Turkey and Egypt started two days of “political consultations” on Wednesday with the aim of restoring their relationship. Each delegation was led at deputy foreign minister level, with Sedat Önal in the chair for Turkey, and Hamdi Loza heading the Egyptian side. Both countries described the talks as “exploratory”.
Reports cited the foreign ministries of both countries as saying that they were looking at “The necessary steps that may lead towards the normalisation of relations between the two countries, bilaterally and in the regional context.” The consultations came days after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry on the telephone.
Relations between Ankara and Cairo have been strained since the 2013 military coup led by current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi against the first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Turkey also strongly condemned the bloody crackdown on anti-coup protesters in which thousands were killed by security forces, and tens of thousands were wounded. The number of political prisoners resulting from the crackdown is estimated to be around 60,000, “but collecting that information is extremely difficult,” said Amnesty International earlier this year.
In response to the strong Turkish support for the Egyptians who opposed the military coup, including Muslim Brotherhood members and liberals, Cairo expelled the Turkish ambassador. Ankara then downgraded ties with the North African country.
Another issue that has led to increased hostility between the two countries has been Turkey’s support for the internationally-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli against the renegade, Egyptian-backed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk. Maritime disputes in the eastern Mediterranean have also arisen, pushing Cairo to side with Greece against Turkey. Inevitably, given Saudi Arabia’s support for the Sisi regime post-coup, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, as well as Riyadh’s blockade of Turkish ally Qatar have exacerbated the breakdown in relations.
Nevertheless, despite the political and diplomatic issues, trade and economic relations have apparently continued as usual. Indeed, according to Egyptian observers, trade has increased between the two countries, and high-quality Turkish products are available in Egyptian markets at very low prices.
The efforts to restore ties between Ankara and Cairo started last year as both felt the effects of global issues on regional affairs. It has long been understood in Turkey that it must reduce the number of its enemies if it is to succeed in international affairs. Moreover, the fact that they each have a lengthy coastline on the gas-rich Mediterranean Sea has pushed them to seek reconciliation.
On 12 March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that the two countries had instigated “intelligence, diplomatic and economic” contacts. At the same time, he said that he hoped for “strong” ties with Egypt.
People protest outside the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul on 2 March 2019 [OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images]
Such positive signals followed from both capitals. The Turkish government asked Istanbul-based satellite TV channels linked to Egyptian opposition groups to tone down their critical political coverage of the Cairo regime. The channels did so immediately. This move was praised by Cairo as “a good initiative from the Turkish side that establishes a favourable atmosphere to discuss issues of dispute between the two nations.”
At the same time, while the new Libyan government is strengthening its ties with Turkey, Egypt is distancing itself from Haftar. Former Egyptian official Hussein Haridi told to Al Jazeera early this week that Cairo had been involved in Libya only in support of UN Security Council Resolutions.
Furthermore, Egypt announced recently that it is seeking tenders for hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean by recognising the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) demarcated by Turkey. Ankara believes that this move, which places the Turkish narrative about the maritime borders over the Greek government’s position, is a positive signal for normalising ties. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu has even said that Turkey might negotiate a maritime demarcation agreement with Egypt in the Mediterranean.
There seems to be no doubt, therefore, that the dispute between the two countries is on its way to being history. Egypt is not alone in this. According to Bloomberg, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also seeking to reset their own relations with Turkey to boost regional security and trade.
However, some people are still asking how Turkey can be a friend of Egypt while it continues to host opposition figures and officials who are critical of the Sisi regime, including those from the Muslim Brotherhood. Some observers have actually suggested that Turkey might hand over individuals to the Egyptian authorities.
“Turkey is dealing with Egypt as a state, not as a regime or political party,” explained Turkish journalist Hamza Takin. “As such, the issue of the opposition will never be put on the negotiating table.”
Egyptian journalists have told me that the people of both countries are close to each other, and now it is the turn of the politicians. Are the Turkish politicians ready to sacrifice members of the Egyptian opposition based in Turkey in order to reconcile with Egypt? Prominent Brotherhood figure Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar was emphatic about this: “The answer is no.” Speaking to Al Jazeera, Abdel Ghaffar said that Egyptian opposition groups in Turkey, which include liberals as well as Islamists, had been assured that Turkey’s push for better relations with Cairo would not be at their expense.
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