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Explained: Why Egypt and Turkey are ending a decade-long divide

Explained: Why Egypt and Turkey are ending a decade-long divide

 


After nearly a decade of tense relations with Egypt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit Cairo on Wednesday at the invitation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The two leaders considered each other persona non grata for nearly a decade, mainly due to Sisis' 2013 coup against his predecessor Mohamed Morsi, an Erdogan ally.

But relations have improved since 2021 after a period of behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts, with the first signs of détente emerging during the 2022 World Cup in Doha, when Erdogan and Sissi met briefly for the first time.

In the latest sign of a major improvement in relations, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said last week that Turkey could sell drones to Egypt. “We have an agreement to provide (Egypt) with unmanned aerial vehicles and other technologies,” Fidan said. said in a television interview, without further details.

Fidan, who carried out diplomatic shuttles in the region following the Israeli attack on Gaza, journey in Cairo in October and met with senior Egyptian officials, including Sissi.

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Mehmet Ozkan, a professor at the National Defense University in Turkey, sees détente as a shift from strategic stubbornness to strategic relations.

After the Arab Spring, there were certain issues that Turkey and Egypt stubbornly defended. However, changing conditions mean that stubbornness is now relatively broken, he said.

Of course, it remains to be seen how dynamic relations between the two countries will be.

The normalization drive with regional powers is part of the foreign policy goals of the current government, elected in May, he said.

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Fidan, the new foreign minister, has been working to improve relations with other countries since his appointment, Ozkan added.

For example, as part of its post-election foreign policy, Turkey finally ratified Sweden's candidacy for NATO, reached an agreement with the United States on the sale of F-16 fighter jets, conducted bilateral negotiations with Greece and consolidated its relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The recent talks with Greece and Iraq are a sign of this. The process with Egypt is also part of it, Özkan said.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, then Turkish Foreign Minister, traveled to Cairo for an official visit in March 2023, in the first official visit by a top Turkish diplomat since Sissi became president. This was followed by a reciprocal visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to Ankara the following month. The ambassadors were then mutually reassigned.

At the same time, Ankara has taken a number of steps to reduce the presence of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Turkey, one of Egypt's biggest concerns. The Mekameleen satellite channel, an anti-Sissi channel, stopped broadcasting from Turkey in 2021, and some prominent exiles in Turkey have been asked to tone down their criticism of the Sisi regime.

Decade of rupture

Turkey and Egypt, which have had rather difficult relations over the last century, reached significant rapprochement with the signing of a free trade agreement in 2005.

A few years later, during and immediately after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ankara gave its full support to the country's democratization measures. Erdogan visited Cairo during the transitional government and was received with great enthusiasm.

After the 2012 elections, Mohamed Morsi, then a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt's first democratically elected president. Morsis' victory led to a strengthening of relations, partly due to the affinities between his party and Erdogan's AKP, both rooted in Islamic political ideology.

However, Morsis's presidency lasted only one year.

Supporters of Turkish President and head of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, march
Erdogan supporters sign Rabaa's “four fingers” next to a portrait of the president during an election rally in Istanbul, May 12, 2023 (AFP)

Relations between the two countries reached a breaking point in 2013 when Sissi, then defense minister, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, overthrew the Morsis government, killing more than a thousand demonstrators and imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents.

For Erdogan, the coup in Egypt sparked a domestic political movement, with the symbol of the four-fingered Rabaa hand sign, as used by the pro-democracy movement after the massacre of hundreds of people on the Rabaa Square in August 2013.

The Sisis government, for its part, has mobilized media and public figures against Erdogan and his alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo banned after the coup. Additionally, disagreements over a number of regional issues, including Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean continental shelf, remain obstacles to repairing relations.

Regional factor

Relations between Turkey and Egypt are of crucial importance not only for the two countries but also for the region, analysts say.

Countries from the Gulf to Libya, from Sudan to Israel and Palestine, are directly affected by the rapprochement of relations between Egypt and Turkey, said Giuseppe Dentice, head of the Middle East and North Africa bureau at the Center Italian for International Studies (CeSI).

In the process that began with the Arab Spring, the Gulf countries, with the exception of Qatar, adopted a very protectionist attitude and put obstacles in the way of democratization efforts in the Arab world.

In Tunisia, Nahda, one of the country's most established movements, was sidelined from politics after Kais Saied came to power, while figures like General Hemeti in Sudan and Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who used their unofficial party power, armies, rather than party politics, were supported.

Likewise, Sissi came to power with the financial support of Gulf countries, relying on the brute force of the army.

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Unlike the Gulf countries, Turkey supported new democratically elected actors in these countries. It even militarily supported the internationally recognized government against Haftar in Libya.

But that has changed over the past decade.

Turkey, the Gulf countries and Egypt have begun to compromise on intractable issues that are causing tension, especially given the economic difficulties Egypt and Turkey face.

As a result, Turkey has also reestablished ties with the United Arab Emirates in a bid to attract investment from the oil-rich Gulf country after years of strained relations over Turkey's support for the Arab Spring.

We could see a new fruitful era between the two countries, especially given the common internal socio-economic problems, Dentice said.

According to Ozkan, the normalization process between Turkey and Egypt must be assessed in the context of changing circumstances in the region.

Dentice also claims that Erdogan's visit is an opportunity for the ongoing regional de-escalation discourse.

Obviously, from the Egyptian point of view, this progress constitutes a very positive situation because it could bring it a certain stability on several national and regional issues.

Israelo-Palestinian conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially since October 7, is one of the most important issues affecting Turkish-Egyptian relations.

The Israeli military operation in Gaza that followed the October 7 attack has so far killed more than 28,000 Palestinians and is advancing toward Rafah, on Egypt's northeastern border.

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More than 1.4 million Palestinians have taken refuge in Rafah, the southernmost part of Gaza, after most of them were displaced from the north and center of the enclave during hostilities. The Israeli government is also threatening a ground invasion of the city, which Egypt considers a major escalation.

Since the first day of the attacks, Israeli officials have discussed the possibility of evacuating Gaza and relocating Palestinians to Sinai, across the border from Rafah. The Egyptian side has vehemently rejected this proposal and is completely helpless in the face of the humanitarian crisis unfolding next door. Last week, Israel also began targeting Palestinians by Rafaha few meters from Egypt.

According to Ozkan, after October 7, regional actors realized that there was a need for communication.

“Inevitably, a space for communication opened up. As a result, the process of normalization of relations between Turkey and Egypt accelerated,” he said.

Dentice also believes that besides other factors, the situation in Gaza has paved the way for the resumption of talks between the two sides.

Cautious relaxation

However, according to Ozkan, Cairo and Ankara are suspicious of each other.

A serious crisis of confidence has developed over the past 10 years. Both sides are making efforts to overcome this crisis, he said.

Turkey's agreement to provide Egypt with equipment and even technology for the defense industry is part of an effort to break down this distrust.

Dentice argued that political will is a key factor in rapprochement.

Much of this potential new reset will depend on the willingness of leaders to resolve the critical points: the Libyan file; energy and exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean; the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said.

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