Dictated by the present, restricted by the past: Turkey’s détente with Egypt

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Ali Dinçer*

Earlier this year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced talks to repair diplomatic ties with Egypt, which have been severely strained since the toppling of the late President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. In a swift change of tone after spending years railing against his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom he has called an “illegitimate tyrant” and has vowed never to speak to, Erdoğan and his high-ranking officials have begun to adopt a much more conciliatory approach towards Cairo in recent months.

On Thursday diplomatic delegations from the two countries held a preliminary round of consultations in the Egyptian capital. The joint statement that was released afterwards said the discussions were “frank and in-depth,” covering not only the bilateral agenda but a variety of regional issues, including Libya, where Turkey and Egypt came to the brink of a military showdown last year.

Turkey is no stranger to foreign policy U-turns that come seemingly out of the blue, which occurred in the past with respect to Israel and Russia, among others. Yet, the reversal of Ankara’s nearly eight-year-long consistent animosity towards Cairo represents a break with not only a regional policy but also Erdoğan’s personal convictions as a scion of political Islam and an elected autocrat with an entrenched mistrust for his country’s military establishment, which arguably played a role in his feud with al-Sisi, a former general who was the architect of the 2013 military takeover that ended Morsi’s rule.

So, why now? Several recent developments are likely to have contributed to this overture.

First, Turkey had to retreat in its maritime conflict with Greece over hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean in order to fend off European Union sanctions that officials in Brussels drafted in December and halted a few months later in return for Ankara’s goodwill in engaging in constructive talks with Athens. Last summer Turkey’s bellicose stance in defending an internationally contested maritime delimitation deal with Libya’s Tripoli-based government had led to a balancing act by Greece which, in addition to invoking European allies, had tried to draw Egypt and the UAE into the fray.

Athens has also struck its own maritime deal with Cairo, which challenged Turkey’s agreement with Libya. In addition, Ankara has been excluded from the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a recently established intergovernmental organization that brings together Greece, Egypt and Israel, the region’s most prominent players in terms of energy resources.

While Turkey’s maritime talks with Greece have succeeded in reducing tensions and staving off the immediate threat of a military confrontation as well as European sanctions, securing a favorable outcome might prove elusive for Ankara unless it finds a way to break out of this regional containment, which gives Athens the upper hand. This concern was reflected in Erdoğan and his officials’ statements emphasizing Turkey and Egypt’s shared cultural and religious background and using that perspective to paint Egypt’s close ties with Greece as an aberration.

Second, despite having brought them to a near confrontation last year, the recent course of events in Libya have compelled Ankara and Cairo to join their interests as the warring factions, the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) supported by Egypt, concluded a ceasefire last year, paving the way for a national unity government that was set up earlier this year. The conflict clearly demonstrated to both sides the limits of their capabilities in Libya. Things were a far cry from the early Turkish victories in helping the beleaguered GNA break out of the encirclement of Tripoli once the GNA arrived at Sirte, which Egypt proclaimed as a red line. On the other hand, Cairo also seems to have come to terms with the fact that the LNA will not be able to achieve total victory and unite the country under its rule.

Both countries have an interest in supporting the newly established government, albeit for different reasons. Turkey needs to convert its military exploits into lucrative construction and arms deals and to reaffirm its foothold in the country. While it is unlikely for Cairo to be comfortable with such a strong Turkish influence over Tripoli, achieving some semblance of stability remains vital for its own security.

Finally, Erdoğan and al-Sisi both have reasons to feel uneasy about the arrival of the new US administration, which is likely to become a watershed moment for Washington’s Middle East agenda. While former president Donald Trump personally embraced both autocrats, famously referring to al-Sisi as “his favorite dictator” and never tiring of lauding Erdoğan’s leadership, President Joe Biden’s administration pledged to put human rights at the center of the conduct of their dealings with Cairo and gave Erdoğan a months-long silent treatment that visibly unnerved him.

Moreover, the Biden administration has also signaled its intention to reverse Trump’s policy of committed hostility towards Iran, putting on the table once again a 2015 nuclear deal that could end Tehran’s isolation. On Wednesday a column published by a pro-Erdoğan mouthpiece highlighted this angle, arguing that Egypt, along with the Gulf states, will need to repair ties with Ankara in order to rein in an Iran unshackled by Western sanctions and consistently bent on sectarian expansionism.

On the first two accounts, however, Erdoğan has reason to feel somewhat more insecure than al-Sisi. Turkey is facing a united and consolidated front in the eastern Mediterranean, whereas Egypt’s position is much less prone to conflict. Ankara also risks losing its legitimacy card in Libya as its forces were initially deployed at the request of the internationally recognized GNA, and now the new unity government has begun calling for their withdrawal from the country. This could partly explain the gap between Ankara’s obvious enthusiasm for the talks and Cairo’s relative apathy.

Despite the charm offensive by high-ranking officials, the best Turkey can expect from this overture is a reluctant, limited and issue-based cooperation from the other side of the Mediterranean. In spite of Erdoğan’s trademark propensity towards “summit diplomacy,” the conduct of diplomatic relations on a personal level with foreign counterparts, Turkish-Egyptian contacts are likely to remain on a technical level given Erdoğan’s eight-year-long record of disparaging remarks about al-Sisi and his erratic style in foreign policy. Autocrats rarely tend to fully trust each other, much less so when they are burdened by so much personal bad blood and are diametrically opposed in each other’s mental universe.

* Ali Dinçer was formerly a diplomat at the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

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