Turkey has launched a normalisation initiative with several countries with which it has had problematic relations for the last decade. Egypt has been one of them. The relations between the two countries had hit rock bottom after the toppling of then-President Mohammed Morsi by a coup in 2013. Turkey immediately became one of the staunchest critics of the coup and new President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and its leaders. Although both regional countries and outside powers such as the US and the EU established relations with al-Sisi's Egypt, Turkey remained steadfast in its criticism of the Egyptian regime. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost made this a personal issue and continued his criticism of the Egyptian coup in his domestic rallies and speeches.
To make matters worse for bilateral relations, the AKP government also allowed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated opposition figures to operate media outlets in Istanbul and Ankara and continue their criticism of the al-Sisi government. The toppling of Morsi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood disturbed the AKP leadership because of their ideological affinity and considered a strategic setback in AKP’s vision for the post-Arab uprising Middle East. In addition, the developments in Egypt were used by Erdogan, who also recently faced a challenge at home due to the Gezi Park protests, to consolidate his constituency with the argument that there was a similar plot against the AKP. All this had led to the deterioration of relations. Egypt declared the Turkish ambassador as persona non grata on 23 November 2013, and Turkey retaliated tit for tat.
Problems in Turkey-Egypt bilateral relations soon became regionalised. In general, they contributed to regional polarisation as Egypt, together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, actively began to limit and balance the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters Turkey and Qatar in regional politics. Specifically, the two countries engaged in conflictual relations in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libyan conflicts. Egypt cooperated with Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean natural gas geoeconomics and geopolitics. Turkey was also excluded from the East-Med Gas Forum initiated by Egypt. In the Libyan conflict, Turkey and Egypt supported the opposite sides: while Turkey supported the Tripoli-based, UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Egypt was one of the main allies of Khalifa Haftar, the military commander trying to topple the GNA. Thus, the two countries’ strategic rivalry in Libya and competition in the eastern Mediterranean led to further deterioration of political relations.
Yet despite all these problems, Turkey and Egypt engaged in normalisation efforts recently. Both countries had their own reasons. As Turkey has been trying to normalise its relations with several other countries, it is safe to argue that it wanted to end its isolation. Specifically, normalisation with Egypt could also open up possibilities of finding mutually advantageous positions in the Eastern Mediterranean and thus help Turkey protect its interests. The fact that Egypt considered Turkey's maritime claims in its delimitation agreement with Greece signed in August 2020 was perceived as a goodwill gesture by Ankara.
On the Egyptian side, besides having the opportunity to reduce Turkey's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo must have considered changing Arab dynamics and Turkey's normalisation, especially with the UAE and Israel, in the context of its concerns about marginalisation after the Abraham Accords. Furthermore, the shifting context in Libya also allowed Turkey and Egypt to normalise. The two countries began to support the UN negotiations launched in late 2020 to form a new unity government. Both Cairo and Ankara focused on their shared interest in unity and stability in Libya.
The contacts started first between intelligence services. There have then been two rounds of “exploratory talks” between diplomats at the vice minister level, first in Cairo in May, then in Ankara in September 2021. The two sides announced that they agreed to continue the diplomatic process and that there should be an improvement in bilateral relations. It was reported that Cairo asked Ankara “to stop interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab states, particularly Libya and Syria, to halt its media campaigns against Egypt, and stop granting Turkish nationality to Egyptians living in Turkey”. The immediate result of these meetings was that Turkey first warned and then closed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media outlets. Ankara's request for Egyptian media to tone down its criticism of Turkey and President Erdogan is also reported to have been accepted by Cairo.
Throughout 2021 both sides declared that they were achieving progress, yet other concrete steps were not taken as they even failed to appoint ambassadors. In the meantime, bilateral economic relations continued to flourish as the two countries compartmentalised their relations. The total trade volume nearly tripled between 2007 and 2020, increasing from 4.4 billion USD to 11 billion USD. Egypt recently also became a critical LNG exporter to Turkey.
Although normalisation between Turkey and the UAE has developed quickly, what prevents the advancement of normalisation between Egypt and Turkey? It may be argued that Egypt seems to be the reluctant party here. There is an overall problem of mistrust between the two countries. Turkey's hosting Muslim Brotherhood members, albeit less of an issue now, still leads to accusations by Egyptian leadership of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs. Yet the most critical issue has been the developments in Libya. Although the two countries seem to agree on their overall position, Egypt is concerned about the continuing presence of Turkey in its neighbour, including its military presence. Even worse for Cairo, Ankara also recently developed relations in the eastern part of Libya and specifically supported Fathi Bashagha, who was selected as prime minister by the eastern-based Libyan House of Representatives. Thus, in general, the postponement of elections led to increasing uncertainties that further fuelled this competition. Considering Turkey's presence in the Horn of Africa and its growing involvement in Ethiopia, a country with which Egypt has a conflict over the Nile waters, also started to create anxieties in Cairo. Thus, although Turkey and Egypt have been declaring their intention of normalising relations, especially continuing geopolitical competition has so far limited their efforts, albeit economic ties have continued unabated even when political and diplomatic relations hit bottom. Progress in Libya’s political process, on the other hand, seem to be the key development that would diffuse tensions between the two countries. With Turkey’s heightened interest in Libya in light of events in the Eastern Mediterranean, these two issues may further be tied together.