Egypt-Turkey Strained Relations: Implications for Regional Security

Recent media reports highlighted Egypt’s attempt to form a regional security coalition against Turkey. This is the latest episode in the strained and tense relations between the two countries that have had a hostile relationship since the summer of 2013, following the military coup led by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi that removed the late President Mohamed Morsi from power. Egypt’s intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, has met with his counterparts in North African countries in order to form what is dubbed a “security alliance” that will counter the Turkish presence in the region. Relatedly, Egyptian and Libyan sources revealed that “Egypt has founded a new navy commando force that will work with Libyan militants to block Turkish ships from delivering aid to the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli.” This political and strategic standoff between Egypt and Turkey has several implications for the stability and security of the Middle East and North Africa.

How Did Things Get Here?

Since the coup of 2013 in Egypt, Egyptian-Turkish relations have deteriorated significantly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the ousting of President Morsi and embraced Morsi’s supporters, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. For his part, President Sisi views Turkey as a regional foe and does not accept its growing role and influence, especially in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. Before the 2013 coup, Turkey and Egypt had an amicable and growing relationship, notably in the immediate aftermath of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 when both countries enhanced their economic and geostrategic partnership. Turkey dealt with the January 2011 uprising in Cairo—and the Arab Spring in general—as an opportunity to expand its influence in the entire region. It sought to build a geostrategic partnership with the new forces that took power in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and elsewhere, principally with Islamists, putting Ankara at odds with status quo powers in the region.

Turkey dealt with the January 2011 uprising in Cairo—and the Arab Spring in general—as an opportunity to expand its influence in the entire region.

After the failure of Egypt’s transition and the reemergence of what many call the “deep state” there, Turkish-Egyptian relations began to worsen. Following the Rabaa massacre in 2013––when Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of peaceful protesters––President Erdoğan became very critical of the post-coup regime and supported the anti-coup demonstrations led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Not surprisingly, in August 2013 Egypt recalled its ambassador to Turkey. A few months later, it expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo and President Erdoğan responded furiously by stating that he “will never respect those who come to power through military coups.” Since then, the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated considerably.

Geostrategic Rivalry or Ideological Animosity?

Foreign policy is usually driven and shaped by a range of factors such as geography, ideology, population, history, natural resources, economic development, and specific interests. In the case of Turkey and Egypt, it is a combination of all these factors. Both countries are considered key players in the Middle East and they share a rich historical experience, national pride, geostrategic importance, and a genuine desire for regional hegemony. Over the past two decades, Turkey’s foreign policy shifted its focus—particularly after the failure of its accession to the European Union—away from Europe and to the Middle East by investing in its long and historic relationship with the region. This shift was welcomed by some in the Arab world, both governments and people, and was seen as a source of political and strategic strength for the Arab world, expressly in the face of Iran’s growing influence and that of its Shia proxies in the region.

After the Arab Spring, Turkey’s regional role created fears and concerns among Arab authoritarian regimes, which began to view Ankara as an ideological and strategic threat to them, in light of Erdoğan’s support of Arab Islamists.

However, after the Arab Spring, Turkey’s regional role created fears and concerns among Arab authoritarian regimes, which began to view Ankara as an ideological and strategic threat to them, in light of Erdoğan’s support of Arab Islamists. These anxieties deepened after the removal of Morsi from office in 2013, when Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood. While some analysts tend to view Erdoğan’s foreign policy toward the Arab world through a seemingly reductionist lens, focusing on his Islamist proclivities, it is important not to ignore or underestimate the conflict of interest between Turkey and its regional rivals, especially Egypt. In fact, it was Erdoğan, with his Islamist background fully acknowledged, who was celebrated in the Arab streets and welcomed in Arab capitals before the Arab Spring because of his stance toward Israel and Iran. Therefore, the conflict between Turkey and Egypt can be explained by both ideological and strategic differences.

Key Differences

Three key issues define the relationship between Egypt and Turkey, notably since Sisi came to power in 2014. First is the regional role and influence of each country. While Turkey considers the Arab Middle East as its backyard to exercise hegemony and influence, Sisi believes that the Turkish role is a source of turmoil and instability; thus, it should be curtailed and eliminated. This fundamental clash of their foreign policy approaches helps determine and shape both countries’ stances toward each other and the entire region. In addition, Sisi’s ascendance to power was accompanied by a nationalist sentiment and a nostalgic view of his country’s historic influence in the Arab world. He seeks to rebuild Egypt’s role and image despite its lack of economic and financial capabilities.

This rivalry between Cairo and Ankara is visible in at least two regional issues: Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. In Libya, Egypt has been a major supporter of the warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, who has been launching a military offensive against the legitimate and United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Turkey’s decision to provide military and logistical support to the GNA has exacerbated tensions with Egypt, which has officially condemned the Turkish move and warned it “would negatively affect the stability of the Mediterranean region” and that “Turkey will bear full responsibility for the consequences.”

