Regional shifts impact Ankara-Cairo relations

Friday 22/01/2016
Changing winds. A Turkish flag flying on a ferry as Russian warship the BSF Saratov 150 sails through the Bosphorus off Istanbul.

Cairo - Pressure on Turkey by Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, may result in bet­ter relations between An­kara and Cairo, two Sunni powers that drifted apart against the background of political devel­opments in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia is trying to build a Sunni coalition to counter what Riyadh describes as Shia Iran’s “re­gional ambitions” and “interven­tion” in the region but analysts say the coalition cannot gel while Cairo and Ankara remain diplomatically at odds.
“I think Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be positive to this pressure from Saudi Ara­bia,” said Gamal Bayoumi, Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister. “Turkey has deep political and eco­nomic interests in having close ties with Saudi Arabia, which is why it will not take the reported Saudi pressure in this regard lightly.”
Ties between Cairo and Ankara worsened after the Egyptian Army ousted Islamist president Muham­mad Morsi in July 2013. Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party was close to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, criticised Egypt, its army and the post-Morsi leadership.
In Cairo, the moves were viewed as Turkish attempts to destroy Egypt, impose political Islam on its people and weaken the country as a regional rival. In November 2013, Egypt declared the Turkish ambas­sador in Cairo persona non grata. Turkey responded in kind.
Pressure from Saudi Arabia and the anti-Iran, Saudi-led Sunni coali­tion are small parts of the larger pic­ture of regional changes, ones that might result in a shift of regional loyalties as well, analysts said.
Suffering isolation, Erdogan has to forget his traditional stances and mend diplomatic fences. He took a step in this direction by brushing off differences with Israel, which were triggered by an Israeli attack on a Gaza Strip-bound Turkish aid flotilla in 2010.
According to Israeli media, Tur­key wants Israeli approval for a maritime line between the coastal Palestinian enclave and a Turkish city on the Mediterranean.
Turkey’s presence in Gaza, Egyp­tian analysts said, would fit into Er­dogan’s line of defending Muslims’ rights and helping the besieged Pal­estinians of Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, also an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“But this is exactly where Erdog­an is stepping into a territory that deeply affects Egyptian national security,” political analyst Wahid Abdel Meguid said. “Egypt will not likely stand idly by while Turkey gains a foothold in Gaza.”
Egypt has been battling militan­cy, which it claims originates in the Gaza Strip, in the Sinai peninsula on the borders of both Israel and Gaza. The Arab state says Sinai militants, who in late 2014 swore allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), use tunnels with Gaza to smuggle arms, recruits and explosives into the peninsula.
This is why Egypt is pressuring Israel to rein in its desire to improve ties with Turkey and deny Turkey access into Gaza.
This is, analysts said, where Tur­key needs Egypt not to be a hin­drance.
But this is not only where Tur­key needs Egypt, the same analysts said.
Turkey is expected to host the summit of the Organisation of Is­lamic Cooperation (OIC) in April. Egypt holds the rotating OIC lead­ership and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would have to travel to Tur­key to hand over the presidency to Erdogan at the April meeting.
Erdogan has not shown affinity to Sisi. The Egyptian president re­ceived the bulk of Erdogan’s undip­lomatic rhetoric since 2013.
Now, it seems, Erdogan is at Sisi’s mercy. If Sisi does not attend the summit, he will significantly un­dermine the event and deal a seri­ous blow to Turkey’s reputation.
“This is a man who has for long been claiming that he is the defend­er of Muslims and the protector of Islam,” Abdel Meguid said. “His failure to organise Muslims’ most important political event will nega­tively affect his reputation.”
Bayoumi said that in politics there is no everlasting friendship or enmity.
“This is why I strongly believe that everything is possible,” he said. “Political conditions in the re­gion are now ripe for a real change in Egyptian-Turkish relations.”