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Cautious normalization: Limits and prospects of development in Egypt-Türkiye relations

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in February 2024. Photo: EPC

By Hani al-Aasar

Key Takeaways

*Egypt-Türkiye relations have made significant strides toward tangible progress, guided by the principle of “rapprochement of necessity.” However, numerous obstacles and challenges persist, dampening the momentum of this rapprochement. One such challenge stems from the disparity in the political approaches of Cairo and Ankara.

*Some Egyptian agencies and departments still consider some of Türkiye’s positions and activities as threatening to the interests of the Egyptian state. These include Ankara’s insistence on keeping its forces in Libya and its ongoing exploration of hydrocarbons there. 

*Additionally, Türkiye’s involvement in rival projects to the Suez Canal, such as the Grand Faw Port project, exacerbates tensions.

*The likelihood of Egypt and Türkiye continuing their gradual normalization in the foreseeable future is increasing. 

*Both sides recognize the importance of cementing their economic cooperation and acknowledge the futility of continued political squabbling, particularly in light of the decline of regional polarization.

In February 2024, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Cairo and met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The two sides reached an understanding on several outstanding issues, including overhauling the high-level Strategic Cooperation Council. Subsequently, on April 20, 2024, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Ankara as part of preparations for the upcoming visit of President El-Sisi’s to Türkiye. These political and diplomatic exchanges underscore the concerted efforts of the two countries to advance the normalization and enhancement of bilateral ties. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan reiterated that “forming the Strategic Cooperation Council” will be on the agenda of the two presidents during the upcoming visit.

Manifestations of the development in Egypt- Türkiye relations

Over the past weeks and months, Egypt and Türkiye continued their efforts to normalize their relations, taking significant steps that have positively impacted their bilateral ties across various domains, albeit with varying intensity. These can be summed in the following:

Economic relations: The most notable progress in Egyptian-Turkish relations over the past period has been observed in the economic sphere. This is evidenced in several critical indicators, notably a marked increase in the volume of trade exchange between the two countries in 2023 and the first quarter of 2024, reaching the highest level since the signing of the free trade agreement in 2005. The volume of trade in commodities between Egypt and Türkiye in 2023 reached almost $5.875 billion, with Egypt’s exports totaling $2.934 billion and imports amounting to $2.941 billion. [1] Similarly, trade between the two countries in the first quarter of 2024 reached nearly $1.746 billion, with Egypt’s exports totaling $874 million and imports reaching $872 million, solidifying Egypt’s position as Türkiye’s number one trade partner in Africa.

Moreover, the two countries actively seek to expand and diversify their joint investments. However, Cairo’s endeavor to attract more Turkish investments supersedes Ankara’s endeavor in this regard. [2] In October 2023, the Egyptian Businessmen Association hosted the 16th meeting of the Türkiye-Egypt Business Council. The meeting was attended by representatives of 13 Turkish firms spanning various sectors, including textiles, clothes, construction, general contracting, real estate development, chemicals, transportation, imports, and exports. The two sides discussed means to boost Turkish investments in Egypt and increase trade volume between the two countries to $15 billion within five years and $20 billion within 10 years. [3]          

Egypt and Türkiye have also discussed increasing Turkish investments in various sectors. Notably, talks were led by the Arab Organization for Industrialization in December 2023 to explore the potential for Türkiye’s involvement in a project focused on manufacturing and recycling automobile tires. Subsequent discussions have taken place between officials from the civil aviation sectors of both countries since January 2024, focusing on the prospect of Turkish participation in the development of Egypt’s civil aviation sector. The Egyptian health minister also discussed potential investments in Egypt’s health sector, especially in artificial limbs, implants, and medical tourism, with Turkish business people. 

Moreover, Egypt’s Ministry of Transportation has held similar talks, signing a memorandum of understanding to establish a Turkish industrial and logistics zone in the Gargoub Economic Zone in northwestern Egypt, with an investment totaling $7 billion. In February 2024, discussions between the chairman of the General Authority for the Suez Canal Economic Zone, Waleid Gamaleldien, and Türkiye’s ambassador explored opportunities for Turkish firms in the field of green fuel and its related industries, alongside considering the possibility of establishing a Turkish industrial zone within the Suez Canal Economic Zone. The two sides also discussed a proposal to establish a center for occupational training in the West Qantara industrial area to cater to the skilled labor demands of ongoing projects employing state-of-the-art production technology.

These talks derive their importance from their significant outcomes and the fact that they indicate the continuous advancement in Egyptian-Turkish ties. In addition to those above, several Turkish firms have opened new factories and lines of production in the 10th of Ramadan Area, situated east of the Delta. Moreover, health officials in both countries agreed to build an Egyptian-Turkish hospital in the new administrative capital, east of Cairo.

