Egypt-Turkey Relations: Challenges and Future Prospects

Over the past two years, several positive signs have emerged in the Egyptian-Turkish relationship that might result in the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. After almost a decade of political tensions and diplomatic rupture, officials on both sides have begun to recognize the need to reset and improve their bilateral relations. However, despite noticeable improvements as of late, Cairo and Ankara still differ on several issues that they must work out in order to push their bilateral relations forward.

Strained Relations

Egyptian-Turkish relations have been going through a rough patch since the 2013 military coup that prepared for the ascension of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2014, with mutual hostilities resulting from political and geostrategic considerations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not support the removal of late Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi from power by the Egyptian military, and after the coup, Egypt and Turkey severed diplomatic relations. Turkey then provided refuge for members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled Egypt after the coup and allowed them to operate and run satellite television channels that openly opposed Sisi’s regime.

This tug of war between Cairo and Ankara was further heightened by regional conflicts. Egypt perceives Turkey’s active role in the region, which stretches from the Arabian Gulf to Libya, as a threat to its regional role and influence. This fact became clear after Turkey intervened in Libya and provided support to Tripoli’s government against Benghazi-based General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, who is backed and supported by Egypt and its regional allies.

Egypt perceives Turkey’s active role in the region, which stretches from the Arabian Gulf to Libya, as a threat to its regional role and influence.

The exploration of energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean added an additional stressor to already strained relations between Egypt and Turkey. Particularly significant was Egypt’s initiative to establish a regional forum that would include countries in the Mediterranean Sea that produce oil and gas. In 2019, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was officially launched, and included Turkey’s two main foes, Greece and Cyprus, as well as Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Italy, and Egypt. However, Turkey was purposefully excluded from the EMGF despite its regional influence. In response, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based government to create an exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean stretching from Turkey to Libya. The agreement would allow Turkey to interrupt the EMGF’s agenda, particularly a planned pipeline that would run from Israeli and Greek-Cypriot waters to Greece, and from there to the rest of Europe.

Egypt’s strong relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also alienated Turkey, which was at odds with both countries over many bilateral and broader regional issues. Ankara perceived the alliance between Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi as a regional axis targeting not only Turkey’s regional role and influence but also its economy and stability. All of these factors have impacted the bilateral relationship between Egypt and Turkey and created many problems and conflicts over the past several years.

A Cautious Rapprochement

Since 2021, however, Egyptian-Turkish relations have witnessed some positive developments. In early 2021, Turkey signaled that it was seeking to improve relations with Egypt and to open a new chapter in bilateral relations. And in August 2022, President Erdoğan called for improving ties with Egypt and stressed that he considered the Egyptian people “brothers” with whom Turkey must reconcile. He also expressed his hope of building strong relations at the highest diplomatic level.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also spoke of a new era of normalization with Egypt, starting with talks between senior officials from both countries, which were then achieved in reciprocal visits by Turkish and Egyptians delegations. Since then, two rounds of talks have been held in Cairo and Ankara, where delegations from both countries met and discussed a range of issues, including how to move their relations forward. The first round of talks took place in May 2021, when a Turkish delegation of senior officials visited Egypt to mend strained relations with Cairo. The delegation spent two days in political consultations with its Egyptian counterparts, which focused on taking initial steps in order to improve bilateral relations and strengthen the two countries’ economic ties. According to a joint statement issued in advance of the meeting, these “exploratory discussions” would “focus on necessary steps that may lead toward the normalization of relations between the two countries, bilaterally and in the regional context.”

In August 2021, Turkey called for another round of talks with Egypt, inviting the country to send a diplomatic delegation to Ankara to further discuss bilateral and regional issues. On September 7, 2021, a delegation led by Egypt’s Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs Hamdi Sanad Loza arrived in Ankara and met with Turkish counterparts. Both sides continued consultations on how to normalize relations and also discussed other bilateral issues and regional topics, such as Libya, Syria, Palestine, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

To back these rounds of talks, Turkey began to take concrete steps in order to repair its relationship with Egypt and rebuild mutual confidence. In April 2022, Istanbul-based, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated satellite channel Mekameleen announced the closure of its offices and studios. This development, which was apparently a response to pressure from Turkish authorities, was welcomed by the Egyptian government, which had long complained about the anti-Egyptian government discourse the channel presented. In addition, some of the most influential television personalities who were notable critics of President Sisi’s regime, including Moataz Matar and Mohamed Nasser, left Turkey. For its part, the pro-regime media in Egypt became noticeably less critical of Erdoğan and his policies around this time.

