After two years of diplomatic work to thaw the icy relationship between Egypt and Turkey, put an end to ten years of tense relations, and take steps to resume normal relations between the two countries, Cairo and Ankara announced on 4 July that they would upgrade their diplomatic relationship to the ambassadorial level.
Egypt nominated Amr Al-Hamami as a possible ambassador to Ankara, while Turkey nominated Salih Mutlu Shin to be its ambassador in Cairo. Al-Hamami and Mutlu served as charge d’affaires in Ankara and Cairo over the past few months as Egypt and Turkey continued their security and diplomatic consultations.
A Protracted Diplomatic Process
The decision to upgrade diplomatic ties between Cairo and Ankara is not a hasty one; it has been the focus of debate and discussion in recent years following the emergence of indicators that prompted it. These factors first came to light in March 2021, when former Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disclosed that Egypt and Turkey had diplomatic contacts at the level of the foreign ministries. The following month, the Turkish parliament unanimously approved a proposal to form a parliamentary friendship group between Turkey and Egypt. These declarations paved the way for the first exploratory talks sessions, which were held in early May 2021 and covered bilateral and regional issues, particularly in relation to Libya, Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean. Four months later, on 7 September 2021, the second round of exploratory talks took place in Ankara.
This process contributed to decisive steps towards resolving numerous problematic issues, with the Brotherhood file, its elements residing in Turkey, and its media outlets there perhaps being the most significant. In this vein, Ankara announced the closure of three TV channels —Al-Sharq, Mekameleen, and Al-Watan— that provided a platform for members of the Brotherhood to criticize Cairo’s policies and political regime.
However, the continuation of Turkish regional policies that Cairo does not support and the divergence in the two countries’ stances on the issues of Libya and the eastern Mediterranean resulted in a halt to negotiations, slowed the process of normalization, brought back tension in the air of relations, and foiled attempts to schedule meetings at the level of foreign ministers or the presidency, at a time when Turkish officials have continued to assert that there are bilateral agreements and understandings through fewer security and diplomatic channels to resolve contentious issues.
The diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries reached a turning point in April 2022 when Ankara decided to appoint an ambassador to fill the position of chargé d’affaires in Cairo for the first time since relations began to deteriorate. Covert negotiations between the designated diplomatic missions and political and intelligence figures continued, as did regional initiatives spearheaded by some countries to reconcile divergent viewpoints and quicken the reconciliation process, which moved more slowly than its counterparts with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. While Turkey acted hastily to resume normal relations, Egypt showed consideration in its exploration of the positions, intentions, and seriousness of the Turkish side. The famous handshake between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November 2022, which was followed by a 45-minute session of talks about future prospects for relations, could be seen as one of the fruits of the diplomatic and regional moves.
Disaster diplomacy and humanitarian diplomacy provided a chance to prioritize humanitarian issues over contentious ones and to restart diplomatic communication that had been stagnant for years. Following the devastating February 9 earthquakes, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Mersin in southern Turkey to show solidarity and support. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu then paid a follow-up visit to Cairo in March, during which he revealed the ongoing efforts to re-exchange ambassadors and pledged to strengthen cooperation at the political, economic, military, and cultural levels. This level of diplomatic interaction was long overdue and would not have occurred without external incentives.
The geopolitical landscape on the global and regional scales, as well as domestic developments, economic opportunities, and challenges, contained elements that stimulated Egyptian and Turkish relations. The following highlight the reconciliation context:
The Reduction of Ideological Dimension: The failure of Turkey to rely on the Brotherhood’s initiative to install obedient governments that would give it greater regional influence, the decline in its viability even within countries that represented its traditional strongholds like Tunisia and Morocco, and the Brotherhood’s failure to retake power in Egypt contributed to the decline of the ideological component that had dominated Turkish foreign policy over the previous ten years, the waning influence of the Brotherhood in Egyptian-Turkish relations, and Ankara’s return to realpolitik and pragmatic approach. The two countries recognized the need to adopt cooperative arrangements governed by a rule that allows for accepting differences and managing them through dialogue paths with the aim of reaching some mutual understandings, neutralizing issues on which no agreement can be reached, and expanding common denominators, especially since competition has reached its limit and its continuation no longer serves their best interests.
Post-Election Phase Management: With the conclusion of the elections and Erdogan’s election to the presidency, he has the opportunity to prioritize the state’s strategic interests over electoral considerations and to continue the policy of appeasement and regional rapprochement without regard to nationalist or conservative positions.
The decision to intensify diplomatic ties is regarded as one of the first significant foreign policy moves made by the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, whose diplomatic efforts through covert channels while serving as director of intelligence contributed to ending the standoff between the two countries. This orientation also embodies the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s motto, “Peace at home, peace in the world”, in concrete terms, which Erdogan announced he will adopt during his third term. This motto entails upholding stability, growth, and peace within the state by fostering peaceful relations with other countries.
