Turkey and Egypt: a new opening for rapprochement?

Nicholas Mehling
12 Min Read

The 28 June attack at Ataturk airport in Istanbul has caused a diplomatic firestorm in Turkey. The incident coincides with Ankara seeking to end its extended period of diplomatic isolation, which has left it without allies and its soft power degraded as it attempted to fill a power vacuum created by the Arab Spring and the US withdrawal from the region.

Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, alluded to the possibility of a rapprochement with Egypt in an interview with public broadcaster TRT Haber on 27 June. Relations between the two countries turned sour after Turkey received backlash for its support of the Mohamed Morsi government and aid to Hamas. Relations were further soured following allegations of Turkish interference in Egyptian affairs after four men who identified as Turkish intelligence agents were killed and captured in the Sinai Peninsula.

“There isn’t any obstacle [in front of] improving our economic relations with Egypt. Minister-level visits may start,” said Yıldırım. He stated that Turkey’s interests in convalescing the Egyptian relationship is based on trade, the use of Egyptian ports, and the Suez Canal, which Turkey needs in order to trade with the GCC, East Africa, India, and South Asia after Egypt. “There is no reason for economic relations [not] to improve. Our businessmen and our investors can mutually go about improving their investments.”

30 June: starting point of improved relations with Turkey?

However, a distinct lack of eagerness has been noted on the Egyptian side, which has been in an open diplomatic conflict with Erdoğan’s government since the Morsi administration was forced to step down after mass protests swept the Muslim Brotherhood out of power on 30 June 2013. “It must be clear that the recognition of the legitimacy of the Egyptian people’s will, represented in the 30 June revolution, is the starting point for improved relations with Turkey,” foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abou Zaid said in a statement on Tuesday.

In other words, Turkey must drop Morsi and any pretext of a Muslim Brotherhood resurgence, recognise President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as the legitimate leader of the nation, and assist the nation in combating, not assisting, terrorism.

With this position, it might seem unlikely that this rapprochement will ever take place considering the remarks made by the Turkish prime minister in the same interview, where he maintained that reconciliation is possible.

However, the prime minister said, in regards to the 30 June Uprising, that “President [Erdoğan] has stated to the world since its beginning that this is a coup and that we will never approve of this change in such a way”.


Amr Adly, an expert in Egyptian affairs at the Carnegie Foundation, has stated that while Turkish-Muslim Brotherhood relations will likely “resume out of sympathy and out of long years of investment”, Ankara knows Morsi is never coming back and that the ”Brotherhood is not likely to become a relevant actor on the Egyptian scene for some time”.

In the case of rapprochement, Turkey may tone down criticism of Egypt, but it remains unlikely that Turkey will expel Brotherhood members. This would be a redline for Egypt as it was in the case of Qatar.

Turkey desperate for allies more than Egypt desperate for investment

Egypt and Turkey are “major trade partners, of course”, says Adly. He explained that “trade relations between Egypt and Turkey have hardly been impacted by the tension between the two governments since mid-2013”. Turkey is one of Egypt’s major export destinations, and “this has been a factor [as to] why the Turkish government did not escalate economically”.

In fact, besides a few bellicose words between the two nations, nothing much economically has happened besides threats of sanctions and boycotts, and Egypt’s annulment of one single maritime transport agreement in 2014 which “wasn’t that significant anyway” because “exchange between the two countries is dominated by the private sector”, says Adly.

However, despite the widening balance of trade deficit between Egypt and Turkey, where Egypt imported $3.1bn and exported $1.2bn, making up a $1.9bn difference, issues between the two countries are primarily political. Turkey has “been keen on using its economic power… to buy political influence”, expressed Adly.

However, in the purchasing influence market, Turkey is falling behind as Egypt’s dependence on Turkish investment is dwarfed by investments from the GCC countries. While Turkish investment reached $1bn during Mohamed Morsi’s rule, investments from Qatar reached $8bn during the same period. Since Morsi’s departure, investment from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait reached $25bn.