The second issue is the discovery of huge reserves of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, which has added fuel to the existing tensions between Egypt and Turkey. In 2015 Egypt discovered vast natural gas deposits in its waters in the eastern Mediterranean and began to use them for economic and geostrategic leverage against Turkey by seeking to build alliances with the latter’s Mediterranean adversaries, namely Greece and Cyprus. Furthermore, in 2019 Turkey was excluded from the newly founded East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) which includes Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Italy, in addition to Egypt. The EMGF aims to enhance natural gas production in the region and create a regional energy market that could export gas to Europe. Leaving Turkey out of the forum, despite its geostrategic importance and interests in the eastern Mediterranean, provided more proof of the mounting conflict in the region. Consequently, when Turkey signed the military and maritime agreement with the GNA, Egypt vehemently rejected it and called upon the UN Security Council to annul it. The agreements with the Libyan GNA would allow Turkey’s naval warships to explore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean and spoil the EMGF gas plans.

In 2015 Egypt discovered vast natural gas deposits in its waters in the eastern Mediterranean and began to use them for economic and geostrategic leverage against Turkey.

The third issue that is defining Egypt-Turkey relations is the alliance between Egypt and the Gulf countries, principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Over the past few years, tensions between Turkey, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other, have been mounting. After a short period of economic, military, and trade cooperation during 2011–2015, increasing distrust and disputes have marked the relationship between both sides.

Three key events have aggravated these tensions: the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan in July 2016; the blockade of Qatar starting in June 2017; and the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. In fact, some analysts refer to an Emirati role in the coup attempt against Erdoğan; according to the British journalist David Hearst, sources close to Turkey’s intelligence indicated that the “UAE funnelled money to Turkish coup plotters.” Regardless of the accuracy of these reports, they reflected the growing sense of hostility between Abu Dhabi and Ankara. Moreover, the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt resulted in a stronger bilateral relationship between Turkey and Qatar, which is now hosting a Turkish military base. This development intensified the anti-Turkish sentiment in the blockading countries. Finally, the Khashoggi assassination increased tensions with Saudi Arabia, a key ally and backer of Sisi’s regime. These events enhanced the anti-Turkey alliance among the three countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE); indeed, as this alliance gets stronger, the deeper the feelings of animosity grow against Turkey.

Turkey’s support of Egypt’s political opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, plays a major role in the conflict with Sisi’s regime. After the coup of 2013, Turkey provided a refuge to the Muslim Brotherhood’s members and leaders. It also allows anti-Sisi media networks to operate and broadcast freely from Istanbul. These policies infuriate Sisi’s regime,  which accuses Turkey of supporting terrorism and instability in Egypt. Furthermore, last January Egyptian parliamentarians called for boycotting Turkish products in response to Turkey’s agreement with the Libyan GNA. At a fundamental level, the price for normalizing relations with Egypt is for Turkey to abandon support of the Brotherhood. Egypt made that clear when its Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in 2016 that “the country is ready to normalize ties with Turkey on condition that it recognizes the legitimacy of former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power.” This was right after Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s former prime minister, pointed out that “normalization with Egypt is possible.” However, these statements have remained merely rhetorical.

Ironically, despite political tensions between Turkey and Egypt, their economic ties have grown remarkably during the past few years.

Ironically, despite political tensions between Turkey and Egypt, their economic ties have grown remarkably during the past few years. According to reports, “In 2018, Egypt and Turkey set a record for bilateral trade1 between them, with Turkish exports to Egypt totaling $3.05 billion, an increase of 29.4% compared to in 2017, and Egyptian exports to Turkey amounting to $2.19 billion, an increase of 9.68% for the same time period.” In addition, the free trade agreement between them, which was signed in 2005, remains intact despite the calls of some Egyptian MPs to annul it. In fact, Sisi seems to be keen to maintain economic ties with Turkey given the economic hardships confronting his government.

Implications for the Region

The political rift between Egypt and Turkey has major consequences and implications for regional security and stability. First, it has intensified regional rivalries and deepened divisions among major players in the region. Over the past few years, Turkey has immersed itself in almost all Arab conflicts and hot spots—Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Gulf—and this has alienated and increased tensions with key Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Second, these strains in Egyptian-Turkish relations have reshaped the rules of the game in a region where new alliances have emerged and key countries have repositioned themselves to cope with the new map of conflicts. While Egypt has built a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Turkey has become an important strategic ally to Qatar; this decidedly escalated intra-Gulf tensions after the blockade of Qatar in 2017. The alliance among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE was extended to include Israel for the first time in the region’s history. And under this new alliance, Israel has succeeded in redirecting the tide of animosity against it toward other regional players, namely Iran and Turkey. The region is now loosely divided between two blocs: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel on one hand, and Turkey, Iran, and Qatar on the other. The disputes between these two groupings are reshaping the region, and as the alliance within each bloc strengthens, so do the divisions between the two sides.

Third, Egypt-Turkey tensions have also exacerbated conflicts in volatile countries such as Syria, Libya, and Palestine. Turkey’s increasing role and influence there have created problems with Arab governments that seek to counterbalance Turkey’s presence in the region at any cost. To that end, they provide vast military, economic, and political support to anti-Turkey forces in their countries.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. To learn more about Khalil al-Anani click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
* Photo credit: Anadolu Agency