Progression from “Precious Loneliness” to “Zero Problems”: In August 2013, Ibrahim Kalin, a former spokesperson for the Turkish presidency and Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor, coined the phrase “precious loneliness” to defend Turkey’s military interventions in the Middle East, which destroyed the legacy of the “Zero problems” guiding principle that guided the country’s foreign policy during the first ten years of the twentieth century. This declaration was made just three months before the decision was made in November 2013 to expel the mutual ambassadors between the two countries, signaling a stage of institutional and diplomatic rupture with the major countries in the region and Turkey becoming a hostage to regional isolation. However, the exorbitant political and economic cost of Turkey’s foreign policy behavior prompted Ankara to try to “zero” problems in an effort to defuse tensions and achieve the country’s political, economic, and strategic goals.
Changes in the International Arena: The Egyptian-Turkish reconciliation is part of larger efforts to evaluate interregional relations and reformulate them in a way that gives the region’s countries more room for coordination and movement at the regional level, ensures their adoption of a more independent stance that considers their security, political, and economic interests, and frees them from being mere pieces on the global chessboard that is being rearranged, whose new balance of power is being reformulated within the Ukrainian arena, allowing them to take advantage of economic opportunities for joint cooperation to support development plans and domestic economic reforms.
Regional Conciliatory Tendency: The region’s leaders came to the realization that zero-sum games would not be in their countries’ best interests, so they went about creating regional initiatives and fostering better ties between their countries and other regional parties. The Al-Ula Summit in 2021 and its outcomes, which led to the end of the boycott of Qatar by the Arab Quartet, served as the starting point for regional peace and normalization efforts involving both Arab and non-Arab countries in the region. It was followed by the signing of the Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco on one side, and Israel on the other. In addition to the reconciliation between Turkey and Israel, the decision to end the boycott of Qatar opened the door for better Turkish relations with the countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, which supported Doha throughout the boycott’s years-long duration.
The culmination of open diplomacy occurred in March 2023, when China mediated the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two biggest rivals in the region. This regional movement is vital to the political stability and economic development of the region. Cairo and Ankara are also aware of the fact that the advantages of reconciliation and the necessity of cooperation in matters relating to Libya, Sudan, Syria, the Horn of Africa, gas, the exploitation of economic waters without scuffles, the expansion of trade, and luring investments to revive economies outweigh the reasons for discord. These compelling reasons for peace, however, do not preclude the existence of unresolved political and security disputes.
The political leaderships of the two countries have demonstrated an interest in enhancing bilateral ties, with both of them having sound reasons for pursuing rapprochement that have been sparked by changes in the geopolitical environment and can be reviewed as follows:
Developing a Formula for Managing Complicated Situations (Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean): The decision to strengthen diplomatic ties between Cairo and Ankara shows that both countries are aware of their influence in the region and how it might be used through negotiation, consensus-building, and the management of differences rather than conflict. They also recognize the potential for using this influence to advance regional peace and stability and quell regional conflict, which would be beneficial for the Arab world. However, the current state of relations between the two countries makes it necessary for policymakers to resolve a number of regional issues to ensure that each party understands the interests of the other and manages their divergent viewpoints on some crucial regional issues, such as Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey’s main motivation for improving ties with Cairo centers on the issue of gas resources in the Mediterranean. Ankara has realized that de-escalation is the only way to break the political alignment within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Organization against it and enter the network of regional cooperation created by the so-called tripartite partnerships (Egypt-Cyprus-Greece and Cyprus-Greece-Israel). In essence, the reconciliation offers the countries of the eastern Mediterranean basin a chance to engage in group negotiations, which is a critical step toward resolving their differences. Ankara hopes to sign a bilateral agreement with Egypt to demarcate their maritime borders as well as win Egypt’s support for its membership in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. According to statements made by Egyptian diplomats to Al-Ahram, maritime border demarcation has been a topic of technical discussions ever since high-level talks between Egypt and Turkey were announced in May 2021, but it was not on the agenda of presidents Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Erdogan’s brief meeting in Doha and is not anticipated to be brought up at any anticipated future meeting between the two presidents. Cairo will never agree to the completion of a border demarcation unless it complies with all applicable international treaties and covenants and does not conflict with the interests of its regional allies. Cairo previously turned down a Turkish proposal to draw maritime border lines because it claimed it would give the country access to a larger economic zone than what was permitted by the agreement with Greece on border demarcation. In other words, a reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey will not alter the eastern Mediterranean’s current balance of power.
Regarding the Libyan issue, the convergence of Egyptian and Turkish positions and viewpoints can help Libya’s political process and the political transition process by ensuring that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are successful and that Egyptian and Turkish businesses profit from the reconstruction process together. However, reaching a consensus on the Libyan issue will depend on both parties having a mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and goals. Additionally, a solution must be developed that ensures the survival of Turkish military influence and takes Egyptian worries about armed mercenary elements into account because Cairo sees them as a security threat.
