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Egypt supports Cyprus against Turkey

Egypt has criticized Turkey’s plan for a two-state peace deal on ethnically divided Cyprus.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Egyptian criticism of Turkey's plan for a two-state solution peace deal on ethnically divided Cyprus has come as the latest sign of ongoing tension between Cairo and Ankara despite previous diplomatic efforts to rebuild their relations.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that his country rejects the two-state solution Turkey is seeking to impose as a condition for the resumption of peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations.

In a press conference following his meeting with his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides on Dec. 14, Shoukry added that any talks should fall within UN procedures to reunify the eastern Mediterranean island as a federation.

Shoukry said that regional challenges need to be resolved based on international law rather than “aggressive activities or expansionist tendencies.” The Nicosia government accuses Turkey of seeking a peace deal that would broaden its control over the eastern Mediterranean, which is rich in oil and gas reserves. Christodoulides said that he expressed to Shoukry his government's deep concern over "Turkey's destabilizing foreign policy in the region.” The two officials stressed the importance of maintaining stability in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Since the Turkish invasion in 1974, Cyprus has been divided into a northern part run by Turkish Cypriots and a southern part run by Greek Cypriots.

Turkey is the only country that recognizes Northern Cyprus as a sovereign country and it maintains more than 35,000 troops there. It has no diplomatic relations with the internationally recognized government of Cyprus in Nicosia, which joined the European Union in 2004.

All UN-backed efforts to reunify the island have failed. During a summit under the UN umbrella in April, the Cypriot leaders failed to agree on resuming peace talks, which have been stalled since 2017.

Both the European Union and the United States reject the two-state solution Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pressing for.

Greek Cypriots fear that a two-state deal will cement Turkish control over the entire island as well as oil and gas deposits lying off the coast of Cyprus.

Turkey claims rights in Cyprus’ continental shelf and holds that drilling by Greek Cypriots off its shores would violate its rights — and those of Turkish Cypriots — to the region’s energy reserves. The Cypriot government holds that the Turkish claims contradict international law and violate the Island’s sovereign rights.

Egypt, a regional rival of Turkey, has enjoyed close ties with Cyprus and Greece since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2014. The three countries hold several tripartite summits on energy, gas exploration, counterterrorism and border demarcation and often criticize Ankara’s policies in the eastern Mediterranean.

Sisi said Egypt supports the unification of Cyprus and rejects any violation of its territorial waters or airspace at a tripartite summit held in October between Sisi, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriote President Nicos Anastasiades.

Egypt and Cyprus signed an agreement to demarcate the maritime borders in December 2013, In August 2020, Egypt and Greece signed an agreement to demarcate their maritime borders that effectively nullified an agreement that Turkey had signed with the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli in November 2019. Egypt and Greece described the deal as illegal and a violation of international law, and Greece considers it an infringement on its continental shelf.

Erol Kaymak, a professor of political science and international relations at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, told Al-Monitor that Egypt's reaffirmation of the UN parameters for a settlement in Cyprus is not surprising. "It's the default position to take on Cyprus," he added.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament, told Al-Monitor, "Cairo’s latest call clashes with the two-state model advocated by Erdogan and his Turkish Cypriot proxies."

Erdemir said, "Ankara has no expectations that Egypt and other states like Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates will adopt the Erdogan government’s position on Cyprus before mending strained ties."

Early this year, Turkey took a more flexible approach to rework its regional alliances with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Israel in a bid to build bridges with the allies of the United States after years of political rivalry and military interventions that has demonstrated Turkey’s influence in the region and spoiled its alliances in Arab world.

"The fate of the divided island is likely to trigger further diplomatic spats between the Erdogan government and other states including Egypt, but as long as this does not lead to irredentist steps that threaten littoral states’ maritime rights they should not hinder Ankara’s various rapprochement initiatives,” Erdemir said.

However, Erdemir said, “Erdogan’s ongoing patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood remains the main obstacle preventing a full-scale Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement.”

Relations deteriorated between Egypt and Turkey after the Egyptian army toppled former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against his rule in 2012-2013. In November 2013, both Egypt and Turkey withdrew their ambassadors.

Since then, the Cairo-Ankara dispute has turned into a broader regional struggle over Islamism. The Egyptian authorities classified the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, while Turkey has served as a safe haven for hundreds of the Brotherhood members and leaders who fled Cairo with the support of Erdogan, the leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party.

In early March, Egypt and Turkey announced the resumption of diplomatic contacts with the aim of repairing relations. Accordingly, Ankara asked Turkey-based Egyptian TV channels to stop broadcasting political criticism against the Sisi government. These shows moved to a livestream format on social media platforms, which Turkey has asked to stop as well.

Officials of the two countries have so far held rounds of bilateral “exploratory talks” in May and September aimed to settle differences and eventually normalize ties. But talks have been frozen since then. Cairo considers Ankara not serious about mending ties yet.

The two countries continue to have unresolved issues, most notably Turkey’s relations with the Brotherhood and the fate of the Turkey-based members of the group. Cairo wants them to be extradited as they face terrorism charges. Also, Egypt has repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces and Syrian mercenaries from Libya.

In response, Egypt sought to isolate Turkey regionally in the conflict of alliances in the eastern Mediterranean as a pressure card. Egypt, Cyprus and Greece in addition to Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority formed the Cairo-based East Mediterranean Gas Forum in January 2019 as a governmental organization with commercial and political goals against Turkey as well.

As a result, Turkey sought to pull Egypt aside to demarcate their maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet, Cairo believes that any potential deal should necessarily involve Greece and Cyprus and respect their continental shelves.

"The reconfigured Turkish foreign policy aims to isolate the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus/Greece, so the goal has been to close fronts and otherwise restore relations with estranged former allies, including Israel and Egypt. For Egypt, without a broader understanding on the Muslim Brotherhood, I doubt that the normalization process can yield the results hoped for," Kaymak said.

However, he added, “Policy-makers in Cairo recognize that Erdogan has a weak hand and there is no need to accommodate Turkey at this stage.”