Turkey’s “Zero-Problems” Policy

Turkey’s recent moves toward normalizing its relations with Egypt reveal the changes that have been taking place in Turkish foreign policy over the past couple of years. Turkey has been putting into practice what is known as its “Zero Problems” policy, which aims to defuse tensions and de-escalate conflicts in the region in order to achieve the country’s political, economic, and strategic interests. The policy was adopted when Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party came to power two decades ago, but after ten years or so of troubles and regional conflict, Turkey finally began a process of repairing, reassessing, and resetting its relations with neighboring countries and other powers. That process began in February 2022 when Erdoğan visited the UAE for the first time in nearly a decade and met with then Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and now UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Both officials held very conflicting positions over several regional issues ranging from political Islam, Libya, Syria, and the 2017–2021 blockade of Qatar. Moreover, some Turkish officials hinted that the UAE was involved in a July 2016 attempted coup against Erdoğan.

Turkey’s recent moves toward normalizing its relations with Egypt reveal the changes that have been taking place in Turkish foreign policy over the past couple of years.

Erdoğan also visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the first time since the Saudi-ordered killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The two countries were hostile toward each other, and their relations had worsened in recent years. Turkish support for Qatar during the Saudi-led blockade and the Khashoggi killing in particular drove a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Erdoğan expressed hope that the meeting would “launch a new era” in bilateral relations.

Another factor in Turkey’s renewed approach with its neighbors is the fact that the Turkish economy has been suffering over the past few months, including from unprecedented levels of inflation, a significant decline in the value of the country’s currency, and a decrease in foreign direct investments. While some of these problems are due to internal factors—namely bad policy choices and the impact of politics on financial decisions—other challenges were the result of Turkey’s foreign policy. For example, the country’s spat with Saudi Arabia badly affected the Turkish economy, causing the withdrawal of billions of dollars in Saudi investments and the shrinking of trade between the two countries.

Many had hoped that Erdoğan’s April visit to Saudi Arabia would result in the release of $3 billion in investments that Saudi Arabia had promised, but those hopes went unrealized. Regardless, Turkey is counting on Saudi Arabia to strengthen its currency with a $20 billion deposit expected from Riyadh in the coming months. Likewise, the UAE and Turkey signed several business and trade deals worth billions of dollars over the past few months. Clearly, Erdoğan’s new foreign policy is key to his political and economic survival.

Growing Economic Ties

Despite political tensions between Egypt and Turkey, economic and trade ties between the two countries have grown significantly over the past several years. Some economists expect that Turkey will increase its investments in Egypt to $15 billion and boost the volume of trade exchange to $20 billion annually. It is worth mentioning that Turkey and Egypt signed a free trade agreement in 2005 which, when it took effect in 2007, resulted in a near tripling of total trade volume between the two countries between 2007 and 2020, from $4.42 billion to $11.14 billion. The agreement survived the post-2013 political crisis between Cairo and Ankara, which indicates the countries’ ability to separate business from politics. Moreover, in September, a Turkish business delegation visited Cairo and met with Egyptian business leaders to discuss how to foster economic relationships.

Egypt and Turkey appear willing to collaborate in the energy sector, particularly in the extraction and exportation of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Both countries also appear willing to collaborate in the energy sector, particularly in the extraction and exportation of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is one of the biggest consumers of natural gas and relies heavily on imports from abroad. By the end of 2021, Egypt had become a key supplier of liquified natural gas to Turkey, and Turkish demand for this resource is expected to increase due to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Egypt also took into consideration Turkey’s claims in the region when it demarcated the lines of an exclusive economic zone with Greece in 2020, a move that Turkey perceived as a gesture of goodwill. Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that Turkey and Egypt’s normalization efforts are crucial for developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that the two countries should collaborate in order to achieve their interests.

Lingering Differences

Despite recent efforts to normalize ties between Cairo and Ankara, some issues remain unresolved, and might serve to increase tensions between the two countries. First, while both agree on the importance of restoring and maintaining stability in Libya, they disagree on how this goal can be achieved. Egypt remains a key ally of Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the eastern parts of Libya, and also threw its support behind newly selected interim Prime Minister of Libya’s eastern-based House of Representatives Fathi Bashagha. However, Turkey supports Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, head of the Government of National Unity in Tripoli, who rejected Bashagha’s appointment and refused to transfer power until elections are held.

Egypt remains skeptical of Turkish involvement in Libya, especially given growing strategic and economic relations between Ankara and Dbeibah’s government. This skepticism was made clear when Egypt rejected a recent memorandum of understanding signed between Turkey and Dbeibah’s government on oil and gas exploration in Libya’s Mediterranean waters. The memorandum also angered Greece and Cyprus, and will likely increase tensions between Cairo and Ankara.

In addition, Egypt and Turkey still have not demarcated their maritime borders, and no meetings of a joint committee concerned with the matter have been held during the past few months. What is crucial is to ensure that future demarcations do not plunge Egypt into the middle of the Turkish-Greek dispute over maritime borders.

Despite some positive signs demonstrating an improvement of relations between Egypt and Turkey, both sides still differ on some issues. Unless these differences are resolved, one cannot expect the full and sustainable normalization of relations between the two countries in the foreseeable future.

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