The shift from hostility to competition between Egypt and Turkey

Turkey realised that the battle of attrition against its opponents, especially Egypt, has cost it dearly

Saturday 17/04/2021
A woman holds hold a key chain with a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a symbolic funeral ceremony for the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on June 18, 2019 at Fatih mosque in Istanbul. (AFP)
A woman holds hold a key chain with a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a symbolic funeral ceremony for the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on June 18, 2019 at Fatih mosque in Istanbul. (AFP)

Strategic competition does not exclude hostility between states, as there are always many powers vying for their own interests and centres of influence.

Also, rivalry does not eliminate competition in any of sense.

The balance of competition against hostility between Egypt and Turkey had rocked up and down, before the tide of political Islam swelled in the Arab region, becoming a driver of hostility between the two countries after the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt on July 3, 2013.

Since that time, the Turkish regime has seen what happened in Cairo as a painful blow to its own Islamist project and this prompted it to choose hostility as the determining characteristic of its relations with Egypt.

Political and security trends evolved over a period of more than seven years during which Ankara welcomed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, cadres and their allies, as well as opportunists who had invested in the escalation of the dispute between the two countries.

It provided them generous support in the political, security and media fields. But this all resulted in a moral defeat of most of the policies that Turkey sponsored.

President Erdogan reached the conclusion that continued hostility with Egypt would lead to more local, regional and international setbacks for his country, and came to believe that a calm rapprochement and shift to competition might give him a better advantage.

Ankara adopted a friendly line, made limited moves and announced undertakings for the immediate future, hoping to prove Turkey’s good intentions. The aim was to dispel concerns and doubts, confirm it is keen to normalise relations with Egypt and that it is ready to turn the dispute into a form of friendship or strategic competition, even if that comes with hidden hostility.

Turkey slowly got the attention of Egypt. Whenever Cairo felt a sense of being  manipulated or distrustful of Ankara’s practices, the Turks dispelled Egypt’s concerns with statements and moves in line with Egyptian aspirations over controversial issues. They thereby hoped to give the impression that the change is real and that Egypt and the countries of the region must prepare to deal with a new Turkey that has a different agenda.

Turkey realised that the battle of attrition against its opponents, especially Egypt, had cost it dearly, besides the expense of sheltering and sponsoring the Brotherhood and putting up with its unaffordably arrogant behaviour.

It concluded that reaching an understanding with Cairo is the key to greater rapprochement with several Gulf states, resolving many of the crises Ankara faced in the eastern Mediterranean and preserving Turkey’s intertwined interests in Libya, where it had first used mercenaries and extremists as effective weapons.

It also realised that using the Brotherhood to pressure Egypt was no longer productive. It began to end its dependence on the militant group and keep its distance from the problems they caused for Turkey. It attempted to reassure Egypt with relatively marginal political and media concessions and sought a formula to close this file in a satisfactory way or at least shelve it temporarily.

Confining the disagreement within such limits and away from blatant interference in internal affairs of others can give Turkey comparative advantages.

If it removes the Brotherhood card from its sleeve, takes mercenaries out of Libya and helps Cairo solve the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis, it may get a return for that on some regional issues, or at least it would end Egypt’s defensive reactions once it is convinced that Ankara is not a threat to Cairo.

Ankara wants to establish with Cairo a less aggressive relationship that shifts from hostility to strategic competition. It knows that the scale will move in favour of Turkey once it dispels negative perceptions about its policies and begins to deal with its opponents in a peaceful manner.

Regional neighbours such as Turkey, Iran and Israel, have inherited a notion according to which Egypt is a major obstacle to the expansion of their influence in the region. Entering into direct conflict with Cairo will not exhaust Egypt, but rather provides it with the justification for arming itself militarily because it is  the largest Arab country.

The intensification of the conflict with Turkey due to its provocative interventions in Libya, its arrogance in the eastern Mediterranean and its support of the Brotherhood and extremists, contributed to the mobilisation of Egypt’s power to deny Turkey access to major strategic advantages in the region. Thus the idea of hostility, confrontation and direct attrition is no longer useful.  Rapprochement with Egypt to end this confrontation and its harmful repercussions have become necessary for both countries.

Cairo frets about  hidden Turkish agendas and knows that Ankara’s desire to settle certain crises does not mean a fundamental Turkish change of behaviour.

Egypt felt it needed however to calm down sources of contention over regional issues and set new priorities. This motivated it  to respond positively to the signals coming from Ankara, and accept the transformation of hostility into strategic competition.

Cairo began preparing early for this type of competition by weaving a network of multiple relationships, balancing its relations with major powers, not being complacent about boosting its sources of military power and remaining open to various other nations.

It started adopting large economic reform projects and investing in geopolitics to maximise its gains, knowing that this competition will determine which party will be able to impose its conditions on the other in the region.