The question is no longer whether, but when “detente” will occur between Egypt and Turkey. Over the past few years, Turkey and Egypt have been at loggerheads. Just over seven years ago, in November 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador, leaving the two countries with representation at the level of Chargé d’affaires. Since then, there has been a fierce war of words between the two countries coupled with consistent attempts to isolate one another from the international community. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten and reshape our global economy and many uncertainties that lie ahead, strategists wonder whether the pandemic, conflicts in the Middle East, and the endless wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen have damaged the will of people in many countries so badly that our world will be put on a path of “great decline”. Experts are questioning the global role they once embraced in response to the geopolitical turmoil. The role that Turkey and others absent-mindedly acquired in the past now seems to be more than it’s worth, and many want to shed the burden. The reversal of fortune has left many people in Egypt and Turkey worried: what their response might involve is the subject of our analysis. For me, the choice for Cairo and Ankara is between further escalation and a search for mutual accommodation that paves the way for peace among their allies while meeting their own interests. Both sides must pick the latter.
The Libyan conflict
At a time when the Americans are talking about reordering their security priorities with a so-called “pivot” towards Asia, i.e. away from the Middle East, it seems that Turkey has become more than willing to get more involved in the conflicts of the region, from Syria to Libya. Turkey is not alone, of course, in viewing Libya through the prism of strategic interests. In doing so, it joins a host of other countries – including the UAE, Egypt, and Russia, which are backing Haftar, and Qatar, which backs the Tripoli government.
In January, Turkey stepped up military support for Libya’s UN backed government of Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, stalling an offensive by forces allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Its foray, underpinned by its own strategic, political and economic interests, has further complicated the already multi-layered Libyan crisis. Why does this matter? Turkey’s intervention has neither de-escalated the conflict nor yielded productive negotiations between rival political and military factions. It has instead exposed a different risk: the more outside actors provide military hardware and fighters to their respective Libyan allies, the longer the conflict may last and the deadlier it may become.
Ankara’s actions in Libya are also motivated by larger goals. From Turkey’s perspective, Libya intersects with two hostile axes that Ankara must confront. The first is a perceived campaign by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt (and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia) to contain Turkish influence across the Middle East and North Africa. The second is what Turkey sees as an effort by Greece and Cyprus (and, by extension, the EU), as well as Israel, to box it into a small corner of the Mediterranean Sea and thus exclude it from hydrocarbon projects that could also be geopolitically significant. From Ankara’s perspective, its Libya policy is closely intertwined with its desire to break through such imposed barriers.
What should be done? The International Crisis Group says, as Turkey’s intervention appears not to be producing a ceasefire or a return to negotiations, and since no outside actor is likely to back out unilaterally, that Ankara should engage with other external players involved in the conflict to explore potential compromises regarding their respective interests in Libya and beyond.
Turkish Politicians, researchers and media sources have been engaged in heated debate around the issue. In general, Former Prime Minister Ben Ali Yildirim notes, “We support the development of relations with Egypt, as it is a country very close to us with its own culture and values, and our two peoples are brothers. The differences between governments should not be unjust to our people”. At the same time, Yassin Aktai, adviser to President Erdogan, called for the need to sit down and cooperate with Egypt, noting that the reasons for cooperation are more than the causes of war and hostility. In an article on the website “Yeni Shafak” from the beginning of the year, Akti talked about developments in the eastern Mediterranean, and asked, “Couldn’t this be an opportunity for Turkish-Egyptian-Libyan relations?” He continued: “There are many reasons for cooperation, more than the causes of war and hostility between Egypt and Turkey. We will find that this separation between the two countries creates many opportunities for others and causes huge losses for the two countries and the Islamic world as a whole.” “Therefore, the cooperation and solidarity of the two countries is inevitable, and they must do so sooner or later,” he added.
Researcher Gehad Ahmed of the Democratic Arab Center argues that Egypt is very strong in the Arab world, it is the only artery that allows for the sustainment of Gaza today, and Cairo is well aware that it holds such unmatched leverage over Gaza and the countries wishing to support it. Therefore, we cannot neglect Egypt’s strong influence over Gaza and Hamas. Even if it didn’t hold a trump card, it would still be able to block any process throughout the Arab world which it deems undesirable. So, Turkey needs to make use of every opportunity that reveals itself in order to normalize political relations with Egypt, starting with choosing its words more carefully when addressing Cairo.
These changes can provide Ankara a window of opportunity to make some new adjustments. Gehad Ahmed suggests that Turkey should design its foreign policy toward Egypt in line with two separate targets, one for the short-term, and the other for the long-term. Its long-term target concerns the Middle East as a whole, including Egypt.
