Turkey, Egypt would have much to gain from detente
Mohammed Sabreen, the managing editor of Cairo’s Al-Ahram newspaper, on May 13 wrote an article for the United World International website saying that the time had come for Turkey and Egypt to normalize their relations. My memories of the time that I served as Turkish ambassador in Cairo make me think that a person in Sabreen’s position would not venture to write such an article without sensing what the key decision-makers in Egypt were thinking. Similar hopes have been voiced for several months by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s adviser Yasin Aktay, so something must be brewing on both sides.
This is a long-awaited good sign. Turkey and Egypt must have finally come to the conclusion that they have nothing to lose by initiating the normalization of their relations. Both parties will draw enormous advantages from it — especially if such an opening is followed through with concrete cooperation on various projects.
One of Egypt’s expectations from Turkey is to cease its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is heavily inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood’s practices. This was the reason for its strong support of late Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and its opposition to Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s military coup in 2013.
Sabreen quoted, among his suggestions, the cooperation that Egypt might extend to Turkey in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In 1998, then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak helped Ankara persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was dispatched to Moscow, then Rome, and was eventually captured in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi. This may be a fair quid pro quo for Turkey’s help on the Muslim Brotherhood issue, as the two subjects are equally sensitive in both capitals.
Turkey may be hoping that the two countries can cooperate on a new delineation of their maritime jurisdiction zones
Another area of cooperation is the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey may be hoping that the two countries can cooperate on a new delineation of their maritime jurisdiction zones. Ankara has the longest coastline in the region, but several Mediterranean countries have already partitioned the sea, leaving Turkey nothing but its territorial waters. When the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was being negotiated, no agreement could be reached on whether the Mediterranean islands should each have the full extent of their continental shelf. The archipelagic states were considered an exception.
Turkey says that, if the multitude of Greek islands close to its coastline are each allowed to have its continental shelf, the huge Anatolian land mass would be locked down to its territorial waters. This anomaly was described in this column on Dec. 22 last year. If Kastellorizo, a tiny Greek island of 7.3 square kilometers with fewer than 500 inhabitants, is allowed to have its continental shelf, a maritime jurisdiction area more than 2,000 times bigger than its own surface would have to be allocated to it.
Similarly, Turkey believes that the islands of Cyprus and Crete should not have their continental shelf according to the UNCLOS. Therefore, the line that divides Turkey’s and Egypt’s continental shelves has to be the median line in the Eastern Mediterranean. This would enable Egypt to gain 15,000 square kilometers of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from Greece and 11,500 square kilometers from Cyprus. We do not know whether Egypt will revise the agreement it has signed with Greece and Cyprus in order to gain such a huge additional EEZ, with promising prospects for the discovery of oil and gas reserves.
Another area of cooperation between Turkey and Egypt may be Libya. Turkey’s military cooperation with the UN-backed Government of National Accord has produced tangible results in the fight against the Libyan National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The final outcome of the Libyan crisis is still uncertain, but now is the time to search for cooperation because, when the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen, the winning side will have less incentive to make concessions.
If successful, this may become a prestige project for Turkey and Egypt. These two countries are in an exceptionally strong position to end the Libyan crisis, perhaps with some assistance from Russia, which maintains Wagner mercenaries on Haftar’s side.
Turks and Egyptians have a long common history that goes back more than a millennium, to when Ahmad ibn Tulun, a 9th century Abbasid governor of Egypt, brought tens of thousands Kipchak Turks to Egypt from his ancestral Central Asia. Turks and Egyptians were also citizens of the same Ottoman state for four centuries, while the Ottoman Empire was ruled by an Egyptian Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasha, from 1913 to 1917.
There is huge potential for cooperation between Egypt and Turkey. It would be a pity if this potential was left unexplored.
* Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar