Can Turkey and Egypt break the ice after years of chilly relations?
There are many examples to be found throughout the history of international relations of occasions when regional or global changes prompted states to adjust their foreign policies by placing the national interest ahead of ideology.
At a time of increased competition for power in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and as the recent change of administration in Washington begins to affect the Middle East, countries in the region have started looking for ways to reach out to each other despite their many differences.
This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Ankara could sign an agreement with Egypt on maritime jurisdictions if wider progress can be made in healing their strained relationship. He highlighted in particular the fact that Egypt had respected the southern borders of Turkey’s continental shelf when Cairo signed an agreement with Athens on the boundaries for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean last year.
“Egypt continues carrying out its activities like seismic exploration and licensing within its continental shelf,” he said. “In doing so, it continues to respect our continental shelf. We welcome this positively.”
Greek newspaper Kathimerini interpreted this respectful approach by Cairo as a way to open the door to future talks with Ankara, even though it might not lead to an immediate reconciliation.
Turkey has previously extended olive branches to Egypt with a view toward political reconciliation. In December, for example, Cavusoglu said during a year-end briefing on external affairs that Turkey's relationship with Egypt was not limited to intelligence cooperation but also included talks at the diplomatic level, and that the two countries were working on developing a road map for bilateral relations.
His comments came a few months after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey was willing to enter into talks with Egypt, and confirmed the ongoing intelligence discussions between Ankara and Cairo.
Throughout contemporary history, relations between the two countries have oscillated between quite friendly and extremely strained. In the past decade they have formed divergent alliances in the region, against a backdrop of the change in Washington from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Now that Joe Biden is US president, Turkey and Egypt are considering their strategies for shaping their future relationship.
Despite some shared interests, a potential rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo will require not only mutual good will but also the support of regional actors — which is perhaps the most important dimension.
At the same time as we have this possibility of a thaw in relations between Turkey and Egypt, there are also positive developments between Egypt and Qatar as a result of the changing political dynamics in the Gulf following the AlUla declaration.
In addition, recent positive developments in relations between Turkey and France, a close ally of Egypt, have the potential to further open the door for dialogue between Ankara and Cairo. Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have clashed on a range of issues, this week spoke for the first time since September. Both stressed that cooperation between their countries can contribute greatly to security, stability and peace efforts in the region.
In addition, a visit by new Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah to Cairo last month was seen by many observers as a symbolic move aimed at reassuring the Egyptians, given his close relationship with Ankara.
All of these regional developments will be determining factors in any potential Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement.
Former Egyptian Vice President Mohammed El-Baradei recently called on Arab countries to establish a regional security system capable of urgently addressing complex relations with Turkey and Iran.
“In this context, dialogue with Iran and Turkey, with whom we agree on many issues and disagree on a range of others, is something that cannot be postponed,” he said.
Needless to say, any talks between Turkey and Egypt would be momentous, given how their relationship had deteriorated.
There have also been calls from some in Egyptian business circles to reconsider a free-trade agreement between Egypt and Turkey that was signed 15 years ago. During a parliamentary session in February in the presence of Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Nevine Gamea, for example, Hafez Omran, a member of the parliament’s Industry Committee, suggested that the agreement is detrimental to Egypt rather than beneficial.
Even if a full reconciliation between Ankara and Cairo does not happen any time soon, perhaps they might enter into a period of detente, which would still be a positive step.
Despite the political disputes between Ankara and Cairo, economic cooperation never stopped. According to a report published in 2020 by Egypt’s General Organization for Export and Import Control, the value of Egyptian exports to Turkey increased by 9.7 percent in 2018 to $2.2 billion, compared with $1.9 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, Egypt’s imports from Turkey grew by 29 percent during the same period, from $2.3 billion to about $3 billion.
While considering Turkey’s strained relations with other countries, experts tend to suggest Turkish-Russian ties as a possible model for reconciliation. Despite their differing positions, Ankara and Moscow have developed political understandings on Syria, the Caucasus and North Africa. Understandings could be reached with Egypt as well.
Even if a full reconciliation between Ankara and Cairo does not happen any time soon, perhaps they might enter into a period of detente, which would still be a positive step. Such a development might not only prevent them from harming each other’s interests in the region, it could also pave the way for future reconciliation.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz