On the backdrop of a new US foreign policy which no longer views parts of the Middle East as strategically important, many countries in the region have sought to mend fences and resolve their bilateral problems. The announcement earlier this year of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan added to the sense of urgency. This reconciliatory trend has created an atmosphere of optimism in the Middle East, encouraged by the successful efforts to end the Gulf states’ diplomatic crisis.
Now, Egypt and Turkey have signaled their interests in restoring ties, representing yet another significant political breakthrough for the region.
Given their geopolitical importance, Egypt and Turkey have been among the most influential actors in the Middle East’s politics throughout modern history. However, animosity between these two nations stirred in 2003 when the Egyptian army – led by General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – ousted Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt and a member of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Egypt and Turkey have been among the most influential actors in the Middle East’s politics throughout modern history.
Turkey was one of the first countries to oppose the regime change in Cairo, which prompted Recep Tayyib Erdogan – then-Prime Minister of Turkey – to declare that the “coup [was] not acceptable.” He further asserted that Israel was responsible for supporting the upheaval that led to the ouster of Morsi.
As a result, bilateral relations between Ankara and Cairo took a nosedive and leaders in both countries never missed an opportunity to exchange harsh criticism of each other. Egypt recalled its Ambassador from Ankara in August 2003 and Ankara reciprocated a few days thereafter. Ankara announced later that it would welcome Egyptian dissidents and within months Turkey became not only a popular destination but the headquarters of the Egyptian opposition, represented primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood. Outspoken Egyptian journalists were also welcomed in Turkey, which made the country a host for various anti-Sisi regime media platforms.
Nevertheless, in March, security officials in Cairo revealed that they had received phone calls from their counterparts in Ankara “setting out Turkey’s desire” to discuss economic and bilateral cooperation. And in May, to the surprise of many observers, a senior Turkish delegation – led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal – visited Cairo and held meetings with top Egyptian officials to confer about normalizing diplomatic relations.
On September 7, an Egyptian delegation – headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Sanad Loza – in turn paid an official visit to Ankara. The two sides further deliberated on steps to normalizing ties, ways of solving bilateral problems, and means of easing regional tensions in places like Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Libyan Conflict
The situation in Libya is considered one of the thorniest issues affecting the relations between Turkey and Egypt. Ankara is known to back the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which is seen by Egypt as being close to the Muslim Brotherhood factions. While Turkey maintains that it is merely backing the “UN-recognized administration in Tripoli,” it accuses Cairo of supporting the opposing faction led by the “putschist” General Khalifa Haftar, who is seeking to grab power by force.
Turkey and Egypt’s accusations against each other are not very far off from reality. Yet, intensifying the conflict and fulfilling President’s Sisi promise to “fully involve Egypt’s military in Libya” would not solve the problem. Moreover, it seems that neither Turkey nor Egypt would be able to achieve a military victory in the Libyan conflict, as neither has the capabilities to fully attain its objectives.
Any military confrontation between Ankara and Cairo in Libyan territories will only prolong the conflict.
Any military confrontation between Ankara and Cairo in Libyan territories will only prolong the conflict. Although an ongoing war in Libya involving Egypt and Turkey would be welcome news for many parties in the region who have interests in the fighting, such as Israel and Ethiopia, it would drain the resources of the two countries. Furthermore, it would embolden insurgent groups in Egypt and Turkey, namely the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist militia in southern Turkey and the Islamist extremist factions in Sinai, Egypt.
The Eastern Mediterranean Crisis
The origins of the Eastern Mediterranean dispute involve Turkey and Greece. It started following Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. Egypt and many other players eventually got involved in the crisis. The issues were compounded over the last few years after the discovery of gas in the Mediterranean, and further aggravated by disagreements over the boundaries of the territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone.
Turkey, which is facing economic difficulties, did not want to be left without energy resources and has been aggressively pushing for its share. Other countries that have stakes in the region – such as France, Germany, Russia, Israel, and even China – had to step in to ease the frictions.
Meanwhile, the heavy fighting in Libya continued, as Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces advanced west toward the capital, Tripoli. In an effort to prevent Haftar from reaching Tripoli, the Government of the National Accord signed two agreements with Turkey in December 2019. The first agreement demarcated Libya’s maritime boundaries with Turkey, further complicating matters in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The second agreement guaranteed necessary Turkish military support to the GNA against the Egypt-backed LNA, which was very close to Tripoli at the time. Egypt’s Foreign Minister condemned the accords and considered them illegitimate. In fact, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo called on the international community to reject the deals, citing their negative implications.
Restricting Opposition Platforms
The current Turkish rapprochement with Egypt has been met with cautious reservations by Islamists and liberal opposition forces, amid reports that Cairo requested that Ankara help curb the Egyptian opposition. Still, Ibrahim Munir, the Deputy Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was quoted as telling Al Jazeera’s Mubasher TV network that the Brotherhood movement would not stand against any reconciliation between Ankara and Cairo, nor anyone else who “does good.”
There are three prominent Egyptian political opposition media channels in Turkey that are widely followed in the region. Turkey allegedly instructed them to cease criticizing the regime in Cairo. However, Egyptian opposition leaders in Ankara denied that they were told to stop their activities or refrain from decrying the Sisi government, and only asked to “tone down criticism.”
Turkey allegedly instructed local Egyptian opposition media channels to cease criticizing the regime in Cairo.
Former Egyptian presidential candidate, Ayman Nour, stated that Turkish officials informed him that TV stations must practice “objectivity and not attack or criticize people.” The move was welcomed by Egypt’s Information Minister, Osama Heikel, who described it as a “good initiative” that can create an appropriate climate for solving the dispute between the two governments.
If Ankara is in fact restricting Egyptian opposition parties and their media outlets based in Turkey, it could represent the easiest phase of the normalization process between Turkey and Egypt. But reaching an agreement on more complex issues, such as the political future of Libya and the water territorial boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, would certainly need greater consideration and collaboration.
Nonetheless, despite numerous external factors, as well as domestic political and economic pressures, it seems that Ankara and Cairo are inching towards resolving their tensions, even as restoring full diplomatic relations will require more time.