Diplomatic talks on reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt are resuming amidst a chaotic security scene in the Middle East, especially on the region’s eastern strategic depth. With a pinch of pessimism, most Middle East experts agree that positive cooperation between Turkey and Egypt, especially on economic and military affairs, is crucial for keeping the balance of power in their common regional context. Figuring out a reliable future path for sustainable long-term cooperation between Turkey and Egypt is essential for the security and stability of the heated regions of the Middle East, East Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. The recent withdrawal of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, which came as a first step to the United States’ complete withdrawal from the Middle East region, is yet another reminder of this simple fact.
However, the slow pace and repetitive pauses of the reconciliation process are raising doubts about the potential of Turkish and Egyptian rapprochement efforts, in their current form, to eventually succeed in restoring and solidifying the strategic relationship between the two cornerstone countries. Looking closer, one can easily discover that there is one core reason why the current reconciliation process between Turkey and Egypt is not working as smoothly as it should. This prehending clutch has nothing to do with the disagreements between the two states on issues like Libya or the Muslim Brotherhood. It is much deeper than that, but also much easier to resolve.
In Ankara, on the 7th and 8th of September, Turkish and Egyptian diplomats sat for the second round of exploratory talks, on the level of deputy foreign ministers. A brief press statement, after the meeting, confirmed the two countries' desire to progress on normalizing relations and agreeing to continue consultations on regional issues of common interest, such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the maritime conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean. Ironically, the language of the press statement implicitly indicates the failure, or at least lack of progress, in the reconciliation process. The bilateral statement is almost a copy of the press release that was issued at the conclusion of the first round of talks that had been convened by the same diplomatic teams, in Cairo, in early May.
For a few months before diplomatic talks started, in May, Turkish and Egyptian intelligence officials used to meet to discuss Egypt and Turkey's involvement in the Libyan civil war. Egypt’s concern regarding Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, in December 2019, was not only motivated by the fact that Egypt and Turkey had been in a political dispute, since 2013. Egypt and Turkey supported two opposing sides in the Libyan civil war, and thus after Turkish troops arrived in Tripoli, the two countries found themselves in a direct military confrontation, which neither of them wanted. This pressed the Turkish and the Egyptian intelligence bureaus to sit together, in mid-2020, to contain the potential conflict. That moment was the actual start of the rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, after seven years of political rivalry.
The political rift between Cairo and Ankara cracked in 2013 when Turkish President Erdogan voiced explicit support to the Muslim Brotherhood group, after their ouster from power by a popular revolution that was supported by the leadership of the Armed Forces. President Erdogan labeled the political change in Egypt as a coup d’état and adopted a strong personal stance against Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who acted as the Egyptian Minister of Defense at that time. Two years later, when El-Sisi retired from the military service and was elected as the President of the State, diplomatic ties between Egypt and Turkey were mercilessly severed and remained so for eight years.
Meanwhile, a brutal media war between the two countries was launched, as Turkey hosted the headquarters of television stations, funded by Qatar and run by Egyptian members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the purpose of attacking and discrediting the new Egyptian state and president. Ironically, the economic relationship between the two countries has not been influenced by this political rift. The bilateral trade between Egypt and Turkey has reached unprecedented levels despite the ongoing political conflicts and media wars. In 2020 and 2021, Egypt is number one on the list of the countries Turkey exports products, with a trade volume exceeding three billion US Dollars.
Over the past eight years, the Turkish-Egyptian bilateral disputes have been magnified by the bigger conflicts between Turkey and Arab Gulf countries. In 2017, Egypt with the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain decided to declare a diplomatic boycott against Qatar, on the background of its continued support to the Muslim Brotherhood group and for using Al-Jazeera TV to attack neighbor Arab regimes. Immediately, Turkey jumped to support Qatar against the Arab quartet by signing some economic and military agreements, that not only served Qatar but also helped Turkey survive massive economic shocks and inflations.
As the Turkish-Qatari ties strengthened, the animosity between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE went much deeper than in media wars. Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Turkey was mostly limited to pressuring each other in the economic arena, through launching product boycott campaigns against Turkish products. Yet, in 2018, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Turkey ascended to a higher level, when Turkish President Erdogan publicly accused Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of plotting Journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
In parallel, the conflict between Turkey and UAE went as deep as using military power, however indirectly, against each other. In January 2020, one month after Turkey intervened in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), an aerial attack on the Military Academy in Tripoli killed dozens of Libyan cadets. Turkey accused the UAE of launching this attack to weaken GNA in its war against the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. Later, Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, vowed to take revenge on Abu Dhabi leaders, at the proper place and time.
Ironically, the deep and bruising clashes between Turkey and Gulf states did not prevent UAE and Saudi Arabia from considering reconciliation with Turkey, later in 2021, when their national interests required so. On August 18th, the UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, visited Ankara and met with Turkish President Erdogan to re-initiate the relationship between the two countries in light of the recent developments in Afghanistan. One week later, Turkish President Erdogan and UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, had a phone call, which was described later by UAE’s Foreign Relations Advisor as “extremely friendly.”
Saudi Arabia, too, has been able to fix its relationship with Turkey, however through a slower and more stable process. After the election of the Democrat Joseph Biden as President of the United States, in November 2020, Saudi Arabia decided to end its regional conflicts with Turkey and Qatar. The process started with high-level communications between Saudi and Turkish officials before and during the G-20 Summit. Then, in May 2021, Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Turkish President Erdogan spoke on the phone to discuss reviving the bilateral relationship. This call was immediately followed by an official visit by the Turkish Foreign Minister to Jeddah.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia led a regional effort to reconcile between Qatar and the Arab quartet. In January 2021, a declaration of reconciliation was signed between Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, in Al-Ula city. Since then, the relationship between Cairo and Doha has been moving forward at a steady pace until it reached a peak point last month, when Egyptian President El-Sisi and Qatari Prince Tamim held a cordial meeting on the margin of the Baghdad Regional Summit, on August 28th.
The conflict between Egypt and Turkey is not as whacking as the conflict between Turkey and Gulf states, or as the conflict between Egypt and Qatar. Despite that, the reconciliation process between Turkey and Egypt is still stumbling on a murky road. The core reason why the Turkey-Egypt reconciliation is not progressing as it should has nothing to do with their disagreements on Libya, the Mediterranean, or the Muslim Brotherhood. The issue, here, is that the Turkish and the Egyptian political leaders are approaching each other with a raised nose.
The personal prejudices of the Turkish and the Egyptian leadership are blinding them. None of them wanted to appear weak in the eyes of their public citizens, who had been dragged into the state-to-state conflict, through the pitiless media wars that continued to boil between the two countries for more than seven years. A large sector of the Egyptian and Turkish public citizens, who are dominated by their emotions, not their brains, are watching the reconciliation process as if they are watching a football match; waiting for the loser team to bow and cry on the feet of the winning team. Unfortunately, political leaders cannot free themselves from their citizens’ emotionally-blinded expectations so they can get the reconciliation accomplished, on a solid pragmatic basis.
One of my favorite quotes by the eloquent Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, reads: “Prejudice is the biggest human flaw. Prejudice makes people blind and deaf. When you look at an issue with prejudice, you cannot see the truth, or hear the facts." For reconciliation between Egypt and Turkey to succeed, the political leaderships of the two countries need to take off their egos and prejudices before entering the negotiation room, for the third time.
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