Over the past month, Turkey has taken steps to restore diplomatic relations with Egypt. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spearheaded this effort is paradoxical. After all, his disdain for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his allies in the Egyptian military has played no small role in sustaining an Egyptian-Turkish cold war that has endured since Fall 2013, when Egypt’s generals toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Sisi stands for a model of military rule that Erdoğan has worked hard to banish from Turkey. But the Turkish president’s opposition to Egypt’s military rulers was also part of a far wider bid to advance a religiously based, “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy. If that policy galvanized Erdoğan’s followers, it has also limited Ankara’s ability to pursue a foreign policy that can adapt to changes in the regional and the wider global arena. These changes now include the arrival of US President Joe Biden, whose twin focus on NATO and global human rights will probably complicate relations with Erdoğan.
There is little in his bag of tricks that will easily shield the Turkish president from a mounting economic crisis at home or from a foreign policy whose many contradictions—not least of which is Ankara’s fraught relations with Moscow—have magnified Turkey’s diplomatic retreat. Turkey did flex its military muscle successfully in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example, but it has seen its fortunes wane. Hence Erdoğan’s outreach to Cairo. Yet Sisi is unlikely to help him climb out of a hole that Erdoğan dug for himself. Qatar might offer him an assist, but now that a reconciliation has helped it smooth its relations with other Gulf Cooperation Council states, Doha may have other priorities. In short, Erdoğan’s effort to reenergize Turkey’s foreign relations will face an uphill battle.
Erdoğan Squeezes Turkey’s Room for Maneuver
If it is serious, Turkey’s effort to engage Egypt represents a diplomatic sea change. Relations between the two countries were suspended following Sisi’s July 3, 2013 coup d’état against Morsi and the subsequent August 14 massacre by Egyptian security forces of nearly 1,000 civilians in Rabaa Square. Erdoğan’s claim that Israel masterminded Egypt’s coup telegraphed Ankara’s shift from a policy guided by raison d’état to a populist Islamist stance that defined Turkey’s interests in religious—and even civilizational—terms. The attempted coup against Erdoğan’s government on July 15, 2016 accelerated this ideological shift by crystallizing the Turkish president’s perception that outside forces were responsible for internal challenges to his rule. Indeed, his demand that the United States extradite Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania)—and even more so, Erdoğan’s assertion that the Turkish-American alliance would end unless Washington complied—signaled a new low in US-Turkish relations, which had already been strained by Washington’s support for Kurdish forces in Syria, not to mention the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
The attempted coup against Erdoğan’s government on July 15, 2016 accelerated this ideological shift by crystallizing the Turkish president’s perception that outside forces were responsible for internal challenges to his rule.
But if Ankara’s campaign to blame American policy makers and academics—including Henri Barkey, then director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC—further eroded these relations, it also helped Erdoğan solidify his popular base. This set the stage for a referendum in April 2017 that secured constitutional changes that strengthened his power. Buoyed by this development, in the ensuing three years Erdoğan advanced an ambitious revision of Turkish foreign policy. Still, his “neo-Ottoman” policy to project geostrategic power throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Africa, and Central Asia is beset by tensions that Erdoğan has struggled to manage or overcome. These tensions stem from Ankara’s efforts to keep its relations with the United States and its regional allies intact, even as it works with other countries or governments whose interests conflict with those of Washington—and in some cases with Turkey itself.
For example, in the Syria arena, Turkey backed Islamist forces that were pitted against the Bashar al-Assad regime, while it participated in the Moscow sponsored Astana Peace Process. This contradiction became stark when in February 2020, Russian planes deliberately bombed Turkish forces in Idlib, killing 33 Turkish soldiers. Ankara’s provision of armed drones helped the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya drive back renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s forces from Tripoli in April 2020. But its intervention in the Libyan civil conflict exposed Ankara to possible military conflict with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates while also antagonizing Moscow, a key Haftar supporter. Moreover, Ankara’s actions in Libya gave the UAE and Saudi Arabia good reason to maintain the embargo on Qatar––Turkey’s ally––which they had imposed in mid-2017.
