The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on Egypt and Turkey, whose latest attempt to repair their long strained bilateral relations may have ramifications across the MENA region.
In early May, Egypt and Turkey met for a two-day, high-level summit. During the conference, their Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs and respective diplomats discussed multiple open files to explore ways to normalize bilateral relations after eight politically tense years. Bilateral ties between Ankara and Cairo grew tense following the 2013 ousting of the democratically elected Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi. On top of its tangible outcomes, the summit also represents an important step forwards as regards a possible reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey, which could, in turn, significantly shift the region’s diplomatic balance. After all, this rapprochement – to which Turkey seems more committed – comes at a crucial time for a number of regional balances. On the one hand, Ankara is looking for a way out of its current diplomatic isolation. Following the rapprochement between Doha and Riyadh and the recent openings in the Teheran-Riyadh dialogue (via Baghdad), Erdogan is reassessing his diplomatic strategy. On the other hand, the threat of a looming economic downturn is pushing Ankara to explore new trade opportunities. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia seems to confirm Ankara’s new trade vision, as did the Minister’s call to his UAE counterpart, Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan – their first conversation since 2016. Despite the promising nature of these latest developments, several fractures remain unsettled, including the issue of Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. As such, the path towards reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt appears fraught with uncertainties.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to the recent thaw in Turkey-Egypt relations.
Turkish attempts to get out of isolation
“The Turks are motivated to reconcile with Egypt because Ankara is isolated in the region. Turkish leaders seem to want to upgrade ties more than their Egyptian counterparts, which means that President Abdel Fatah el Sisi can drive a hard bargain. Egypt is now testing whether Turkey is interested in a rapprochement or splitting the Greek-Egyptian-Cypriot-Israel-Emiratis coalition. If it is the latter, the diplomatic opening will not likely last. The main sticking points are giving up wanted Egyptians and Turkish withdrawal from Libya. These will be political difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who championed the Muslim Brotherhood and has portrayed Turkey as a force for stability in the region.”
Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
A possible regional “Grand Bargain”, starting from Libya
“A great thaw between Ankara and Cairo, after years of tensions? The talks held in Cairo could indeed represents the beginning of a new chapter in the Turkish-Egyptian relations that could also pave the way for changes in the wider region. This possible “appeasement” could range from a regional “Grand Bargain” involving all the elements of concerns to a compromise on specific issue, the most important of which is to reach a political agreement in Libya. Cairo and Ankara therefore have a strong potential to speed up a political solution in an extremely fragile Libya, while protecting their interests on the ground, as no other regional or European actors could apparently do. At the same time, the possible tightening of one side could drag Libya back into the abyss of the civil war.”
Alessia Melcangi, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; Assistant Professor, Sapienza University of Rome, and Non-resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
Leaving politics out of the economy
“Although Egypt and Turkey have taken significant steps to improve their strained ties, it’s still too early to speak of a real breakthrough in Egyptian-Turkish relations nor to predict the economic outcome of recent developments. Two facts are pertinent here. First, Cairo is approaching the normalization talks with a great deal of caution. Second, the tension in political relations between Egypt and Turkey in the period 2013-2020 had a limited impact on bilateral economic ties. Cairo and Ankara had signed a free trade agreement in 2005, which boosted trade between the two countries, making Egypt Turkey’s biggest African trade partner. Last year, total bilateral trade stood at around $4.8 billion. Because it’s more problematic, however, energy cooperation is contingent on the success in reaching a solid rapprochement.”
Nael Shama, Independent Scholar; Author of ‘Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi’
Ideology: not the biggest obstacle
“Turkey and Egypt have taken very different position toward the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization for the Egyptian government, but one the Turkish government accepts and supports. But this is not the most important difference between Turkey and Egypt. The root of the problem is a deep-seated rivalry between two countries that both aspire to be seen as the most powerful state in their region. Neither country has an interest in provoking a confrontation at present, and the two are likely to reach some accommodation in the short run. But the fundamental rivalry will not be overcome and the potential for conflict will remain”.
Marina Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
A rapprochement that masks antagonism?
“The quiet rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, led by intelligence services in the shadow of last year’s stalemate in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean was the start of this new era of diplomatic advancements and continues to define it. It is a rapprochement initiated through frustration and a desire to protect gains, rather than a compromise vision for the future. So, as elsewhere in the region, this welcome rapprochement drifts forward, creating little of substance, masking antagonistic moves that both parties continue making. These rapprochements are now creating a new normal, slowly fossilising into a frail framework. And it will remain fragile until a real, positivist consensus on the future can be formed.”
Tarek Megerisi, Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)