After years-long rift, Turkey seeks to mend ties with Egypt

Abdul Khaleq Abdallah, a political science professor in the UAE, said: “Meeting halfway is enough in this instance… but the situation is fluid, so it could flare up again.”
Wednesday 05/05/2021
Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (C) and his delegation meet with their Egyptian counterparts in the foreign ministry headquarters in Egypt’s capital Cairo on May 5, 2021. (AP)
Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal (C) and his delegation meet with their Egyptian counterparts in the foreign ministry headquarters in Egypt’s capital Cairo on May 5, 2021. (AP)

CAIRO – Turkey and Egypt will try to improve strained ties at talks starting in Cairo on Wednesday after an eight-year rift which led them to back rival factions in Libya’s war and put them at odds in a dispute over eastern Mediterranean waters.

Relations between the regional powers have been tense since Egypt’s army backed a 2013 popular uprising which toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood president close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Both countries expelled their respective ambassadors. Ankara has hosted Egyptian Islamist militants opposed to the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Turkey sees mending ties as part of an effort to build bridges with US-allied Arab states after years of political rivalry and aggressive military interventions which demonstrated Turkey’s clout but frayed its alliances in the Arab world.

Egypt’s restoration of ties with Qatar in January, after a four-year Gulf blockade along with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, has also boosted efforts towards more regional diplomacy.

“What has become apparent to Egypt… is that it’s difficult for any regional power to win through a knockout punch, but rather through points,” Abdul Khaleq Abdallah, a political science professor in the UAE, said.

“Meeting halfway is enough in this instance… but the situation is fluid, so it could flare up again,” he added.

Exploratory discussions

The consultations on Wednesday and Thursday will be headed by deputy foreign ministers and are the first at that level since 2013, Turkish officials said. They will cover trade, energy cooperation and maritime jurisdiction in the eastern Mediterranean, a senior Turkish official said.

“These exploratory discussions will focus on the necessary steps that may lead towards the normalisation of relations between the two countries, bilaterally and in the regional context,” a joint statement said.

Mutual trade is worth close to $5 billion a year despite the political rift.

“Turkey and Egypt are the region’s powerful countries and there are many areas where they can act together and cooperate,” said a senior Turkish official.

Two Egyptian security sources said Egyptian officials would listen to Turkish proposals for restoring relations but would consult Egypt’s leadership before agreeing to anything.

The two countries’ foreign ministers have already spoken by phone and Ankara says intelligence chiefs have also been in contact.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said last week that rapprochement could help end the war in Libya, where Turkish troops assisted the Tripoli-based government in repelling an attack from eastern forces backed by Egypt and Russia.

Cautious approach

Egypt, which has so far responded cautiously to the Turkish overtures, was angered by Turkey’s decision to offer a haven for Egyptian opposition figures including members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical elements accsed of terrorism in Egypt, after Sisi took office.

Erdogan, whose ruling AK Party is rooted in political Islam, has supported Arab parties and politicians linked to the Brotherhood, putting him at odds not just with Egypt but also the Gulf Arab powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry noted in March that “words are not enough, they must be matched by deeds.”

“There’s a great deal of mistrust fuelled by eight years of open hostility and so Egypt feels hesitant,” said Nael Shama, the author of a book on Egypt’s foreign policy under deposed leaders Mohammed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak.

Amr Adib, a popular late-night talk show host who regularly interviews Sisi live on air, struck a cautious tone about the Turkish delegation’s visit.

“See how things have changed so much… I mean if we manage to get an understanding during the talks then that’s all well and good, and if not then that’s fine too,” he said on Monday.

In a gesture to Cairo two months ago, Turkey asked Egyptian opposition television channels operating on its territory to moderate criticism of Sisi’s government.

The Turkish official said Ankara did not want the broadcasts to cause problems. Brotherhood members in Turkey had not been asked to leave, he said, but “of course it is not desired that harm is done to the positive developments.”

Prominent Brotherhood figure Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar said Egyptian opposition groups in Turkey, which include liberals as well as Islamists, had been told Turkey’s push for better relations would not be at their expense.

“We…heard from Turkish authorities that they will not ask anyone to leave Turkey – from the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups,” he said.

Turkey also says the two countries have agreed in principle not to oppose each other at international platforms including NATO, where Turkey’s membership allowed it to veto Egypt’s participation in some alliance partnerships.

Critical for Libya

In oil-rich Libya, Turkey and Egypt, backed by the UAE, have been on opposite sides of the conflict.

“Everyone will benefit from defusing the acute tensions in the region, including disengagement from hotspots, chiefly Libya,” said Aballah, the Emirates-based professor.

“The UAE isn’t just a backer of Egypt, it has been encouraging of cooling down any flare ups,” he added.

Since the selection this year of a new interim Libyan prime minister in a UN-sponsored process, Cairo and Ankara have appeared more open to a political solution to that conflict.

Ankara working with Cairo to resolve the Libyan conflict could have “a knock-on effect” of improving Turkey’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and Greece, said Bashir Abdel-Fattah.

The researcher at Egypt’s state-affiliated Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies voiced optimism for reconciliation despite years of tensions.

“It’s very easy in politics, that one day you can attack a country and the next day you sit down and hammer out your differences,” he said.

“This is what’s happening now”.