Still, if the embargo played no small role in inducing Doha to strengthen its ties with Ankara and the Libyan government, this situation actually reduced Turkey’s room for maneuver in the MENA region. Indeed, the decision of the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan in Fall 2020 to establish official ties with Israel (once on good terms with Turkey) not only underscored Ankara’s regional limits, but it also displayed the huge divide between Turkey and the United States on the one hand, and Turkey and the rest of its NATO allies on the other. Ankara’s decision to deploy Russian made, and Russian controlled, S-400 missiles prompted the imposition of US sanctions in December 2020, thus causing the new Biden Administration to inherit a US-Turkish relationship that was nearly in tatters.
Erdoğan Reconsiders Turkey’s Options
In an apparent bid to mitigate these developments, in December 2020 Erdoğan announced that Turkey would seek better relations with Israel. While his statement surely ruffled the feathers of his hard-line Islamist supporters, it foreshadowed his ongoing efforts to realign his country’s regional and global relations and thus exit the foreign policy cage that he had helped to build around Turkey.
Two crucial events prompted this initiative. The first was the election of Joe Biden. In contrast to Donald Trump—who shared Erdoğan’s ambivalent view of NATO, not to mention his autocratic mindset—Biden had pledged that he would strengthen the alliance and make democracy promotion a mainstay of US foreign policy. Amplified by Congress’s decision in December 2020 to impose sanctions on Ankara, Biden’s promises suggested that Turkey might suffer even greater isolation under the Biden Administration. The second event was the GCC countries’ January 5, 2021 decision to end the Saudi Arabia/UAE/Bahrain/Egypt embargo of Qatar. From Ankara’s vantage point, that decision suggested that Doha might downplay its relations with Turkey in favor of its long-standing (if fractious) ties with its Gulf Arab neighbors. Doha also signaled that it would not oppose the normalization deals between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, thus underscoring its desire to regain pride of place in the GCC. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement during his confirmation hearing that the Biden Administration welcomed Qatar’s return to the GCC fold was surely heard in Ankara, while Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis—not to mention declining public support for Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party—provided additional impetus for the Turkish president to rework his foreign policy agenda to address (or preempt) changes in a regional and global map that were leaving Turkey in the diplomatic dust.
The chance to launch an opening with Egypt emerged unexpectedly in February 2020, when the Egyptian government issued a tender for international bids for hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
The chance to launch this initiative emerged unexpectedly in February 2020, when the Egyptian government issued a tender for international bids for hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Prior to that, Cairo had concluded a maritime agreement with Greece based on an international boundary to both parties’ liking. Egypt’s deal with Turkey’s political and religious archrival provoked anger in Ankara, which had already struck its own maritime agreement with Libya. These complexities aside, the dispute of the eastern Mediterranean underscored in literal terms the costs that Turkey was paying for a foreign policy that had once again tied its hands. Thus Turkish officials were both surprised and pleased when the map that the Egyptian government posted in tandem with the February tender apparently included boundaries that were consonant with Ankara’s claims in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Seizing the opportunity, Turkish officials floated the idea that Cairo and Ankara might now consider talks on the boundary conflict—and perhaps other issues.
Leading this push for talks was none other than Erdoğan himself. Setting the tone, on March 7 his official spokesman declared that “A new chapter can be opened, a new page can be turned in our relationship with Egypt as well as other Gulf countries to help regional peace and stability.” Coming from the very pinnacle of political power, the statement seemed to telegraph Ankara’s desire to leverage—or perhaps manufacture—emerging opportunities to rework its foreign relations with regional states with which it had been at loggerheads, starting with Egypt itself.
Egyptian officials emphatically denied that Cairo had any intent to hold talks with Ankara and that it would in fact stick to Egypt’s existing maritime deal with Greece. Yet despite such remarks, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar intimated that Egypt and Turkey were moving toward rapprochement. Whether this was true or not, in the ensuing days the Turkish government undertook several initiatives that were clearly meant to signal that Ankara meant business. These included “requests” that three Istanbul-based opposition TV networks run by the Muslim Brotherhood tone down their criticisms of Egypt’s government. This step strongly suggested that Erdoğan was going the extra mile to court a military-led government in Cairo, one that he had condemned in 2013 and continued to openly assail for the next eight years.
