There is a lack of trust between Egypt and Turkey. Overcoming this trust deficit will take considerable time. That said, since last year tensions between Cairo and Ankara have partly cooled. Both regional powerhouses, for their own set of reasons, believe that their interests could be served through testing the waters for a possible rapprochement.
With Cairo and Ankara being opposing stakeholders in many regional wars and disputes, from the Libyan and Syrian civil wars to the 2017-2021 blockade of Qatar, Egypt and Turkey have had serious disagreements vis-à-vis Gaza too. Nonetheless, with these two countries having slowly and partly reconciled since 2020, it is fair to ask what further improvements in Egyptian-Turkish relations could mean for Gaza.
It is useful to begin with Egypt’s revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak a decade ago. During Mohammad Morsi’s brief presidency (2012-2013), Egypt and Turkey grew close. Cairo and Ankara aligned on many regional files including the Palestinian question. By the time of the 2010/2011 “Arab Spring” revolts, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had much soft-power influence in the Arab region, including in Gaza and Egypt. In 2010, Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official, compared Erdogan to Egypt’s former Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. By September 2011, the Turkish head of state “was received like a rock star” by thousands of Egyptians at the airport in Cairo when he arrived in Egypt.
After Morsi became Egypt’s President, there was optimism among Hamas officials in Gaza, who expected Egypt to conduct a new foreign policy that would bode better for the Palestinians compared to Cairo’s positions on Israel/Palestine during the Mubarak era. As the journalist Rania Abouzeid wrote in 2011, “Although the Arab Spring is not directly about Israel, those who have risen to claim their dignity in the face of tyrannical regimes are not prepared to passively accept Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in the way that Mubarak and other Arab autocrats had done.”
In Gaza there were billboards showing Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Morsi shaking hands with Egyptian pyramids in the background. Although relations between Hamas and Morsi’s government never became as cozy as some may have hoped or predicted, the circumstances of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood gaining power after Egypt’s “Arab Spring” revolution at least briefly raised the specter for geopolitical change and realignment in the region, through a stronger partnership between Cairo and Ankara. There was a possibility of this Egyptian-Turkish partnership making the Middle East far more friendly to Hamas and other Sunni Islamist groups, particularly those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But counter-revolutionary states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which wanted the Middle East’s status quo preserved, would have none of this. With the Saudi- and Emirati-backed coup of 2013, which ousted Morsi and Egypt’s Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, came a deterioration of relations between Egypt and Turkey. Ankara refusing to recognize Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government as legitimate and Erdogan expressing solidarity with Egypt’s Islamists at his rallies with the Rabia hand sign brought bilateral relations to rock bottom.
Since 2013, Gaza has been another contentious issue between Cairo and Ankara. Although Egypt and Hamas have recently started engaging each other more pragmatically, Turkey’s support for Hamas has been a major factor contributing to Cairo’s perceptions of Ankara’s agenda in Gaza as a threat. In early 2016, Egyptian officials expressed concerns to their Israeli counterparts about Ankara playing a role in Gaza.
Turkey’s support for Hamas has been a major factor contributing to Cairo’s perceptions of Ankara’s agenda in Gaza as a threat.
For its part, Turkey has often criticized Egypt for how it has dealt with the situation in Gaza, often accusing Cairo of being complicit in the blockade of the coastal strip. In May 2018, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister accused Egypt and Israel of denying Turkey’s aircraft landing rights when the Turks were attempting to transport Palestinians from Gaza – whom Israeli troops had injured amid protests – to Turkish hospitals.
Operation “Guardians of the Walls”
On May 10, Israel launched Operation “Guardians of the Walls.” Amid this Israeli military campaign against Gaza (which resulted in 260 deaths – including 66 children — and 1,948 injuries on the Palestinian side and 13 deaths in Israel), Egypt and Turkey acted quite differently. Whereas Cairo worked with Qatar to broker the Hamas-Israel ceasefire, Ankara was sidelined from that process.
The US also reacted differently to Cairo and Ankara on this confrontation between the Israeli military and Palestinian groups in Gaza. While the Biden administration praised Sisi for his diplomatic efforts which helped facilitate the May 21 ceasefire, the US State Department condemned President Erdogan for “anti-Semitic comments” and “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence.”
However, none of these differences appear to have derailed the potential for an Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement. “Turkey was rankled by its marginalization from ceasefire talks on the Israel-Gaza conflict, which Egypt spearheaded, but this loss of status is unlikely to turn into retaliation against Cairo,” Dr. Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told Inside Arabia. “Egypt’s more flexible engagement with Hamas might actually ease an area of friction with Turkey, even as both countries try to strike a satisfactory bargain over the Muslim Brotherhood.”
