Turkish and Egyptian flags. Source: www.theowp.org
Ever since the 2011 events related to the Arab Spring and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the bilateral relations between Egypt and Turkey diminished in intensity, but 2021 brought the opportunity for bilateral talks and a thaw between the two states.
Still, bilateral ties continued at the level of charge d’affairs since 2013, with brief meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries being held on various occasions.
Moreover, Turkey has been at loggerheads also with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over a number of issues, most recently the conflict in Libya, where Ankara backed the UN-recognized administration in Tripoli while its Arab rivals supported the opposing faction.
First round of talks, held in Cairo, back in May 2021, is now continued with a second round in Ankara, on September 7th and 8th, 2021, organized at the level of deputy foreign ministers. On May 5th, a Turkish delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal visited Cairo at Egypt’s invitation. At the end of the visit, the two countries issued a joint statement describing the exploratory round of bilateral talks between them as “frank and in-depth”. Following the first round of talks, on May 7th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of a new phase in relations with Egypt, stressing that the talks would continue, develop and expand.
Both Cairo and Ankara showed positive signs in recent months, with statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the possibility of the two countries negotiating to demarcate their maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.
According to a present statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal and his Egyptian counterpart Hamdi Sanad Loza are leading their current respective delegations.
The same statement added that bilateral matters were addressed during the first day of talks, while the delegations were expected to exchange views on regional matters on the second day of talks on Wednesday 8th. “The parties aim to advance and normalize relations on the basis of mutual benefit,” it added.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country was taking “positive steps” to improve relations as Turkish and Egyptian officials were holding a second round of talks in Ankara. “Our friends at the ministry are meeting (Egyptian officials),” he said in an interview with broadcaster NTV. “If we decide together after the meetings, we will take the necessary mutual steps to appoint an ambassador.”
On relations with the UAE, Turkey’s top diplomat said there were “positive steps in the normalization process.” Last week, Turkish President Erdogan spoke by phone to UAE leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, two weeks after hosting the UAE’s national security adviser. Although Erdogan and the Saudi Crown Prince are yet to talk directly, the Turkish president discussed improving relations with King Salman bin Abdulaziz in May.
In the wake of this evolution, analysts said a change in the region’s dynamics had created an atmosphere of rapprochement between Ankara and its former adversaries.
“After the Arab Spring uprisings, the mood was completely different,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Centre for Turkish Studies. “The Arab regimes’ threat perception had peaked, popular uprisings were bringing down autocratic regimes and the Muslim Brotherhood was on the rise.” That led to the adoption of “an aggressive, security-orientated approach” that viewed Turkey as a major threat, she added.
Signs of a US retreat from the region, highlighted by the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, also shattered faith in Washington’s regional role. Combined with the realization that the aggressive post-Arab Spring foreign policy ventures were not working, this led the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians to adopt a more diplomatic approach. “Now they think, ‘OK, we live in a region where the US is not going to be present and the security-orientated approach didn’t produce the results we wanted,’” Tol said. In addition, the Arab trio is also less concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood than it was in the early 2010s, Tol continued, with “the whole mentality in the region having changed.”
Eyup Ersoy, an international relations faculty member at Ahi Evran University, said Turkey had “relinquished its unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood and has become less vocal about the issue”. The removal of a “quite challenging” rival coalition would allow Turkey greater leeway in the region and provide recognition of its “regional clout,” Ersoy added, as well as remove the prospect of “interminable proxy conflicts”. However, better relations with Cairo and Abu Dhabi would also further isolate Greece, Turkey’s traditional rival in the Eastern Mediterranean, he said.
Economic factors also weighed heavily on the region’s coronavirus-hit economies and better ties are expected to lead to improved trade and higher levels of investment, with Ersoy explaining that “increased investments, especially from the Gulf, will be highly significant for Turkey, considering the stagnating domestic economy and the chronic current account deficit”.
Nonetheless, while there is likely to be a rise in regional cooperation between the four, a degree of competition and mistrust will remain. In particular, the personal animosities that have built up during the years would make a return to normalcy difficult and may be restricted to de-escalating their rivalry, said Galip Dalay, a fellow at the German Institute for Security and Policy Affairs. “This is most apparent in Libya, where none of them have really changed their positions but they’re not actively escalating”, he said.
Meanwhile, Tol emphasized the antagonism between Erdogan and the Saudi prince. “MBS isn’t going to forget what Turkey did with Khashoggi,” she said. “The era that started with the Arab uprisings was so traumatic and challenging for these regimes and the way Turkey behaved during that time left a mark that’s not going to go easily.”
Referring to the present meetings, journalist Mustafa Özcan told Anadolu Agency (AA) that both countries put forth a will to restore relations and that relations are improving, albeit slowly. Özcan underlined that Turkey is neighboring the Arab world and that Turkey and Egypt have common areas of interest in Libya, North Africa, Syria and Iraq.
On the other side, Egyptian journalist Saliha Allam said that Cairo and Ankara know the importance of improving relations. “General interests and developments in the international arena are forcing both countries to postpone their disagreements and act together in some issues. Egypt needs Turkey in some regional issues just as Turkey needs Egypt in some files,” Allam said, adding that although both countries may not overcome disagreements regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, the issues of Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean have priority.
Muhammed Zevavi of Sakarya University said that new alliances in the region influence Ankara-Cairo ties and pointed to rifts between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Zevavi also said that a possible agreement on maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean “would disturb Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, Israel and France.”