Erdogan In Egypt: Strategic Implications For Turkey And Egypt – OpEd

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan touched down in Cairo on February 14 as part of a major state visit intended to address movement toward normalization of relations between Egypt and Turkey, as well as the expansion of bilateral relations on multiple fronts. Erdogan’s visit to Egypt is significant for several reasons, including the fact that it is his first in almost a decade. It also coincides with several regional and global developments that call for the two nations to coordinate their positions given their relative regional and geopolitical weight. Finally, there are numerous strategic interests that bind the two nations together at all strategic levels, both geopolitically and economically.

Gradual Thawing in Egypt-Turkey Relations

A nascent trend toward rapprochement has been evident over the past three years, and the tangible outcomes have been demonstrated on multiple occasions, such as when both nations announced on July 4, 2023, that they would be elevating their diplomatic relations to ambassadorial status. Additionally, direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took place on September 10, 2023, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi, and ultimately resulted in the Turkish President’s current visit to Cairo.

According to a pattern of foreign policy that transcends differences in dealing with humanitarian crises and disasters, disaster diplomacy is believed to have given Egyptian-Turkish relations a boost in recent months. This was exemplified by President El-Sisi’s call to President Erdogan following the earthquake on February 9, 2023, in which he expressed solidarity with the Turkish government and people. Subsequently, in the wake of the earthquake, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited the Turkish city of Mersin in February 2023 to show his support and sympathy. In March 2023, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made a follow-up trip to Cairo.

It has taken time for Egypt and Turkey to mend their damaged relations. In this, Turkish messaging has been key. Notable is a March 2021 move by late Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who declared that talks were still open between the two nations despite prior political disagreements. A few months later, a plan to create a legislative “friendship” group was accepted by the Turkish Parliament. After that, to address and discuss these issues, the two parties convened what the media called “exploratory discussion sessions.” These meetings were held twice in 2021, the first in May and the second in September. The subject of subsequent talks has been regional developments as well as associated shared interests and strategies for advancing them.

Given that both sides’ path to reconciliation since 2021 has been marked by relatively “slow” progress, the effectiveness of the ongoing rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey will be put to the test. Yet every interaction that occurred between the two sides during this time clearly expresses a determination to successfully restore full diplomatic relations. In light of the significant influence both countries have on the region, direct discussions between them over the past few years have focused on the developing a consensus to suit the objectives of both nations. This seems to be important for both sides, particularly considering the recent fast-paced developments in the Middle East and Africa related to hegemony struggles and competition between regional and global powers, which have forced Egypt and Turkey to revaluate their strategy and come to an understanding.

Gaza Looms Large in Cairo Visit

Considering the progress made in restoring relations and facilitating direct dialogue, Erdogan’s visit to Cairo presents a unique opportunity to discuss shared interests with Egypt’s President El-Sisi. The discussions covered important topics, including but not limited to natural gas development in the Eastern Mediterranean, enhancing bilateral relations in various areas, and addressing the situations in Gaza, Libya, Sudan, and wider Africa.

The Palestinian file and the current situation in Gaza were the focus of discussions between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents. This is due to the prolonged Israeli military campaign, which has now entered its fifth month, and the worsening humanitarian crisis. There is also anticipation of an Israeli offensive on Rafah at any moment. In addition, the situation in Gaza is contributing to tensions across the region, particularly due to the actions of Iran-backed proxy groups such as the Houthis in Yemen. These groups are having a detrimental effect on the security of commercial vessels passing through the Red Sea, which in turn is impacting traffic in Egypt’s Suez Canal. As a result, Egypt’s foreign currency revenue from the canal has experienced a significant decline. Restoring regional stability and achieving a peaceful resolution between Palestine and Israel are key priorities for both leaders.

Similarly, the conversations between President El-Sisi and President Erdogan offered a chance to establish shared understandings regarding the ongoing conflict in Libya, which has persisted for nearly ten years, holding out the possibility of a productive resolution to the enduring challenges there, such as the successful completion of elections and the peaceful demobilization of militias, paving the way for potential economic advantages for Egyptian and Turkish companies in subsequent reconstruction projects.

The Egyptian-Turkish dialogue also offers a chance for both parties to explore a more impactful strategy for addressing ongoing conflicts in Africa, particularly in Sudan, where a civil war has persisted for nearly a year. It is important to highlight that Turkey has significant interests in establishing a naval base in Sudan near the Red Sea. This move was seen as potentially conflicting with Egypt’s national security concerns. In parallel, Turkey has been expanding its influence in Somalia. However, the Ethiopian threat posed by the establishment of a naval base and the leasing of the port of Berbera through the so-called separatist “Republic of Somaliland” has been met with opposition from both Egypt and Turkey. Considering the situation, the alignment of Egyptian and Turkish strategic postures could enhance the effectiveness of addressing the Ethiopian threat, especially since Somalia hosts the largest Turkish foreign military base.

Collaboration in the energy sector and a shared presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region have opened significant opportunities for enhancing Egyptian-Turkish relations. Considering Turkey’s heavy reliance on energy imports, there is potential for strategic collaboration with Egypt through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. This could serve as a valuable platform to maximize benefits and alleviate political tensions among Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. Given the circumstances, it appears that Ankara aimed to establish closer ties with Egypt in order to participate in regional collaborations involving multiple partnerships. This would potentially disrupt the political opposition to Turkey within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Organization. Thus, a potential reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt presents a valuable chance for the nations in the Eastern Mediterranean to engage in collective negotiations, marking a crucial milestone in resolving their disputes, namely between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. As Ankara seeks Cairo’s support for joining the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, Turkey also expresses its desire to sign a bilateral treaty to demarcate the maritime borders with Egypt.

In terms of the economy and industry, there are numerous shared interests that can enhance strategic cooperation between Egypt and Turkey. It’s worth noting that Egypt holds a significant position as Turkey’s primary trade partner in Africa. The trade between Turkey and Egypt has seen significant growth, with volume reaching almost $10 billion per year. Both countries’ leaders have expressed strong intentions to further increase bilateral trade in the coming years, aiming to reach $15–20 billion dollars. The potential for Egyptian-Turkish relations to flourish lies in fostering economic cooperation and embracing a constructive approach. In the same vein, the defense and military sectors play a significant role in the cooperation between Turkey and Egypt. This is evident through their mutual arms deals and joint military production projects. It is apparent that Turkey’s industrial military base is aiming for a strategic cooperation with Egypt. Recently, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan announced that Turkey would be supplying combat drones to Egypt, which further demonstrates the growing closeness between the two nations.

There is no denying that President Erdogan’s visit to Egypt marks a diplomatic reset and a major milestone in bilateral relations with Egypt. It also serves as an official announcement of the progress made in the efforts to improve relations that started in 2021. President El-Sisi has emphasized that a fresh chapter in Egyptian-Turkish relations has begun, with plans for President El-Sisi to visit Turkey in April. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how this visit will impact the alignment of interests between Egypt and Turkey, as well as the potential implications for regional instabilities.

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