President Erdoğan is sending loving ‘forgive me’ messages to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after eight years of calling him a ‘murderer’ and ‘putschist.’ Erdoğan’s team is also making statements regarding the importance of Egypt in the region.
Through such messages, they are attempting to emphasize a ‘positive agenda’ to improve relations between the two countries via intelligence and diplomacy. Turkey’s military presence in Libya and the protection of the Muslim Brotherhood are the primary reasons for tension between the countries. The Turkish government has instructed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Istanbul-based television channels to be more moderate in order to open the road to Cairo. This was the first item on the ‘positive agenda.’ Additionally, they have reestablished the parliamentary friendship group of Turkey and Egypt which was abolished in 2013. This step did not drum up the desired excitement. Turkey has even lifted its veto on a NATO partnership program with Egypt. Egypt is now waiting to see what will come next.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, to wish him well on the start of the holy month of Ramadan. During the call, the foreign ministers reached an agreement for the start of the exploratory talks between Turkey and Egypt. The discussions, held over the last two days on May 5-6 and led by deputy foreign ministers, became the first high-level public talks for years between the two powers,
Given this shift in relations, I wonder whether the knickknack with four raised fingers and the folded thumb still sits on Erdoğan’s desk, as that ‘Rabia’ artifact symbolizes Sisi’s coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan still salutes the audience with this gesture and has even chastised audiences which forgot to do the hand gesture during his party’s recent conventions. But, what does that have to do with Egypt?
Erdoğan and his team seem to understand the necessity of making peace with Egypt now that they are faced with a deadlock in the Eastern Mediterranean and uncertainty in Libya. There are new political approaches in Libya and the Turkish foreign policy can still try to remain there, but normalizing relations with Cairo is not possible without considering Cairo’s alliance axis since 2013. If Cairo dictates conditions for normalization with Turkey, we can assume that this also reflects the expectations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Consequently, negotiations with Cairo also mean negotiations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. At the moment, it looks like the Saudi-UAE duo have handed over the Turkey file to Cairo. They know that Erdoğan is backed into a corner and they want to see how far he will go to meet Cairo’s list of demands when it comes. They are all at ease because they are not the party making compromises. Cairo and Abu Dhabi disagreed regarding a solution in Libya with Khalifa Haftar; and this was interpreted in Turkey as, “the axis against Turkey is dissolving,” which was overly optimistic on their part. Although we know that Egypt is working to gain importance in the region, they have harmony in the policies they exert upon Turkey. The Turkey disturbance is defined as “an Arab problem,” which has led to a reaction from the Arab Union and the assumption that the solution to the “Turkey problem” can only be found through a joint Arab approach. Regarding the issue as a ‘package’ serves everyone.
Before Turkish delegation's Cairo visit, all parties were engaged in fortifying their own strongholds. For example, a Muslim Brotherhood (Ihvan) committee held talks in Ankara on April 21 to clarify their stance. The talks were carried out under the name “Federation of Egyptian Associations,” but several heavy hitters from Ihvan were present in the delegation. The Muslim Brotherhood is very experienced at using covers. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency published a statement from Ibrahim Munir, the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that Turkey accepts representatives of Egyptian opposition associations, including Ihvan, as political refugees. Munir said, “As Ihvan, we thank Turkey and we guarantee to act in accordance with Turkey’s rules, laws, regulations, and traditions. We also guarantee not to endanger Turkey’s stability and security.” What made him make such statements must be increasing problems and fear. MB would not mention abiding by Turkish laws under normal circumstances. There is another possibility, which is that they are sending a message to their natural allies to exert pressure on Erdoğan.
According to the Arab media, Cairo demands the wanted Ihvan leaders to be handed over. They also want an end to the attacks from Istanbul-based media. Ihvan, of course, is looking for a guarantee that neither of these things happen. Sky News Arabia claimed that Ihvan leaders wanted to meet with Erdoğan’s chief advisor on the subject, Yasin Aktay, but they were refused several times. Erdoğan would not want to look like a leader who fulfills Sisi’s demands. The existing situation could result in returning to the pre-2011 Justice and Development Party (AKP)-Ihvan relationship. This is, when Ihvan did not trust the AKP and was troubled to hear Erdoğan praising secularism. The Arab media has started publishing articles with such titles as, “Erdoğan is not a trustworthy partner.” Nobody has forgotten Erdoğan scolding the Mavi Marmara flotilla team after they received compensation from Israel and were not happy with the settlement.
We see efforts to fortify strongholds on the other side also: Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Zayed (MbZ) led a UAE delegation in Cairo on April 24. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, MbZ stressed UAE’s keenness to coordinate and discuss with Egypt the regional issues. Sisi noted that the visit gives a strong impetus to the bilateral, fraternal, and strategic ties. According to presidential spokesman Bassam Rady, “They agreed to maximize Egyptian-Emirati cooperation and coordination as a basic pillar to protect Arab national security and confront foreign interventions in the sovereign affairs of the regional countries.” Discussions reflected a mutual bilateral understanding on means of addressing these issues, Rady added. Now, we must consider these statements together with the response of Riyadh after Turkish Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın extended an olive branch to them. Riyadh answered the olive branch by closing eight Turkish schools in Saudi Arabia. İbrahim Kalın had also previously announced that Turkey accepted the Saudi court’s ruling on the Khashoggi murder in Istanbul. He said they would look for ways to repair bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia within a positive agenda. İbrahim Kalın also voiced desires for the unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods to end, which led to a 98 percent decrease in commerce between the countries. Seeing the Erdoğan team in the pleading position must be invaluable for the Saudis.
The Egypt-Gulf block won’t tolerate Turkey’s soft power activities, much less Erdoğan’s quests for adventure with hard power. The decision regarding Turkish schools is a sign of this.
There are new factors that challenge the other block also, although not as strong as the pressure on Erdoğan. The Biden administration’s disclosure of the CIA report on the Khashoggi murder, which holds Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman responsible for the murder in return for nuclear talks with Iran and the devastation of Yemen, create a feeling of loneliness and uneasiness in the Saudi-Emirates duo. The Gulf’s honeymoon with Israel does not help much in this regard. A return to their former relations with Turkey has emerged as an option for them. Turkey’s increased relations with Ethiopia, where the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile had almost led to war with Egypt, is a bad scenario for Cairo. A showdown with Turkey in Libya could divide the country, strengthen the Ihvan position in Tripoli, and help extend the Turkish military presence there. This is a scenario Cairo would like to avoid.
Despite these factors, Cairo sees itself in a position to gain concessions from Ankara. They keep saying in their own media that they would not trust Erdoğan, saying, “We’ll look at the actions, not the words.” The Saudi-Emirates duo want to see how normalization between Ankara and Cairo will impact Turkish foreign policy, as a sort of ‘test drive.’
No matter what we say or do, the truth doesn’t change. This is the deadlock Turkey’s AKP has brought us to. They dreamed of intervening in the African Horn through a base in Somalia, believed they could be an alternative power in the Gulf with a base in Qatar, and tried to act like the chief of the Red Sea because of a base on the Sawakin island. They deployed troops in Libya and calculated that they would disrupt the balance in North Africa. They stirred the waters in the Eastern Mediterranean and said they have destroyed “the big game.” They made imperial calculations in the Middle East and destroyed all of Turkey’s relations and networks. Now, every country is responding to Turkey’s normalization offers with a list. Thanks to little foresight and too many mistakes.