Accelerating Debate on Contentious Files: To speed up and facilitate discussions on bilateral and regional issues where the two countries hold opposing positions, diplomatic missions must be elevated to ambassadorial status. Joint diplomatic missions between the two countries have previously been small and ineffectual, functioning only at the charge d’affaires level. As a result, the majority of the talks between the two countries happened through low-level diplomatic, intelligence, and security channels. Enhancing diplomatic ties to the level of ambassadors can speed up the rapprochement process and enhance the caliber of negotiation outcomes by allowing natural diplomatic channels to take the lead.
Strengthening Economic Relations: If political tensions are kept apart from economic and trade relations, which have significantly improved over the past few years, there is enormous economic potential that can be unlocked between Egypt and Turkey. For the first time in 2018, the two countries’ bilateral trade volume surpassed the $5 billion mark. By the end of 2022, it had risen to about $9.7 billion, of which $4.5 billion came from Turkish exports to Egypt and more than $5 billion from Egyptian exports to Turkey. In 2021, it reached $6.7 billion.
In the coming years, the two countries hope to increase trade to $20 billion annually and revive Turkish investments in Egypt, which currently total $2.5 billion through 200 Turkish companies doing business in Egypt. Following a meeting in February 2023 between a Turkish trade delegation and Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, Turkish companies have committed to making new investments totaling $500 million in Egypt. It is possible to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the availability of natural gas and cheap labor to attract Turkish investors and export products to African markets by utilizing customs exemption agreements, and it is also possible to utilize the expertise of Turkish businessmen to develop the Egyptian textile industry. The two countries also hope to revive the Rome Maritime Agreement, which has been dormant since 2015, in order to use Egyptian ports to move Turkish exports from Mersin and Iskenderun in Turkey to Damietta and Port Said in Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea, where they would then be transferred to an Arab port on the Red Sea before being shipped to the Gulf States on Turkish ships. Similarly, the energy industry is a crucial area for economic cooperation. By the end of 2021, Egypt had established itself as a major supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Turkey, and in the first half of 2022, Turkey topped the list of countries importing the most LNG from Egypt, with a value estimated at about $1.1 billion.
More diplomatic efforts are needed to boost confidence and settle contentious files in order to move Egyptian-Turkish relations from the current square of détente toward reconciliation. As such, the diplomatic upgrading of relations between the two countries is a necessary step in this direction, and the next phase can be evaluated in light of the following considerations:
- Despite the low priority of the Muslim Brotherhood as a component of the dispute on the agenda of Egypt-Turkey bilateral relations in favor of regional issues, the disengagement between Ankara and political Islam groups remains in the orbit of tactical maneuvering and not a strategic orientation due to Turkey’s desire to use Islamic groups as one of its tools to achieve its external interests. Turkey is unlikely to turn over the wanted Brotherhood members to Cairo because Ankara has not established a clear strategy for handling the Brotherhood members who live on its soil and has not expelled senior Brotherhood members who live there.
- It is unlikely that the two countries will abandon their security and strategic objectives in Libya. Cairo wants the Turkish-backed Syrian militias, which Egypt views as a security threat, to leave the country, but it is unlikely that Ankara will act right away. However, it is anticipated that there will be improved security coordination, consideration of Egyptian sensibilities, and an effort to find common ground.
- Following the recent unrest in the region, concerns will persist about Turkish actions in Sudan, which could allow Ankara to strengthen its position in the Red Sea and resurrect plans to lease the port of Suakin to build a military base.
- Any rapprochement between the Egypt and Turkey does not mean abandoning the strategic alliance between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. Therefore, future agreements will not alter the current situation in the eastern Mediterranean and will not violate the rights of the member states of the eastern Mediterranean basin.
- The military and defense sectors are potential areas for cooperation, particularly in regards to drones, but not in the near future because this type of strategic cooperation, whether at the level of purchasing agreements or joint production, requires the resolution of contentious issues first. Therefore, the recent diplomatic developments will not immediately translate into defense cooperation; instead, it will depend on how far bilateral relations have come. However, discussions about reviving an earlier agreement between Erdogan and Al-Sisi from May 2013, when the latter was Egypt’s defense minister, to open a $200 million Turkish line of credit to finance Turkish arms sales to Egypt and joint military production projects may take place as part of the long-term cooperation.
- The improvement of diplomatic ties between Egypt and Turkey opens the door for preparations for a meeting between Al-Sisi and Erdogan, which is expected to take place before the end of the year and serve as an announcement to re-launch bilateral relations at this high political level and to discuss plans for economic, political, military, security, and cultural cooperation.