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A Thaw in Relations between Egypt and Turkey

Weaknesses in Foreign Policy and the Economy Bring the Regimes in Cairo and Ankara Closer Together

SWP Comment 2021/C 39, 29.06.2021, 4 Seiten



The visit of a high-ranking Turkish delegation to Cairo in early May 2021 indicates a turning-point in the relations between Turkey and Egypt. Since the 2013 military coup in Egypt, the leaders of these two Mediterranean countries had been extremely hos­tile towards each other. The current rapprochement, which might lead in a best case scenario to a resumption of diplomatic relations, thus comes as a surprise. But it is limited in scope. The main obstacles to a closer partnership between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi are differences in the ideological foundations of their regimes. The aim of these current shifts in foreign policy is to increase the presidents’ room for manoeuvre. Their regimes are under pressure due to regional, international, and domestic developments. Germany and the EU should support the normalisation attempts because they can contribute to de-escalation in the region. Both regimes’ current weaknesses in foreign policy and the economy provide an opportunity to call for political change in other areas.

In July 2013 the military overthrew Egypt’s former President and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi. Since then, the governments in Ankara and Cairo have not missed an opportunity to denounce each other. Turkish President Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, accused President al-Sisi of having illegally seized power and built up a totalitarian regime. In turn, the Egyptian leadership accused Turkey of promoting terrorism in the region through its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and of interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs.

In summer 2020 it looked as if the “Cold War” between Cairo and Ankara could in fact turn into an armed clash. Turkey’s mili­tary intervention in the Libyan civil war, and Cairo’s threat of interceding with troops in the event of further advances by units of the then-internationally recognised government backed by Ankara, raised the risk of a military confrontation. When new gas reserves were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean, disputes broke out over the extent of the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Manoeuvres by the countries’ navies further heightened tensions.

And yet, to the surprise of many observers, towards the end of the year a gradual rapprochement between the governments took place. More intensive contact between their secret services had contributed to a détente in the Libyan conflict, with both countries supporting the UN negotiations launched in late 2020 to form a new unity government. In mid-March 2021, the Turk­ish leadership made an unequivocal con­cession: TV channels run by the Egyptian opposition in exile and headquartered in Istanbul were instructed to tone down their criticism of the al-Sisi regime. This paved the way for a two-day meeting of the coun­tries’ deputy foreign ministers in Cairo in early May.

Erdoğan in a Tight Spot

Erdoğan enthusiastically announced after the meeting that his country wanted to restore its “historic friendship” with Egypt and extend the dialogue that had been resumed. Yet this change in foreign policy is by no means voluntary. Turkey’s con­frontational foreign policy during the past decade, which has seen it use military means to enforce its interests, has reached its limits. The country is increasingly iso­lated within its regional environment. Rela­tions with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are extremely tense, not least as a consequence of the Qatar blockade. With Egypt’s support from June 2017 until January 2021, the two Gulf states had imposed a partial blockade on Qatar – Ankara’s closest ally in the region. After Turkey came to Qatar’s help, relations tangibly worsened. Most recently, Saudi Arabia imposed an informal boycott on Turkish products and declared in late April that it would be closing eight Turkish schools. While Ankara has been able to improve relations with Riyadh somewhat during the past few months, vis-à-vis the UAE signs are still pointing to confrontation. A Turkish mafia boss, who has been leaking information about the alleged links between politics and organised crime, is said to have found refuge in Dubai of all places.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara is faced with an energy alliance formed by Egypt, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Israel, who founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum with the support of other littoral states. This means that Ankara is now also at a disadvantage in its decades-old conflict with Athens and Nicosia over sea borders. In a quid pro quo, Turkey signed an agree­ment with the Tripoli-based Libyan govern­ment in November 2019 that adjusted the sea borders of both according their own terms. The region’s other states, however, do not recognise the agreement. And Tur­key’s alliance with Tripoli is no safe har­bour. Whilst Ankara has been able to chalk up some successes through its military inter­vention in Libya, it is unlikely that military means alone will suffice to secure its long-term interests in the civil-war-torn country.

Erdoğan is also under pressure in the in­ter­national arena. No fundamental read­just­ment in the US-Turkish relationship is expected as part of the change of govern­ment in Washington. US President Joe Biden made clear that he would not shy away from conflict with Ankara. This shift in policy is also reflected in the fact that Biden has officially recognised the Arme­nian genocide in the Ottoman Empire as such, a step his predecessors avoided out of consideration for Turkey. In addition, the US has already imposed sanctions on Ankara, following its purchase of the Rus­sian air defence missile system S-400. The US judiciary is also investigating Turkey’s state bank, Halkbank, which is accused of having breached sanctions against Iran.

These foreign-policy challenges carry even more weight for the Turkish government due to the country’s precarious eco­nomic situation. The Corona pandemic has exacerbated structural problems in the Turkish economy and led to a further drop in the approval rates for the governing AKP. Erdoğan therefore hopes that the rapproche­ment with Egypt will create some leeway in foreign policy as well as score points for him domestically. The move enables him to pre­sent himself to the new US administration as a reconciliation-oriented leader. The move could also weaken the alliance between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. In the eastern Mediterranean, the rapprochement with Cairo would help to both strengthen Ankara’s position in its dispute over sea bor­ders, and secure Turkey’s long-term inter­ests in Libya.

Does al-Sisi Have the Upper Hand?

Cairo is pursuing the rapprochement less ambitiously than Ankara. Egyptian govern­ment officials insist that, in order for rela­tions to be normalised, Turkey first has to make concessions. However, this rhetoric should not hide the fact that the political leadership under President al-Sisi is also in­terested in improving its bilateral relations with Turkey.

