Cairo and Ankara need to agree on a new messaging strategy that appeals to both countries’ domestic audiences to be able to take effective steps towards normalisation.
Last week’s Turkiye-Africa Partnership Conference Summit in Istanbul was heavily covered by media and political circles, with a focus on growing political relations and economic ties between Turkiye and African states. But observers overlooked a significant detail: the Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister attended the conference as well.
Turkish-Egyptian relations have been strained since the coup of 2013 that ousted Egypt’s only democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. But in recent months, the countries have held exploratory talks with the ultimate aim of restoring relations.
After Turkiye’s rapprochement with the UAE, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled that a Turkish-Egyptian normalisation is also on the cards, telling reporters that Ankara would be in a "position to appoint ambassadors within a defined schedule".
Both nations have a strong interest in restoring relations, but are hindered by domestic politics and obstacles. Therefore, political pragmatism will not be enough to restore ties; rather, the countries need to agree on a new messaging strategy for a full rapprochement.
From the perspective of Cairo, a key issue is that the Turkish side refrains from talking about President Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Rather than mention President Sisi, the Turkish president prefers to speak about the “Egyptian people,” which is a big concern for the coupist government in Egypt.
Cairo thinks that Turkiye wants to normalise relations without normalising the Egyptian president - which is worrisome in terms of its domestic politics. In such a scenario, normalising with Turkiye would benefit Egypt but would harm the regime’s stance and power.
On the other side, Turkiye has a long history of coups, and the Turkish public opinion is resentful of anything reminiscent of them. Normalising a coupist president would be viewed as a softening of a stance regarding coupists in general. Moreover, as Turkiye has a working democracy, the Turkish opposition would play normalisation with Egypt as a political card to garner domestic support.
There is also the matter of human rights. Segments of Turkish society are genuinely worried about the humanitarian situation in Egypt and do not want to aid crimes by restoring ties with the country. Only recently, an Egyptian court sentenced prominent political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah to five years in prison on charges of “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading false news”.
Possibilities with cooperation
Despite the visible obstacles, a rapprochement has much to offer for both countries. In a statement, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Egypt Hamdi Sanad Loza wrote that countries participating in the summit would contribute to regional development, stability, and security. In the statement, the deputy foreign minister also touched upon the cooperation between Turkiye and Egypt in the fields of mutual trade, investment, and tourism.
Hamdi Sanad Loza makes a valid point: both states have strong economic ties that can be cultivated further. For instance, Egypt has emerged as a key supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Turkish market, with seven cargoes already shipped so far in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Moreover, Turkish-Egyptian cooperation would benefit regional stability and security greatly. First, it would provide support in one of the most contentious regional issues: Palestine. During the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza and Israeli attempts to seize Palestinian property, both Turkiye and Egypt played an important role in protecting Palestinians and facilitating a ceasefire. While both states worked for the same goal, their efforts were not coordinated. A normalisation would pave the way for coordination and increase the effectiveness of these efforts.
In Libya, Turkiye has strong ties with the UN-recognised government and Egypt maintains strong relations with the political figures and the tribes in the east of the country. By resolving their issues, both states could help the transition process and the post-election period in Libya towards success. Preserving the territorial integrity of Libya and bringing an end to the armed conflict is a common interest for both sides. Stability in Libya would also bring economic benefits to all three countries.
With regards to joint interests, Turkiye and Egypt have many. If Ankara and Cairo can agree on a maritime delimitation agreement in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, both states would benefit. According to Cihat Yayci - the mind behind the Turkish-Libyan maritime delimitation agreement - if Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus were to determine the maritime delimitation, it would infringe large areas of Turkiye and Egypt’s exclusive economic zones. Keeping in mind the value of the recent gas discoveries for Cairo, a maritime delimitation deal with Ankara promises new lucrative opportunities for deals and exploration.
Last but not least, the Turkish people and the Egyptian people share a common history, common values, and brotherly relations. Positive and strong relations between both countries would be welcomed by both people. However, it is also the people, or to frame it better, domestic politics, that hinder normalisation efforts.
Rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo is promising but faces a difficult obstacle. Therefore political pragmatism alone will not be enough, but both nations would need to agree on joint rhetoric and joint steps to mitigate domestic repercussions.
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