Political Ties: Egyptian-Turkish political relations continued to make notable progress, which is evident in their approach to various issues, most notably Islamist opposition abroad and the Muslim Brotherhood. This particular issue has been the main stumbling block between the two countries for over a decade. Ankara has succeeded in addressing this issue and showing its goodwill toward Cairo. Following his visit to Egypt in February, President Erdogan announced that his country had revoked the citizenship of 50 people affiliated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, including Mahmoud Hussein, the acting leader of the faction based in Istanbul, and his wife. Investigations revealed that they had manipulated the conditions under which they acquired Turkish citizenship by investing “in real estate valued in dollars.”

In terms of regional issues, Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip prominently showcased the alignment of perspectives between Egypt and Türkiye. Cairo facilitated Türkiye’s efforts – as of October 2023 – to show its support for the Palestinian people through humanitarian aid. Moreover, Egypt welcomed Türkiye’s desire to reopen the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) office to ensure the flow of aid to Gaza. In addition, officials from both countries’ intelligence services and foreign ministries have held meetings since October 2023 to reach a common perspective on the ongoing crisis. The two sides agreed to unify their stands on current developments whenever possible. This was evident in statements against Israel and in efforts at the UN General Assembly to grant Palestine full membership, in addition to the two countries’ position on Hamas.

Diplomatic ties: Egypt and Türkiye have upgraded their bilateral relations to an ambassadorial level, marking a significant step in improving ties between the two countries. Other positive developments accompanied this diplomatic and protocol advancement. In September 2023, Egyptian Ambassador to Türkiye Amr El-Hamamy presented his credentials to President Erdogan, while Turkish Ambassador to Egypt Salih Multu Sen presented his credentials to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry in August 2023. Diplomatic ties between the two countries have seen more positive developments, which were not limited to repeated contacts and visits, the last of which was Shoukri’s visit to Ankara on April 20, 2024, and his meeting with his Turkish counterpart to discuss various issues, including the agenda of President El-Sisi’s upcoming visit to Türkiye. Furthermore, President Erdogan called his Egyptian counterpart in December 2023, preceding the first official visit by a Turkish president to Cairo in twelve years, which took place in February 2024.

Military and Defense Cooperation: Recognizing the strategic importance of bolstering collaboration in defense and military sectors, Egypt and Türkiye have pursued various avenues of cooperation. Ankara’s agreement to provide Egypt with Bayraktar TB2 drones demonstrates a tangible aspect of this collaboration. Additionally, Türkiye has expressed interest in further cooperation with Egypt in drone manufacturing. This partnership was further evidenced by the participation of several Turkish defense industry firms, including Tosas, Roketsan, Sarsilmaz, and BMC, in the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX 2023) held in Egypt from December 4-7, 2023.

Challenges and thorny issues

However, despite these positive developments, significant challenges persist in advancing relations between Egypt and Türkiye, potentially impeding the momentum of their reconciliation efforts. These challenges primarily manifest in the realms of politics and military affairs. Politically, while Türkiye extended a gesture of goodwill concerning the Sudanese issue by permitting Egypt to supply the Sudanese army with Turkish drones, thereby significantly enhancing its combat capabilities, Cairo has exercised caution in engaging Ankara. Egyptian strategic assessments underscore concerns about Türkiye’s presence in Sudan, particularly the potential resurrection of Türkiye’s plans to establish a military base on the Sudanese island of Suakin, a step that Cairo views as a threat to its national security.

On the military front, Cairo has exercised greater caution than Türkiye in advancing military cooperation between the two nations. This cautious approach has been evident on multiple occasions, most notably in Egypt’s repeated rejection (three times) of Turkish invitations to participate in military exercises hosted on Turkish soil. [4]Cairo opted not to invite Ankara to participate in the Egyptian-American joint exercise “Bright Star 2023.”

In the current context, the attitudes of Egyptian agencies and institutions toward the prospect of “full normalization” with Türkiye are inseparable from existing perceived concerns. Besides guarding against the risk of abrupt shifts in relations between the two countries due to ideological disparities in their political systems, they view certain Turkish positions and activities as detrimental to Egyptian interests. These include Türkiye’s refusal to withdraw its troops from Libya, its involvement in projects that compete with the Suez Canal, notably the Al-Faw Grand Port project linking the Al-Faw Port in southern Iraq to Türkiye, and its persistent exploration of hydrocarbon resources in Libya. This latter endeavor aims to offer alternative gas sources to Europe, which conflicts with the interests of countries friendly to Egypt, such as Russia, France, and Italy.

