Representatives of Turkey’s Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), led by Chairman Rifat Hisarciklioglu, paid a visit to Cairo Nov. 7-9, causing a stir as the first high-level Turkish figures to travel to Egypt in the past two years. The visit was widely seen as a positive step toward mending fences between the two countries, whose ties were poisoned by the 2013 coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the ensuing vitriolic reactions from Ankara.
The optimism, however, was short-lived, dashed by a photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taken during his Nov. 10 phone call with US President Barack Obama on the Syrian crisis. The photo, released by the state-run Anatolia news agency, showed a sculpture in the form of a hand making the Rabia sign displayed prominently on Erdogan’s desk. The four-finger sign has become a popular gesture to show support for the Muslim Brotherhood and denounce Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup against the Islamist movement. Erdogan himself has sometimes made the gesture at his rallies.
Following the July 3, 2013, coup, Turkey and Egypt recalled their ambassadors, downgrading diplomatic ties to the level of charge d’affaires. The political and diplomatic bickering gradually intensified, also hitting the economic realm. In April, Egypt refused to renew a 2012 deal under which ferry services operated between Turkey’s Iskenderun port and Egypt’s Port Said, providing a lifeline for Turkish exporters to the Gulf after the wars in Iraq and Syria blocked existing trade routes. The loss of the Egyptian route added to the already serious troubles of Turkish exporters.
The TOBB delegation traveled to Cairo at a time of fledgling hopes that Egypt’s parliamentary elections and an ensuing new government could serve as an opportunity for Ankara to backpedal on its hard-line attitude and open a new page in bilateral ties. The first phase of the elections was held Oct. 17-28, with the second scheduled for Nov. 21-Dec. 2. Additionally, the Vienna process to resolve the Syrian crisis, led by the United States and Russia, had just brought Turkey and Egypt around the same table.
The TOBB delegation met with the head of the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Ahmed al-Wakeel, and Electricity and Renewable Energy Minister Mohamed Shaker el-Markabi. Turkey’s Hurriyet daily commented, “Hisarciklioglu has very close ties with President Erdogan. The visit could have not taken place without Erdogan’s knowledge.”
A TOBB official told Al-Monitor that the Foreign Ministry was notified of the trip in line with the usual procedure, but this did not mean that the TOBB representatives traveled to Egypt “with the approval of the palace.” The official explained Hisarciklioglu attended two gatherings in Cairo in his capacity as a senior member of two international organizations. First, as deputy chair of the Islamic Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (ICCIA), he participated in the ICCIA executive board and general assembly meetings. Then, as deputy president of the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry, he made a speech at the EU-Africa Energy Forum. The official insisted that contrary to media reports, Hisarciklioglu traveled to Cairo not as the TOBB chairman but as a representative of the two international organizations, and no political significance should be attributed to the trip.
While in Cairo, Hisarciklioglu also met with Turkish entrepreneurs doing business in Egypt. They complained of hardships they faced due to the political crisis between the two countries, a source based in Egypt told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. A member of the business community, also on condition that his name not be used, said, “The price of political tensions is being paid by Turkish companies. We are excluded from public tenders. A Turkish company, for instance, had won a public tender, and though everything is fine, it still cannot take over the project. The political crisis must end as soon as possible.” These problems have been relayed both to the Egyptian authorities and Turkey’s charge d’affaires in Cairo, Ali Riza Guney.
During the years of the Arab Spring, Egypt had become a chief destination for Turkish companies investing abroad. After 2010, Turkish investments in Egypt had exceeded $2 billion, while the bilateral trade volume had reached $3 billion.
Despite initial hopes that the TOBB visit could herald a new beginning, these issues — supposed to have no place in diplomacy — continue to sway Turkish foreign policy. There is no sign that things could change when the new government in Turkey is formed after the Nov. 1 elections.
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