Oil and gas discoveries

Particularly important is cooperation in the energy field between Turkey and Egypt, as Eastern Mediterranean nations are positioned to become a major natural gas hub, with major fields found off the coasts of Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece.

The Turkish-Israeli normalisation was not due to the bridging of political difference; it was about oil. Israel is franticly searching for export markets for natural gas fields found off the coast. Turkey became the top priority after Egypt found its own massive natural gas fields, which allow Egypt to meet its domestic consumption needs.

A spokesperson with Noble Energy, a petroleum and natural gas exploration and production company, said: “Our natural gas projects offshore Israel are well positioned to meet the growing demand in both Israel and the undersupplied regional markets, including Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey.” Meaning, if Egypt is looking to export, it will likely be to its neighbours and will likely never have to use Turkish pipeline infrastructure as Israel did.

This means there is less need for improvement in Egypt’s economic sector than Yıldırım would have the world believe. While trade and investment flow from Turkey to Egypt is important, particularly foreign direct investment (FDI) in Egyptian industries, Egypt does not need Turkey as much as Turkey needs Egypt and other neighbours that it has alienated in recent years.

Zero positives with neighbours

Turkey has seen its “zero problems with neighbours” policy collapse since the Arab Spring, with Turkey’s support of Islamist groups such as Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and allegations of support for Islamic State (IS) alienating the Gulf, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries in the region.

Turkey’s immigration policy and its crackdown on opposition and democratic forces has alienated Europe, its Kurdish policy frustrates the US, and actions against Russia, which led to the downing of a Russian fighter jet in 2015, risked a vengeful Vladimir Putin at a time when Turkey was isolated internationally.

Since the recent attack in Istanbul, normalisation with Israel was pushed forward, an apology was issued to Putin, trade deals were struck with Iran, and EU-Turkey membership is back on the table. Despite deep divisions with Israel on the Palestinian issue, Russia and Iran on the fate of Bashar Al-Assad, and the EU on democracy in Turkey, these political rearrangements demonstrate Turkey’s capacity to ignore political differences and focus on mutual benefit.

New alliances

Many of Turkey’s other neighbours have major points of conflict with the Turkish republic: conflicts Egypt has been quick to exploit. Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece signed the Cairo Declaration in 2014, which outlined a number of points of cooperation in political, economic, and security affairs, particularly on the joint protection of Cyprus’s sovereignty as Turkey searches for natural gas in Cyprus maritime boarders.

While the increased collaboration between Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece “has been aimed at putting pressure on the Turkish government after 2013”,  according to Adly, “it is not likely to translate into something important” and the war dynamics are shaped by the conflict in Syria.

Egypt supporting the Kurds

While Egypt does not have any substantial involvement in the Syrian Civil War, Egypt has ramped up pressure on the Turkish government with its support of Turkey’s minority opposition groups: the Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the People’s Protection Unit (YPG).

Hurriyet Daily News reported that a Turkish intelligence report found that the PKK met with the Al-Sisi administration three times over the past six months in Cairo, with mediation from Iraq. Egypt has reportedly committed arms, money, and a base of operations in Egypt to the PKK in return for information on Turkish-Muslim Brotherhood relations and activity.

The Kurds also represent the only effective fighting force in the war against IS in both Iraq and Syria, and are threatening to control the entire Turkish border with both Iraq and Syria.

The Kurdish issue has also been the main point of contention between Ankara and Washington, with Turkey seeing the Kurds as a greater threat to domestic stability than IS.

Only time will tell if Turkey takes a new direction, challenging Sunni Islamist groups or bowing to them. Erdoğan has replaced Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy, with Binali Yıldırım, who will assist Erdoğan in centralising power in the hands of the presidency and creating a new constitution.

Since the beginning of 2016, 1,654 individuals have been detained in Turkey for connections to terrorist organisations, signalling a harsher stance on IS and Al-Qaeda affiliates. However, Turkey has branded itself protector of the Brotherhood and with the new constitution and presidential power in Erdoğan’s hands, foreign affairs and the direction of policy will be firmly in Erdoğan’s discretion.


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