Turkey to Egypt: Let’s be friends

If you believe the headlines, a rapprochement may be in the works between Turkey and Egypt, or it seems at least that is what Turkey would like to see. But as in all things geopolitical, it’s not as simple as all that. Turkey and Egypt have historically had a complex relationship, and the years have not been kind. The current status of the relationship borders on outright hostility. So how then do we understand Turkey’s recent gestures of reconciliation?

Adnan R. Khan: What’s the broader context in which Turkey is reaching out to Egypt?

Ilter Turan: There seems to be a number of developments in the Eastern Mediterranean that have brought Egypt, Israel, Greek-Cyprus, and Greece together. These countries out cooperating on energy questions but are now working on developing other forms of cooperation, like forming a common electricity grid. By all indications, this cooperation may extend into other areas, including defense. In that context, one should remember that Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have been sending their planes to Greece for military exercises. In short, Turkey feels isolated in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in many other areas where it feels its effectiveness in the international system is being reduced. This is certainly true within the framework of NATO, where the U.S. seems to attach more and more importance to cooperation with Greece rather than Turkey.

As this is happening, the Turkish economy is experiencing difficulties and the government is looking for ways to expand it, which will require closer cooperation with the EU and the U.S. But those economic relationships can only improve significantly if political relations also move in a more cooperative direction.

So, Turkey is trying to affect a number of changes in its policy to persuade regional actors that it is an important player, a country that you need to deal with in achieving regional peace and stability. It is in this context that Turkey has also turned to mending its relations with Egypt.

Adnan R. Khan: What are some of the challenges the Egypt-Turkey relationship faces?

Ilter Turan: Since late in the Arab Spring, after Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey has been following a strongly anti-Egypt line. Turkish foreign policy in the region has been based on extending support to Muslim Brotherhood linked political movements that are: a) anti-establishment and demand political change; and b) want change to be in a religious direction. There seems to be no indication that Turkey has changed this policy or disavowed it. What Turkey appears to be trying is to make gestures of a transactional nature to countries like Egypt in the hope that relations will improve. But in the interim, Egypt has developed a rather complex set of relationships with other actors in the region. Unless Turkey fundamentally shifts its policy, it is unrealistic to expect Egypt to abandon multifarious relationships it has built during the past 10 years and turn to extensive cooperation with Turkey.

Let us not forget that there are also genuine conflicts of interest between Egypt and Turkey. For example, Turkey is trying to expand its presence in Africa. Historically, Egypt has perceived itself as a gateway to Africa. It perceives Turkey’s efforts of expanding its relations with African nations independently as a challenge to its influence. The critical thing is that a framework of relations in which these issues can be discussed is lacking. It may be possible to work together on matters of common interest and tolerate differences but Turkey has so far has not even recognized the basic legitimacy of the Egyptian regime.
Adnan R. Khan: Geopolitics globally are also shifting. Should Turkey be looking for new partnerships?
Ilter Turan: There does seem to be a new framework emerging in global politics where Russia and China are again perceived as competing forces with the West. This may lead to a rejuvenation of NATO and similar western built structures to contain Russia and arrest the expansion of China. The problem is that nobody is sure of what Turkey wants to do. It is becoming increasingly evident that the U.S. is no longer thinks that it can sustain a reliable partnership with Turkey. Thus, it has developed a plan B that emphasizes much closer relations with Greece and support for Syria’s Kurds. This plan that essentially sidelines Turkey is gradually evolving into a rival plan A.

Turkey appears to be seeking support wherever it can find it. But when you look at Turkey’s security interests in the short, medium run or even in the long run, it is not prudent to sever its security ties with the West. Plus, the security relationship and the economic relationship are interrelated; Turkey’s economic prosperity is clearly tied to its relationships with the more prosperous countries in the world.

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