Possible scenarios for the future of Egypt-Türkiye relations

There are numerous potential scenarios for the evolution of Egyptian-Turkish relations in the short and medium term, particularly given recent developments in this relationship. However, the realization of any of these scenarios hinges on a set of determinants, with the following factors being particularly significant:

  • The calculation of gains and losses for both countries.
  • The commitment of both countries to demonstrate the necessary flexibility for successful normalization and to overcome looming challenges.
  • The regional context includes the trajectories of shared-interest issues and crises in the region.

Consequently, three potential scenarios can be outlined for the future of Egyptian-Turkish relations:

Scenario 1: Gradual and cautious normalization

This scenario envisions Egypt and Türkiye progressing toward normalizing their relations, albeit cautiously and incrementally, that could potentially culminate in a form of “strategic alliance.” Both countries are expected to take measures toward normalization, particularly in economic and regional matters, such as the energy sector, the Palestine question, and the Libyan crisis. Several factors contribute to the likelihood of this scenario unfolding. Foremost among these is the recognition by both sides of the economic benefits of cooperation, given their current economic challenges. Additionally, there is a growing realization of the futility of political rivalries, particularly concerning efforts to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. President El-Sisi’s consolidation of power in Egypt and the diminishing influence of the Brotherhood further support this trend.

Moreover, notable shifts in the regional context have previously fueled conflict between Egypt and Türkiye. Primarily, there has been a decrease in polarization among regional states. However, despite these changes, several factors may contribute to a gradual and cautious approach to the normalization process. Chief among these factors is the lingering apprehension on both sides about rushing into full normalization. This caution stems from ongoing differences in their respective interests, particularly their approaches to various regional issues. Furthermore, the degree of support and backing from decision-makers in each country for the normalization decision varies, adding complexity to the process. 

Scenario 2: Rapid full normalization.

Both countries swiftly move toward fully normalizing their bilateral relations in this scenario, albeit without transitioning into a “partnership” or “strategic alliance.” However, this scenario is deemed less probable due to several determinants. Chief among these determinants is the lingering apprehensions on both sides regarding full normalization with a country that was considered “hostile” just two years ago, particularly from the perspective of Egypt. Due to political and security concerns, Cairo still harbors reservations about military normalization with Türkiye.

Additionally, the divergent visions of both countries on numerous regional issues of common interest further complicate the prospect of a complete and rapid normalization. These differences occasionally manifest as fears that hinder either party from pursuing coordination or cooperation, as observed in the Sudan and Libyan energy files. Moreover, ideological disparities between the Turkish and Egyptian regimes continue to persist.

Nevertheless, the likelihood of such a scenario cannot be completely ruled out. While both sides may gravitate toward full normalization if they perceive positive outcomes resulting from the process, thereby fostering trust between them, the prospect of this normalization evolving into a partnership or strategic alliance is tempered by the enduring influence of factors that impede full normalization. Chief among these factors are ideological disparities, which continue to pose significant barriers to closer cooperation between the two countries.

Scenario 3: Return to tense bilateral relations

This scenario envisions the abrupt halting of the normalization process, leading to a resurgence of tension between Egypt and Türkiye, ultimately reverting their relationship to its pre-dialogue state from two years ago. However, this scenario is deemed highly improbable due to several significant factors. Firstly, the regional landscape has undergone notable changes, marked by the cessation of longstanding polarization that had characterized the region for years. Moreover, the countries formerly entrenched in this polarization have shown a newfound openness toward each other. Egypt and Türkiye also continue to grapple with economic challenges, which initially served as a critical driver for initiating the normalization process. This factor gains increasing significance as each side stands to gain more from improved bilateral relations, rendering a return to tense relations less appealing.

Furthermore, both countries’ capacity to sustain conflict and discord has diminished, particularly in light of waning incentives to do so. The perceived threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime has considerably weakened, further reducing motivations for continued hostilities.
 


[1] Total trade between Egypt and Turkiye, including liquified gas and oil derivatives, was almost $10 billion in 2023.   

[2] There is a difference in assessments of Turkish direct investments in Egypt. Mustafa Denizer, the Turkish co-chairman of the Turkiye-Egypt Business Council, estimated these investments at $3 billion, while Egypt’s General Authority for Investment and Free Zones estimated them at the end of May 2023 at $982 million, or almost $1 billion

[3] The meeting of the Türkiye-Egypt Business Council coincided with the 30th anniversary of establishing the council. It is the first meeting since severing ties between the two countries 10 years ago.

[4] Military cooperation between Egypt and Türkiye in training was interrupted in August 2013. This interruption occurred when the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced the cancellation of the Egyptian-Turkish joint naval training exercise “Sea of Friendship,” which was scheduled in October of the same year.

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