Cairo’s Wary Response
As Cairo’s wary response to Ankara’s interpretation of the maritime boundary dispute showed, it was not about to immediately oblige Erdoğan’s clever bid to draw Egypt into talks. Indeed, in the ensuing days Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, seemed to take a hard line, insisting that there is “no communication outside the normal diplomatic framework. If real actions from Turkey show alignment with Egyptian principles and goals then the groundwork will be laid for relations to return to normal.”
Sisi may have his own reasons to explore Turkey’s initiative. After all, in ways that echo his nemesis in Ankara, Egypt’s president has presided over a foreign policy that has often proven more constraining than empowering.
Nevertheless, Sisi may have his own reasons to explore Turkey’s initiative. After all, in ways that echo his nemesis in Ankara, Egypt’s president has presided over a foreign policy that has often proven more constraining than empowering. Indeed, when it comes to its relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Egypt has been a follower rather than a leader. Lacking the benefits of oil resources and having a military that is largely devoted to producing consumer goods rather than fighting major wars, Sisi had little choice in the wake of the 2013 coup but to turn to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for financial relief. While that support did not last long, in the late 2010s Sisi asked the UAE to help in his power struggle with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb. That the UAE became a mediator in Egypt’s internal politics highlighted a regional power shift that had left Egypt dependent on its Gulf Arab allies.
Cairo’s June 2020 threat to intervene in the Libyan conflict did not improve Egypt’s regional bargaining position vis-à-vis the Gulf states or Turkey, which was supporting the GNA in Tripoli. Indeed, Cairo gambled that by menacing intervention it might also induce the key protagonists in that conflict to join in the Libyan “peace initiative” that it then launched. With the UN’s backing and Cairo’s support, a new cease-fire was reached in October 2020. But only two months later, Saudi Arabia and the UAE reconciled with Qatar, thus further depreciating the secondary role that Cairo had always played in the anti-Qatar coalition. Arab normalization deals with Israel must have added to Egypt’s humiliation. With Israelis flocking to the UAE to enjoy the beaches and to establish myriad joint business ventures, Cairo was once again left out in the cold. Rubbing salt into the wound, Erdoğan proposed that Turkey should seek warmer relations with Israel. That Sisi’s most vociferous regional rival would make this announcement just weeks before the embargo on Qatar was lifted only underscored the Egyptian president’s isolation.
Given these circumstances, Egypt may yet discover that it would be better off exploring rather than spurning Erdoğan’s opening. This could be no small benefit, especially given the fact that Cairo no longer has a friend in the White House who is ready to welcome Sisi with open arms. With the Biden Administration insisting that Egypt address its massive human rights abuses, Cairo needs to expand its room for diplomatic maneuver as much, if not more, than Ankara. In short, Turkey and Egypt might share a common interest in moving away from the foreign policies that their respective leaders have advanced, often with considerable costs.
The Hard Road to Reconciliation
No one should underestimate Erdoğan’s capacity to manage the contradictions that have both animated and complicated his efforts to project Turkish influence in the MENA region and far beyond. Indeed, Ankara’s entrance into the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates his intention to pursue a “pro-Muslim” policy even if this antagonizes his friends in Moscow. But when it comes to the Middle East, Erdoğan’s opening to Cairo shows that he is ready to subordinate a religious policy to the logic of realpolitik if, in doing so, he can open up the field of diplomatic maneuver.
When it comes to Egypt, this will be tricky. With their ample egos and charismatic personalities, Sisi and Erdoğan will not easily offer the symbolic and substantive compromises needed to move past eight years of conflict. But if the road forward will be long, the very prospect of Egyptian-Turkish talks could favor a relaxation of tensions in several arenas, including the eastern Mediterranean and in Libya itself where a new—albeit fragile—unity government has been formed. This may be reason enough for Europe and the United States to support Turkish-Egyptian negotiations, especially if, as is very likely, Russia and China will evince an equal interest in backing the efforts of Turkey and Egypt to find common ground.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here