Despite our shared, deep-rooted history with the region, Turkey is less familiar with the Middle East than many Western countries. Turkey is not well-equipped to read and gauge developments in Egypt and throughout the region, therefore, it follows developments in the Middle East through Western sources, and its assessments are made based on information processed by Westerners. Furthermore, Ankara runs into difficulties in seeing the big picture when it tries to directly gather information from fieldwork because its human capital is insufficient.
The West’s trap
Before Turkey does a review of important policies regarding the outside world, let us go over why the West is opposed to strong relations between Cairo and Ankara, and why the western media constantly aggravates the situation between them, going as far as incitement to a military confrontation between the two countries. This is a trap that the two sides have fallen into in the past to neither of their benefits, leaving both susceptible to Western demands. Last August, the RAND Company, which is supported by the US government and the CIA, released a report on Turkey. The 243-page report, entitled “Turkey’s Nationalist Course: Implications for the US-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the US Army” was compiled by 10 different authors, including a former Naval Officer Stephen Larrabee. Larrabee is an analyst who knows a great deal about the AKP and the Turkish politics, as do his colleagues Graham Fuller and George Friedman: he has published many articles and research about Turkey in the past. For instance, let’s see what Graham Fuller, who has been the CIA Station Chief in Turkey for many years and is FETO’s physical and spiritual father, has written on his website, in an article aptly titled “Who lost Turkey?”: “No one in Washington has ‘lost’ Turkey, the process has been the product of a myriad new geopolitical forces. Turks furthermore find it demeaning to be regarded by Washington as a property to be ‘kept’ or ‘lost’, or to accept the assumption that Ankara’s default character should be as an American ‘ally’. It would be a grievous mistake to assume that when a new Turkish leadership emerges, that it will revert to the old status of ‘ally’ whose pliability the West had long relied upon. Any new leader at the outset may seek to mend a few fences here and there with the West but will surely continue to pursue what Turkey sees as its expanded geopolitical destiny that includes deep engagement in Eurasia.”
But the story has another angle, as my colleague Onur Sinan Güzaltan argues in his deep article, “America`s trap for Turkey”. The US is attempting to influence Turkish policies through supporting internal opposition movements, and by mounting pressure from abroad by Isolating the AKP and branding Turkey as a dictatorship in the world media, preventing direct relations between Turkey and the Syrian government by funding terrorist groups and organizing provocations, by preventing Turkey from forming alliances in the Mediterranean, by supporting the PKK / YPG / SDF and similar groups (the US continues to offer logistical and intelligence support to terrorist groups in the region, and disrupting Turkish influence in areas like northern Iraq and autonomous Kurdish regions)… the list is extensive.
The Grand Deal
Aside from these factors, a careful review process is required, and the central question to be answered is whether or not we want to improve relations. If the answer is yes, we can start with confidence-building measures. These measure are:
First: halting media campaigns while providing a platform for dialogue.
Second: stop commenting on each party’s internal affairs, instead stating explicitly that only the people decide their fate, whoever rules them.
Third: If these steps start quickly, we can start discussing the most important issue, which is the Muslim Brotherhood. We must frankly ask some important questions: Is the Muslim Brotherhood a cause of tension in relations between Egypt and Turkey? What is the reason for the change in the attitude of Turkey toward Egypt recently? What is Turkey’s position on Egypt now? What is Turkey’s role in the Arab world after Arab Spring? How do the Egyptian people view Turkey? Are we willing to let this very important relation be lost or held hostage at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood? How can Turkey start disengaging with the group’s leaders and stopping their hostile activities, especially in terms of inciting and planning violence.
Fourth: How can Egypt and Turkey cooperate in the fight against terrorism, and how can Egypt help Turkey secure its national security in the face of the PKK?
Fifth: Establish a mechanism for coordination on common burning questions such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Iranian file, the peace process, and the establishment of the Palestinian state.
Sixth: Undoubtedly, East Mediterranean Gas represents a wide field for cooperation between Cairo and Ankara, and they can help each other to maximize their gains and preserve their rights. A giant gas pipeline project to transfer gas from Egypt to Turkey and from there to Europe could be negotiated.
Seventh: The economic question is one of the most important in terms of relations between the two countries. After the improvement of relations, Turkey could enjoy a large share of giant Egyptian projects such as the new capital and the Suez Canal development project.
Finally: when all these disputes are settled, it will be possible to work together to establish arrangements for economic, political and security cooperation between Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf states, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.
In summary, the general trend does not change a simple fact: Egypt and Turkey are destined to come together, even if only in a “cool détente”. Moreover, we must keep in mind that our homeland has never been saved by anyone other than ourselves. The Turkish and Egyptian peoples have to be confident. Our future cannot be decided by others, our peoples control their own destiny, and our destiny is held in common. Let me be the first to speak frankly and say that the West does not want close relations between Cairo and Ankara. It is an old story, but one that continues to be told. We were given our part in this sad tale, but it is time for the Turks to choose the part they want to play, and see what they are willing to do to achieve it.