Alwaght – Turkey-Egypt relations in past few years have gone through a series of highs and lows with the major reason being the political changes in Egypt and Turkey’s way of dealing with them. The two countries first severed diplomatic ties in 1954 when Ankara declined to recognize the revolutionary government of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The two countries restored their relations after Hosni Mubarak in 1998 mediated between Turkey and Syria for their diplomatic rapprochement after the diplomatic rows erupted between them over such issues as the water share from the joint rivers, the borders, and the Kurds.
Cairo and Ankara’s ties went frayed again in 2011, when the Turkish leaders supported the uprising that brought down Mubarak. But this chill did not linger. After Mubarak’s ousting and rise to power of Mohamed Morsi, the two states experienced one of their warmest diplomatic periods. Their warmth went to an extent that when the new government, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, launched a campaign of streets and squares renaming, it suggested that Cairo’s Simon Bolivar Square be renamed to “Recep Tayyip Erdogan Square”, taking its name from the Turkish leader.
But the July 2013 military coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister under Morsi, which drew a harsh reaction from Turkey, marked the shortness of life of the honeymoon of the relations of the two states. A set of developments worsened their ties. Attacking Egypt’s new president in 2014, Erdogan labeled him the “illegitimate tyrant.” The Egyptian leader supported the July 2016 coup against Erdogan in retaliation for his anti-Sisi stances. Egypt rendered the Cairo-Ankara relations tenser by voting against the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s resolution blacklisting the anti-Erdogan Gulenist Movement, whose leader Fethullah Gulen was blamed by Erdogan as the mastermind of the coup, as a terrorist group.
But Turkey strongly condemned the November terrorist attacks that struck Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and was claimed by ISIS terrorist group. The Turkish president announced a day of national mourning in a move seen by many as an apparent Turkish shift of stance and a signal for de-escalation of tensions. Egypt responded positively to the Turkish openness. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Saturday hoped that Cairo and Ankara resume normal diplomatic relations by overcoming any tensions “based on the principle of non-interference.”
“There is no doubt that there are a lot of bonds between the Egyptian and Turkish people,” he said, adding “We hope relations will return [to normal] and we are always open to this.”
A set of factors should be taken into consideration in the quest for an answer to the question as why the two countries are now seeking de-escalation.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed the power in Turkey in the early 2000s, Ankara put a premium on expanding trade with the regional states. To this end, the country signed a free trade deal with Cairo in 2005, paving the way for bolstered business ties with Egypt. The deal went into effect in March 2007. The agreement made the trade exchange volume between the two countries remarkably increased. The diplomatic chill after 2013 might not have influenced the trade that much, but the slowdown of the once-fast growth of trade as a result of strained ties proved unavoidable. They held the last meeting of their Joint Trade Committee in March 2012. The last session of high-level trade dialogue committee was held on November 7 the same year. In 2012, their trade touched the $5.25 billion, but in the next consecutive three years, it failed to grow larger. Rather, it suffered some downturn in 2015, moving down to $4.3 billion.
Despite that, a high-ranking Turkish trade delegation traveled to Cairo in January this year for a meeting of the Turkish-Egyptian Business Association to attend a one-day forum organized by the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce (FEDCOC), according to the Istanbul-based Anadolu Agency.
During the forum, the president of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), Rifat Hisarciklioglu, voiced his hope for improved relations between Ankara and Cairo.
“The visiting Turkish delegation wants to increase investment in Egypt.” Hisarciklioglu, adding “We need more trade with Cairo. The tensions in the Turkish-Egyptian diplomatic relations are never useful. We have to help the two countries’ growth and trade interactions.”
The Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Omer Celik a couple of days before the Turkish business delegation’s Cairo visit had described Egypt as Turkey’s door to Africa and Turkey as Egypt’s door to the Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “Both know this fact,” the minister noted.
“We think we need to develop economic and cultural ties with Egypt as countries that use the two sides of the Mediterranean,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey told reporters at a briefing in Istanbul on August 20, 2016.
On the other side, the Egyptian government desperately needs expanded trade relations with the regional and global partners as part of an effort to boost its political legitimacy and, of course, it does not want to drag its political rift with Ankara into their business relations.
Regional developments and drifting alliances
West Asia region’s developments have been unfolding very fast in the recent years. The regional powers build alliances and engage in partnerships as they are in a race against each other for outermost influence on the regional events. Turkey has been one of the contesting parties whose regional foreign policy has undergone the most radical changes in the past few years. Turkey’s Erdogan who has been dreaming of the Turkish leadership of the Muslim world intensified competition with the Saudis after a string of events including the 2016 Turkish coup which received Riyadh backing, ousting of Morsi from power, and the Saudi-led Arab blockade on Qatar which is an ally to Turkey at least in its pro-Brotherhood agenda. Easing the tensions with Egypt can stop closer Cairo-Riyadh ties and curb the Saudi-demanded pressures on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
PM Yildrim in a July 2016 statement described his foreign policy as being based on looking for “more friends and fewer enemies.” At the time, he said that Turkey wanted mended relations with Russia, Israeli regime, and other countries including Egypt. He highlighted the “serious” Turkish efforts to diplomatically normalize with Cairo.
Regarding the fact that the Turkish-Western relations are now frayed and Saudi Arabia is the West’s ally and interests server in the region, Ankara is not unwilling to impair Saudi Arabia by allying with other actors for the final aim of challenging the regional alliances led by the kingdom. Egypt is the fourth of the countries— Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE—which imposed an all-out embargo on Turkey’s regional ally Qatar. Such closeness might pull Egypt out of the Saudi-led anti-Doha bloc. Moreover, the Turkish leaders want to share their pro-Palestinian agenda with Cairo.
The same willingness exists on the Egyptian side. El-Sis who is looking forward to win another term in office in the next year presidential election seeks diplomatic rapprochement with Turkey as this could bolster investment and yield promises of better economic conditions in his country and reduce struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement with deep roots and a huge influence in the Egyptian society.