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Will Turkey’s efforts to woo Egypt yield fruit?

Egypt and Turkey began talks in Cairo today aimed at reseting ties after nearly eight years of a diplomatic rift.
Egypt's Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Sanad Loza (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart, Sedat Onal (L), in the Foreign Ministry headquarters in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on May 5, 2021.

The first Turkish-Egyptian talks since 2013 are underway in Cairo, in line with Ankara’s efforts to end its growing diplomatic isolation.

Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal is leading the delegation in the talks, which were initiated by Ankara. The two-day “political consultations” are being chaired on the Egyptian side by Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Loza.

The talks follow a year of indirect and direct contact between Turkey and Egypt to avoid a confrontation in Libya, where the two countries have backed opposing parties in that country’s civil conflict, according to Egyptian officials cited by the media.

Turkey’s overtures mark a sharp U-turn. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long championed fellow Islamist Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled by the military in 2013 and replaced by a former general, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Turkey’s warm embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood, designated as terrorists by Cairo, led to a sharp decline in relations, though trade between the two countries remains robust, standing at almost $5 billion in 2020.

In March, Erdogan signaled a thaw when he said the two countries had “intelligence, diplomatic and economic” contacts and that he desired “strong ties.” Cairo has been markedly less enthusiastic. It wants Turkey to translate its words into action and clamp down on a large number of Muslim Brotherhood operatives and their sympathizers for whom Istanbul has served as a haven since 2013. Erdogan duly obliged, reportedly telling Istanbul-based Brotherhood media to tone down their attacks on Sisi.

Unal Cevikoz, a former Turkish ambassador and a lawmaker for the pro-secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), reckons a minimal set of confidence-building measures will have already been implemented in advance of the Cairo encounter, which kicked off May 5. “When the meeting ends, we will have a better sense of how things went based on whatever joint statement is made,” Cevikoz observed, adding that the CHP had been advocating rapprochement between the two countries for a long time. “We proposed in January to send a parliamentary delegation to Cairo, but the government resisted the idea,” he told Al-Monitor.

So what prompted the change?

Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University, recalled that when the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2011, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party was in a much stronger position both economically and internationally. Erdogan’s espousal of an ideologically driven foreign policy, backing Muslim Brotherhood-friendly groups across the region, however, drew the ire of regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and its close ally, the United Arab Emirates, as well as that of Egypt.

“Ten years on, Turkey is much weaker in every respect and Erdogan wants to free himself of his ideological baggage, starting with Egypt,” Ozkan said.

“The Erdogan government is arguably the weakest it’s ever been. The economy has entered a new phase in its inevitable decline, which is central to this,” concurred Selim Koru, a Eurasia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia, and an analyst at TEPAV, an Ankara-based think tank.

Ankara has sent out feelers to Israel and Saudi Arabia as well and has even started to make positive noises about its top regional foe, the UAE. Saudi-Turkish relations took a nosedive following the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, with Turkey loudly trumpeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s central role in the affair. Saudi Arabia hit back with an undeclared boycott on Turkish imports. Turkey now says it respects the outcome of the trial of Saudi security officials who were saddled with the blame. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is due to travel to Riyadh on May 11.

Cevikoz believes the Biden administration, which is far cooler to Ankara than former President Donald Trump was, has had a big effect. “Turkey will calibrate its actions in the region on the basis of the Biden administration’s own moves,” he predicted.

Israel’s establishment of diplomatic ties with a string of Gulf states and Morocco has also spooked Ankara.

Israel, the UAE and Egypt have joined forces with Greece and Cyprus against Turkey in an ongoing dispute over natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Busting this burgeoning alliance is among Ankara’s goals.

Egypt is the first test of whether its regional charm offensive can work.

“The thinking is that, yes, you have to show people that you’re nasty if they wrong you, but that you can also be a beneficial partner if approached fairly. They want to show that they’re not just emotional about these things,” Koru noted. “But the problem, of course, is that the Egyptians have put forward very steep demands.”

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Egypt, says the motivation for Cairo is clear. Cook said, “Because Turkey is isolated in the region, Egyptian officials clearly feel that they can make significant demands on the Turkish government, which seems to want reconciliation much more than the folks in Cairo do. As we all know, President Sisi wants Egyptian opposition media in Turkey shut down and wanted Egyptians handed over. This would effectively end the organized, Turkish-sponsored Muslim Brotherhood presence in Turkey — a major victory for Sisi.”

However, Libya is an area where Turkey and Egypt share a common interest in cooperating. Egypt wants Turkish forces and the Syrian mercenaries they brought in with them to leave the country. Libya’s foreign minister aired similar wishes, citing the UN’s call for all foreign forces to withdraw during a recent meeting with Cavusoglu. “The Egyptians definitely want Turkey out, so that’s very good leverage for Turkey,” Koru said. Once it reaps the dividends of its decisive intervention on the side of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord against the eastern warlord Khalifa Hifter, backed by Egypt, Turkey may well decide to pull out.

“I think the Turkish government realizes that it cannot be saddled with a client state in North Africa, and its role in the conflict — while ultimately constructive — was a source of Ankara’s isolation in the region and difficulties with European powers,” Cook said. Moreover, “Sisi must by now realize that Khalifa [Hifter] is an incompetent rube and that the best course of action is to try to shape the political environment and government in Tripoli,” Cook added.

Whatever the outcome, Erdogan’s claims for leadership of the Muslim world are looking decidedly bruised. “Erdogan leads the party that welcomed Mohammed Morsi with enthusiasm, and now he is going to make a deal with Morsi’s jailer,” Cook said. Erdogan’s own base will be unfazed, Ozkan predicted. “The fallout from Erdogan’s ideological foreign policy is biting people where it hurts most — in their pockets,” he said.

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