkish side’s desire to strengthen its relations with Cairo. Turkiye wishes to reach understandings regarding several files – and perhaps alliances in the near future – which may be required by the rapid developments in the region.

On the sidelines of their participation in the defence exhibition in Saudi Arabia this month, the Egyptian minister of military production and the Turkish minister of defence industries held a meeting to discuss military cooperation in the field of joint production of ammunition, and the localisation of some modern Turkish manufacturing technologies within the production lines of Egyptian companies.

Gaza is at the top of the agenda for both sides, especially with regard to thwarting the displacement plan, bringing in humanitarian aid, reaching a long-term ceasefire and rebuilding the Strip, especially in light of the growing Turkish influence on the Hamas movement, and Ankara’s desire to push Cairo to permanently open the Rafah crossing border.

Meanwhile, the Libyan issue finds itself on the negotiating table, in an attempt to agree on a road map that will end the divisions in the country, by holding legislative and presidential elections, which will bring stability to the oil-producing Arab country, which has been torn apart since 2011.

These are goals that serve Egyptian national security, through the gateway to cooling the Western Front, preventing the Libyan lands from becoming a hotbed for the export of terrorism to the region and reviving the Egyptian economy by obtaining a valuable share of the reconstruction cake.

READ: Will Egypt sell Alexandria to Turkiye?

The expanded discussions between the two sides, in the presence of the ministers of foreign affairs, defence, industry, finance and health, discussed the issues of demarcating maritime borders and energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, in light of Ankara’s efforts to break the isolation that Greece and Cyprus are trying to impose on it. Turkiye is also trying to penetrate the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum alliance which includes Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Greece, Cyprus and Italy, while excluding Turkiye, which desires to serve as a regional centre for natural gas trade.

Expected concessions

It is frank to say that the Turkish president gave up his hard-line stances against his Egyptian counterpart; stances he took against the backdrop of the massacres of dispersing the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins on 14 August 2013, and the killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters. A change in stance is becoming clear in the apparent stopping of what Cairo sees as media chaos from media outlets loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting the attacks on Al-Sisi, as well as reducing the free political margin given to opponents of the Egyptian regime residing in Turkiye.

In his interview with Middle East Monitor, political researcher Hamdi Al-Masry said that he believes a realistic approach would require the Brotherhood to show a similar shift in policy, an objective reading of regional transformations, and taking into account that this rapprochement is in the interest of the two countries and the two peoples, adding that the continued crisis of the Brotherhood will not stop comprehensive reconciliation.

Ankara’s pragmatic position may be justified by the failure of the Egyptian opposition over more than ten years to bring its ranks together or formulate a unified and effective position against the military coup, which has proven to hold through three presidential elections in 2014, 2018 and 2023, regardless of their integrity or credibility.

This position supports economic goals and a mutual desire to raise the level of trade exchange between the two countries from $7.7 billion in 2022 to about $15 billion during the next five years, noting that more than 700 Turkish companies operate in Egypt with investments amounting to $2.5 billion, according to official data.

READ: Corruption in Egypt – its guards are its thieves!

It is likely that the language of common interests between the two countries will pave the way for resolving stubborn issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Syria, as well as the dispute with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam crisis. This was evident during the press conference of the two presidents, which carried confirmations of mutual appreciation and the desire to turn a new leaf and advance relations to an appropriate track. The conference was concluded with the signing of memorandums of understanding and cooperation agreements, the announcement of forming the Strategic Cooperation Council between the two countries, and an invitation being extended to Al-Sisi to visit Ankara in April.

In return, and according to secret understandings, Cairo may show flexibility and understanding for the Turkish role in Libya, may provide an opening for Ankara to enter the Mediterranean Gas Alliance and perhaps arrange a possible visit for Erdogan to the Rafah border crossing through which he can emphasise his support for the Palestinians.

Experts believe that the support provided by Turkiye and Egypt to the Sudanese army in its war with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) helped open a window to conclude other settlements and the possibility of cooperation on a broader scale in several issues. However, for subjective and objective reasons related to the nature and contradictions of the personalities of the two presidents, and the influence of third parties such as the United States, Israel and the Emirates, in their relationship, Egyptian-Turkish relations may not move to become a strategic alliance.

But in any case, the economic crises in the two countries, and the developments taking place in the regional and international arenas, remain a decisive and pressing factor behind pushing Erdogan and Al-Sisi to consolidate reconciliation and to reconsider their foreign orientations, as they both are influential players in many issues. This imposes new approaches that can achieve the interests of their countries in a purely pragmatic manner that has few concessions and many gains.

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