Turkey Pulse

Ankara's relations with Cairo still frosty despite Saudi mediation

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Article Summary
Saudi Arabia is reportedly working for a thaw between Ankara and Cairo, but little is likely to change before the general elections in Turkey.

Reports have started appearing in the Arab media suggesting that influential Gulf states spearheaded by Saudi Arabia are pushing for reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt.

Political developments in Turkey, which heads for general elections in a few weeks, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks concerning Egypt, do not make for a very propitious environment, though, for fence-mending between Ankara and Cairo at this time.

Egypt, for its part, is not displaying any sense of urgency with regard to improving ties with Turkey, and is making headway in terms of developing ties with other regional countries.

Meanwhile Kuwait, a key Saudi Arabian ally, is reportedly exhorting Ankara to improve its ties with Cairo if it wants to be an effective regional player, and suggesting, in so many words, that Egypt holds the key to Turkey’s return to the Middle East as an important player.

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Erdogan, however, continues to be a key supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and this poses an obstacle for the reconciliation Kuwait is said to be seeking between Turkey and Egypt.

That being said, there are indications that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the Foreign Ministry in Ankara believe Turkey has to move toward a more pragmatic line with regard to Egypt, and they may not be too pleased with Erdogan’s rigid position. 

Some analysts suggest, however, that rather than revealing a rift between Erdogan and Davutoglu, this could be part of a “good cop-bad cop game” Ankara is playing as it inches toward improving ties with Cairo.

Few, however, expect any change in Turkish-Egyptian ties until after the June 7 parliamentary elections in Turkey, given that the electoral base of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sympathizes overwhelmingly with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

In the meantime, Ankara has little choice but to look on as Egypt continues to forge new and fruitful relations with Western countries that generally receive him warmly.

Turkish officials were particularly riled by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent visit to Cyprus, where he held talks with President Nicos Anastasiades and met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to discuss energy cooperation among the three countries in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quick to retort that Ankara would not allow these countries to carve out an economic zone in the region for themselves over Turkey’s head.

No restriction, no step in the eastern Mediterranean is valid without the participation of the Turkish Republic. We will not allow this. This is very clear,” Cavusoglu said reflecting anger over the close ties Ankara’s three principal rivals are trying to develop.

Citing a statement to the Palestinian Maan news agency by Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas figure, Ahram Online reported on April 20 that Riyadh was endeavoring to achieve a political reconciliation between Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. 

Youssef was quoted saying that these efforts would also “improve relations between Hamas and Cairo.” His remarks indicate that Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, is seeking to improve its ties with regimes in the region that are opposed to the Brotherhood.

This goes against the grain for Erdogan, who repeated in early April that Egypt should free Morsi from jail and lift the death sentences against his supporters in the Brotherhood before Ankara considers improving its ties with Cairo. 

Erdogan’s determination on this score is set, however, against the backdrop of visits he has been paying to regional countries that oppose the Brotherhood. He followed up his visit to Saudi Arabia in early March with a visit to Kuwait last week.

These visits are being taken as clear signals that Turkey is seeking ways to return to the Middle East as a player and is prepared to act with countries that it is at odds with over Egypt. Erdogan has also declared his support for the Saudi-led operations in Yemen against Houthi rebels in which Egypt is also playing a key role.

The general picture to emerge out of all of this is one of confusion on the part of Ankara as it tries to maintain the appearance of a strong line against Cairo, while at the same time trying to act with major Sunni powers in the region that are not only opposed to the Brotherhood, but also strong supporters of Sisi.

The official Kuwait News Agency reported after Erdogan’s talks last week with Kuwaiti First Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al­-Hamad Al-Sabah that Kuwait hoped to see rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt.

“We will be happy to see Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement because they are among the important countries in the region,” Sabah Khalid was quoted as saying. He reportedly added that Turkey and Egypt’s role in regional security and stability was crucial.

Analysts agree that the lack of ties with Egypt is preventing Turkey from making real headway in the Middle East, where Cairo has much more clout today than Ankara. Kuwait’s exhortation can therefore be taken to mean that a continuation of this situation will remain an obstacle for Turkey, preventing it from playing an important regional role.

Samira Shackle, a regular contributor for the Middle East Monitor, argued recently that Erdogan’s comments, which make normalization with Egypt contingent on the release of Morsi, make a thaw in ties between the two countries unlikely. 

Shackle said that some analysts believe Turkey’s increasing cooperation with Saudi Arabia — a key supporter of the Sisi government — could pave the way for a thaw in Turkish-Egyptian ties. “Yet given the ongoing war of words between the leaders of the two countries, this looks unlikely,” she added.

Soli Ozel, a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs and lecturer at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, agrees that it appears on the surface that a rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt is not possible at the moment.

Ozel, however, does not discount the possibility that there might be contacts behind the scenes between the two countries under the auspices of a third party. He also believes that Erdogan’s seemingly rigid position on Egypt may not actually pose the obstacle it appears to.

“We know from the statements of various government officials in the recent past that the government does not consider the current situation with Egypt to be normal,” Ozel told Al-Monitor, referring to December remarks by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who indicated that Ankara had to normalize its ties with Cairo. 

“The government could go ahead and normalize these ties in spite of Erdogan. Erdogan in that case can turn around and say this was not his decision, but the government’s and argue that he can do nothing about it,” Ozel said.

He added that the appearance of a rift between the government and Erdogan on this score may be no more than a calculated game of “good cop, bad cop.” In this respect, Erdogan, who has been calling for Morsi's release, remained silent after an Egyptian court recently sentenced Morsi to 20 years in prison.

The only statement on the topic came from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which “deplored” the verdict against Morsi and said this “aggravated concerns about the future of democracy in Egypt.”

Egypt continues to reject all such statements from Turkey as interference in its internal affairs. The bottom line is that little change should be expected in Turkish-Egyptian ties before the elections in Turkey next month. After those elections, though, many things may change in domestic and foreign policy, because the ruling AKP’s political standing today does not look as secure as it did a few years ago.

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Found in: turkish politics, turkish-egyptian relations, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, muslim brotherhood, egyptian islamists, egypt, abdel fattah al-sisi

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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