Like Erdoğan, al-Sisi is under substantial pressure. His good relationship with the US under President Donald Trump – who referred to the Egyptian president as his “favourite dictator” – is now a heavy bur­den for a fresh start with President Biden. Al-Sisi’s successful mediation in the recently re-escalated conflict between Israel and Hamas has in fact improved his reputation in Washington and pushed US criticism of the human rights situation into the back­ground. Nevertheless, the US is by no means a reliable partner for Egypt, especially when it comes to surmounting the regional chal­lenges facing the Egyptian regime. This is par­ticularly evident in the Nile conflict, cur­rently Cairo’s greatest foreign-policy chal­lenge. In this dispute with Ethiopia over water distribution, Egypt is clearly on the defensive, given the progress made in build­ing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In contrast with his predecessor, President Biden does not support Egypt’s position unilaterally, but maintains a bal­anced policy.

The Nile conflict also reveals a further foreign policy weakness, which might be just as dangerous for Cairo as the reorientation of the US’s Egypt policy: its cooling rela­tions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both Gulf countries have a neutral stance in the Nile conflict, even though they were pre­viously seen as the most important allies of the al-Sisi regime. Since the start of the un­successful Qatar blockade, however, the triple alliance has become increasingly weak. There has been hardly any coordination on regional political crises such as the civil war in Syria or the Yemen conflict. Moreover, Cairo is extremely sceptical about the UAE’s normalisation of relations with Israel. This approach could result not only in a loss of significance of Egypt’s tra­ditional mediating role in the Middle East conflict, but also in the construction of new pipe­lines and transport routes that could have the potential to reduce transport revenues from the Suez Canal, an impor­tant source of income for the Egyptian government.

Above all, in the past few years Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have contributed less and less to the financing of Egypt’s severe budget deficits, which total billions of US dollars. The economic situation is the Achilles heel of the al-Sisi regime. Especially due to the impact of the Covid pandemic, Egypt will be forced to further rely on sub­stantial external financial help in the com­ing years, if only to ensure that its growing population is provided with basic supplies. This plight combined with the absence of payments from the Gulf monarchies likely encouraged al-Sisi to “front-straightening” Egypt’s foreign policy to gain more lever­age in future negotiations with these two sig­nifi­cant donors. Turkey is also an im­portant export market for Egypt.

Not least, al-Sisi depends on an arrange­ment with Ankara in the Libyan conflict. Despite his threats, he has no genuine inter­est in sending ground troops into neighbour­ing Libya – unlike Turkey. Such an intervention would have unforeseeable con­sequences for the Egyptian armed forces. Whilst the armed forces are domestically more powerful than ever, it is hard to assess their true military capabilities. For instance, they have so far failed to put down the vio­lent insurgencies in the Sinai.

Limits to the Rapprochement

Even though both sides have good reasons to pursue the rapprochement and resume diplomatic ties, a complete normalisation of Turkish-Egyptian relations should not be expected yet. Regarding Libya, for example, both sides seem interested in an arrangement. But it is unclear what this might look like. It is difficult to imagine any grand bar­gain. For Egypt a long-term Turkish military presence in Libya would be hard to accept. Conversely, a complete withdrawal of Turk­ish units would be an unlikely option for President Erdoğan. It is also unrealistic to expect Cairo to fundamentally change its alliance policy in the eastern Mediterranean in Ankara’s favour. Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt will no doubt continue to expand their relations.

The main obstacle to a full normalisation of relations, however, is the ideological dif­ferences between the regimes. While Presi­dent Erdoğan pursues the model of a “Turk­ish-Muslim religious nation”, President al‑Sisi’s rule is totally orientated towards the military. The Egyptian military’s assumption of power in 2013 was expressly directed against efforts to embed religious issues more strongly in the state. Since both leaders actively promote their respective ideology in the region – through Turkish support for Islamist opposition groups and Egyptian support for General Haftar in Libya and the Assad regime in Syria – the rapproche­ment between their countries has strict limits. It is also not to be expected that Tur­key under President Erdoğan will lose its role as the hub of Egypt’s opposition in exile – many of its leaders have even been given Turkish passports.

Opportunities for German and European Policymakers

Despite its obvious limits, the rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey also brings opportunities, not only for the two regimes but also for Germany and its European part­ners. This development can, for in­stance, contribute to de-escalating the tense situa­tion in the eastern Mediterranean. The objective here should be to use the occasion to integrate Turkey into regional formats. This would make processes to reach agree­ments, including over contentious border issues, easier to construct. A first concrete step could be to grant Turkey observer sta­tus in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

In Libya, both sides are necessary to pre­serve the fragile balance of power. Euro­peans should induce Egypt and Turkey to progressively restrict their activities in the country without disturbing this equilibri­um. Each country should also be discour­aged from using potential shifts in the power balance during the elections planned for December 2021 to force the other side out of Libya. Finally, Ankara and Cairo could play a part in driving back the influ­ence of other external actors, such as Russia and the UAE.

Above all, Europeans need to be aware that behind the two regimes’ rapprochement lies the fundamental fear that their room for manoeuvre in foreign policy might be curtailed or even lost entirely. Due to external factors and economic ones, Erdoğan and al-Sisi are equally dependent on readjusting bilateral relations, which had previously been predicated on confron­tation. The timing is therefore right to encourage the two sides towards a political reassessment in other areas as well, such as the problematic human rights situation in both Egypt and Turkey.

Dr Hürcan Aslı Aksoy is Deputy Head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS).
Dr Stephan Roll is Head of the Africa and Middle East Research Division at SWP.

The Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) is funded by Stiftung Mercator and the German Federal Foreign Office.

© Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2021


Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

ISSN (Print) 1861-1761

ISSN (Online) 2747-5107

(English version of SWP‑Aktuell 45/2021)