A Turkey-Palestine Maritime Agreement
In November 2019, Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a maritime delimitation agreement. This deal confirmed the two Mediterranean countries as maritime neighbors. Although denounced strongly by Greece and Cyprus, the demarcation agreement came on the heels of another pact for military cooperation between Turkey and the GNA. Both came as Turkey was intensifying its direct military intervention in Libya. This included increasing its supply of weapons and foreign (Syrian) fighters to the GNA’s side to help militias allied with the Tripoli-based government retake land that was under the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s control. Meanwhile, the Turks have used the maritime delimitation agreement to explore and drill in disputed Mediterranean waters that are gas rich.
In a somewhat similar context, Turkish and Hamas officials have been engaged in bilateral talks for demarcating maritime borders between Turkey and Palestine in the Eastern Mediterranean. Such an agreement would certainly upset the Israelis who point out that the Palestinians don’t have a state. But Hamas is clearly supportive of this plan.
In May 2021, Ismail Haniyeh told the Turkish news outlet Habertürk: “Turkey’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean can of course not be opened to discussion. All policies prioritizing Turkey’s own interests and security are its right. At the same time, when we consider that the Palestinian state is also a country with a shore on the Eastern Mediterranean, it has the same rights.” Accordingly, as one former Turkish navy rear admiral put it, “By signing such an agreement, the Palestinian people would obtain control over a 10,200 square kilometer maritime zone, which would pave the way for them to utilize all the resources at sea.”
Of course, there are major questions about this idea’s feasibility given that Israelis dominate the water that belongs to Gaza. But where would it leave Egypt? Some experts believe that Egypt would probably not view it as an imminent threat but could see some reason to be concerned within the context of a common perception in Cairo and other Arab capitals that Ankara has a “neo-Ottoman” agenda.
“Any attempt by Turkey to strike new agreements in the Eastern Mediterranean will keep Egypt on edge.”
“With respect to the Turkey-Palestine exclusive economic zone [EEZ] agreement, I think that it does not pose an immediate threat to Egyptian interests,” said Dr. Ramani. “It does not directly interfere with Egypt’s maritime boundaries with Greece or Cyprus. However, any attempt by Turkey to strike new agreements in the Eastern Mediterranean will keep Egypt on edge, as there is a feeling in Cairo that Turkey is expansionist and might not abide by the agreements to the letter of the law.”
“Moreover, Israel would be alarmed about a Turkey-Palestine agreement and is increasing cooperation with Egypt on natural gas. It was recently announced that Egyptian facilities are looking into refining Israeli gas. Turkey will counter all this by recycling the argument that Egypt’s maritime zone will increase if it strikes a deal with Palestine, but Cairo is wary of that, as it rejected a similar argument from Turkey when Ankara proposed a Turkey-Egypt EEZ to replace the Egypt-Greece EEZ,” he added.
Limited Expectations for Egyptian-Turkish Cooperation in Gaza
Hamas officials have expressed optimism about a partial Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement serving the Palestinian cause, particularly in relation to Gaza. Ankara’s chief diplomat has also called for Egyptian-Turkish cooperation on the Palestinian file. But is there much reason to expect any cooperation between Cairo and Ankara when it comes to helping the Palestinians? Dr. Ramani does not believe so. “Turkey has much less experience than Egypt in mediating between Palestinian factions, so it has little to offer Cairo, while Egypt remains wary of Turkey’s actions in East Jerusalem and potential role as a spoiler,” he said.
“Turkey has much less experience than Egypt in mediating between Palestinian factions, so it has little to offer Cairo.”
A potential Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement could do much to change the region. But imagining cooperation between the two countries in Gaza is currently difficult. As experts have pointed out, even if we witness a further easing of tension between Cairo and Ankara that leads to cooperation on regional issues, such cooperation is more likely to be seen in other hotspots such as Libya or Syria rather than in Palestine. The main reason still has to do with Egypt’s regime harboring suspicions about Turkey’s agenda in the besieged enclave bordering the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas, desperate to avoid excessive dependence on Iran, will certainly welcome chances to enhance its relations with both Egypt and Turkey, while standing strong against the Biden administration’s quest to bring more Arab/Muslim countries into the Abraham Accords to normalize their ties with Israel. But Hamas will likely pursue its goals via Egypt and Turkey separately. Perhaps that will remain the case unless and until Cairo and Ankara overcome the challenges that have thus far prevented a full rapprochement.