Turkey shifts course again, discussing ties with Egypt

Turkey and Egypt have been at odds because of Ankara's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

 Turkish and Egyptian flags. (photo credit: Canva)
Turkish and Egyptian flags.
(photo credit: Canva)

In the chaos that is Turkey’s foreign policy, the country is once again trying to reconcile with Egypt. This comes after a year or more in which Ankara was trying to heal ties with Cairo.

Ankara’s opposition to Egypt’s leadership and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, however, will always be a source of tension for the two. The question is whether Ankara can really reduce its backing for groups such as the Brotherhood and Hamas enough to appease Egypt.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Qatar, according to reports. Turkey tried to downplay “hard feelings” in the talks about Ankara’s previous attempts to oppose the government of Egypt and to stoke extremism, the reports said.

Extremism levels have changed in the Middle East

Many countries have come to realize that the era of extremism and chaos in the region began with the 2011 Arab Spring and then became an era of civil war in Syria and the rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq. That era is now behind us.

AK Party supporters celebrate in front of the AKP headquarters in Ankara, Turkey June 24, 2018 (credit: STOYAN NENOV/REUTERS)AK Party supporters celebrate in front of the AKP headquarters in Ankara, Turkey June 24, 2018 (credit: STOYAN NENOV/REUTERS)

With the shift in Ankara’s policy comes a third phase of the AKP’s rule over Turkey.

It began with “zero problems with our neighbors” between 2003 and 2012. Then it became “problems with everyone” as Ankara tore up its ties with Israel, Egypt and other countries, stoked war with Armenia, invaded Syria, threatened Greece and France and even threatened Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Ankara’s policies stretched far as it sought to position itself as a champion of “Islamic” causes. Turkey now wants normalization with Egypt.

“Recently, we experienced a problem in a nine-year period,” Erdogan said. “We took this step that evening, especially with the intervention of Qatar’s emir. After overcoming that difficulty, we had a narrow-scoped meeting with al-Sisi for half an hour or 45 minutes.”  

"After overcoming that difficulty, we had a narrow-scoped meeting with al-Sisi for half an hour or 45 minutes.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

So, Egypt and Turkey will continue to meet at the ministerial level, the reports say.

Keen observers of Turkey’s shift in its discussions about Egypt have long seen this coming. Ankara had already reconciled with Israel, hosting high-level visits, and it did outreach to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both of which support Egypt.

It’s worthwhile remembering that in Egypt after the Arab Spring, there was a brief rule by the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was removed from power after mass protests in 2013. He died in 2019 while on trial.

Egypt has been in the midst of trying to rebuild its economy over the last decade, and it has only taken small steps to play a significant role in the region. The country is a historic powerhouse in the Middle East culturally, militarily and economically. Nevertheless, the modest approach of Sisi’s government has meant that Egypt has taken slow steps to play a role in discussions with Jordan, Iraq and Syria.

Egypt cares about preventing extremism and any kind of chaos that may threaten it from Libya or the Sinai, where there are extremists. It also plays a role in the Horn of Africa and with the Gulf states. When it comes to the larger picture, Cairo is a foe of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so are the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Ankara and Qatar have generally backed the Brotherhood, however. This extends to Ankara and Qatar backing Hamas in Gaza. But times change. In 2017, Saudi Arabia led several countries to break relations with Doha. Now Doha is hosting the World Cup, and countries such as Egypt and Turkey can find ways to patch things up.

The big question is whether this reconciliation will continue and what it means for other states in the region. For instance, Turkey has had a track record of threatening Greece, and Egypt and Greece enjoy positive ties. Turkey may be reconciling with Israel, but Israel is also a close friend of Greece and Cyprus. There are commentators who tend to see ties with Ankara as a prize, thinking that countries such as Israel and Egypt need Ankara.

Another important question is who benefits from these ties today? If Ankara reduces its backing for forces of extremism chaos, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, then it’s possible that both sides may benefit. Israel, Egypt and other states will have to approach this via the euphemism of “trust but verify.”

For now, Ankara is back to talking about Egypt ties, but Ankara has a history of concentrating on one thing and then abandoning it and not investing or providing the necessary water that these policies need to grow and bloom.