Pragmatism May Allow Turkey and Egypt to Mend Fences

Turkey’s government is seeking a thaw in relations with the Arab world after a long cold spell. Ankara seems especially keen on improving ties with Cairo. Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Bloomberg: “A new chapter can be opened, a new page can be turned in our relationship with Egypt as well as other other Gulf countries to help regional peace and stability.”

If Kalin’s assertion reflected a change in tone, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu went farther, offering Egypt at least one specific benefit from improved relations: A boundary agreement on the maritime zones claimed by the two countries in the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean. Reports in the pro-government Turkish media suggest Ankara is opening channels to Cairo with a view to resolving their maritime-zoning conflicts.

Egypt has not publicly responded to these overtures, but tea-leaf readers in Cairo also see signs of a thaw with Turkey over Libya, where the two countries have been on opposite sides of the civil war. They point to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s warm reception of Libya’s new prime minister, Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, who is close to Ankara.

Nevertheless, it would be premature to predict a warm Turco-Egyptian embrace. The reality is more complex, because tensions between the two countries were always tempered by their material interests. That said, some degree of friction is likely to persist given their competition for influence in Libya, Ankara’s support for Islamists and historic differences between Turkey and Egypt’s other partners in the Mediterranean.

A number of external factors in 2020 led Egypt to reevaluate its foreign-policy priorities, focusing on particular challenges while deescalating other areas of competition. These factors include the electoral defeat of U.S. President Donald Trump, military setbacks for Egyptian allies in Libya, the failure of American mediation of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the normalization agreements between several Arab states and Israel, which threaten Egypt’s claim to being the West’s mediator of choice in Palestine.

The reduction of tensions with Turkey is to some extent the consequence of the overall recalibration of Cairo’s concerns. The differences between the two countries remain unresolved, but they matter less in the new scheme of things.

The biggest bone of contention is Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan roundly condemned the coup that overthrew the Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi and brought General Sisi to power. Erdogan has continued to aim rhetorical broadsides at Sisi ever since. The Egyptians have responded in kind.

But throughout the war of words, Ankara and Cairo were careful not to cut off all ties. While Egypt joined the embargo of Qatar — again, in large part because of Doha’s support for the Brotherhood — there was no attempt to sever relations with Turkey. On the contrary, trade between the two countries grew steadily. Their free-trade agreement, signed in 2005, remains in force, even though Egyptian politicians have complained it favors the Turks. 

Trade continued largely unhindered even when Turkey intervened in Libya, which the Egyptians regard as being in their sphere of influence. The Sisi government, along with the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France, had backed the eastern rebel forces under Khalifa Haftar against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Haftar looked almost certain to seize the capital when Turkish military support allowed the government to strike back, sending Haftar into headlong retreat.

At one point, Sisi was so alarmed by the success of the Turkish-backed forces that he threatened direct Egyptian military intervention on Haftar’s behalf. This may have helped to halt the Tripoli government’s advance, but the fear — however fleeting — of having to put Egyptian boots on the ground in Libya encouraged Cairo to put more diplomatic effort into ending the fighting.

Egypt’s recognition of the limits of its capacity helped create the conditions for the United Nations-brokered agreement that, in turn, led to the government of national unity led by Dbeibah. Cairo still has hopes that Haftar’s rebel forces will be formalized in a future Libyan national military, thus deepening Egyptian influence in the country. But it has come to accept that force alone cannot deliver its desired outcome, and carries too great a risk of hostilities spiraling out of control.

Back, then, to the eastern Mediterranean. It is clear enough that both countries would benefit from a compromise on gas exploration: Turkey’s hard currency reserves have fallen sharply and Egypt was forced last year to return to the IMF for additional bailouts. But, having made a maritime-border deal with Greece, Cairo may require Ankara to mend fences with Athens before any new Turco-Egyptian agreement. Perhaps mutual interests could once again create an opportunity for pragmatism and cooperation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy Kaldas is an independent risk adviser and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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