The rupture in ties between Turkey and Egypt, which should have been patched a long time ago, is not likely to be mended any time soon, considering how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his political Islamist associates in the government continue to use the Egyptian leadership as a punching bag to vent their frustration over colossal failures in the implementation of their ideologically driven pet projects in foreign policy.
Judging from public remarks and a strong anti-Egypt narrative employed by Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and others in the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is difficult to see how any initiative that was launched by third parties to mend fences between the two heavyweights in the Middle East will have a chance to succeed. Erdoğan seems to have dead-set views of the current leadership of Egypt, especially the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, about whom he does not shy away from publicly expressing his strong dislike in domestic rallies and speeches delivered in international fora. He simply cannot get in enough Sisi bashing.
In contrast, there has been a growing chorus of outcry in the Turkish state, from the military to the Foreign Ministry and from trade agencies to the academia, that argues the current Egypt policy is a fallacy. Yet, that reasonable voice was either muzzled or thwarted from having an impact on an actual policy shift to normalize ties with Cairo. Every time there was a diplomatic initiative or backdoor politicking to strike a deal with the Egyptian leadership — there were several attempts made since July 2013, when a Sisi-led coup ousted then-President Mohamed Morsi — Erdoğan and his associates came out as spoilers of a possible deal by issuing harsh public rebukes against the Egyptian leadership.
The most recent remark made by Erdoğan on Egypt took place last week during his return from a visit to Latin America with a stopover in Senegal. He made it clear that his position on Sisi has not changed a bit, ruling out any possibility of a meeting by Prime Minister Davutoğlu with his Egyptian counterpart. With a condescending attitude, Erdoğan even raised the bar by saying he would allow meetings at the ministerial level, suggesting that he has a superior position to the president of Egypt. The Turkish prime minister signaled the same at a January speech at the Davos summit in Switzerland, accusing Egypt of putting many youths in jail. “We will not recognize the military coup,” he vowed, underlining an earlier position that Turkish leaders see Sisi as “illegitimate.”
Speaking to lawmakers in Parliament on Wednesday during budget deliberations for his ministry, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu listed conditions for rapprochement with Egypt, which involved, inter alia, a total moratorium on all capital sentences, including that of Morsi. He said Turkey’s expectation is that Egypt should adopt inclusive governance that reflects the will of the people, an implication that the Muslim Brotherhood must be incorporated in the administration of the country and to restore Morsi’s rule. In other words, nothing has changed from the Turkish position as officially outlined by the top diplomat in Parliament.
There is little to indicate that Saudi Arabia’s push for mending fences between Cairo and Ankara will bear any fruit. The tactical move by the Saudis to realign predominantly Sunni regimes against the threat of Iran in the Middle East, the Gulf and North Africa that requires both Turkey and Egypt to remain in the same boat is not addressing the fundamental underlying problem between Cairo and Ankara. The overlapping interests on countering Iranian challenges is important but not enough of an incentive to normalize ties between Turkey and Egypt, given the current posturing by the Turkish leadership that undercuts Egypt’s efforts to consolidate domestic politics and address internal challenges. Nothing has changed from Cairo’s perspective that Ankara is only interested in cozying up with the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of others in Egyptian society.
The second problem with the Saudi initiative is that the framework of the rapprochement is built on terms of agreement that were shaped and even dictated by Riyadh rather than by the consideration of the overriding interests from the Egyptian side. That has sort of irked Egyptian leadership, which prompted Cairo to approach the initiative with rather cold feet. As if adding insult to injury, Turkish Islamists did not cut back on harsh criticisms of Egypt after Saudi mediation, and even went further with more negative stories about Egypt, finding ample coverage in government-controlled media. That indicated Saudi involvement did not produce any substantial result in changing Turkey’s behavior toward Egypt.
As for the brouhaha over Turkey inviting Egypt to the 13th Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in İstanbul scheduled for April 10-15, it is not likely that Egypt will be represented by a senior figure at the meeting. The current state of relations is simply not conducive to produce a breakthrough on the bilateral level that will allow Sisi, or any other senior Egyptian figure, to make a high-profile appearance in İstanbul. By the way, Turkey has yet to send the official letter of invitation to Cairo, though it said it would.
Cairo is also suspecting that Ankara has been playing a double game in removing some of the irritants that have clearly bothered the Egyptian regime for some time. For one, the opposition media targeting Egypt in Turkey, allegedly financed by Turkish intelligence, is still in business with changed names, brands and venues. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood that are based in Turkey still receive financial, political and diplomatic support with their networking and travel discreetly facilitated by government agencies. Second, Turkish Islamists have been trying to blindside Egypt with their pet projects in Sudan and Libya, two neighbors of Egypt, by running clandestine schemes that work against Egyptian interests.
Third, Erdoğan’s keen interest in Gaza, cozying up to Hamas at the expense of Fatah and his apparent exploitation of the Palestine issue to advance his political ambitions in the region, have all irked the Egyptian leadership. Cairo is also troubled that terms of the agreement between Turkey and Israel as part of a normalization in their relations, still under discussion, may include some concessions that will anchor Turkey more firmly to Gaza and shore up the perception that Turkey is the main benefactor to Gaza in Egypt’s backyard. Instead of letting Egypt lead, which has been the case for decades, Turkish Islamists are endeavoring to steal Egypt’s traditional role.
It is quite a pity that the ideological zealotry of Erdoğan and his associates has harmed Turkey’s ties with Egypt when the two countries are quite in need of each other’s help in countering significant security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. So far, the impact of political difficulties on business ties has been somewhat limited. Turkish exports to Egypt, which were a little over $3 billion, have, by and large, remained steady since 2013. On the downside, the tension held back the potential growth in business ties. There are worries among the Turkish business community that things may get worse in the Egyptian market, especially after Cairo’s introduction of a mandatory registration for imports in January.
As part of the Egyptian government’s plan to curtail imports — which were over $60 billion last year, almost triple the amount it exports — representatives of foreign companies that seek to export goods to Egypt will have to register and provide their own business licenses as well as ownership and other documents. This comprehensive plan, designed to tackle the current account deficit, is not directed against Turkey specifically. But it may give Egyptian authorities an opportunity to cut back on Turkish imports to Egypt given the growing anti-Turkish sentiment among Egyptian consumers, fueled by negative reporting on Turkey due to incessant attacks on the Egyptian leadership by Turkish rulers. On a side note, by using the new registration measure, perhaps Egyptian authorities may also want to clear some of the Turkish business initiatives that aimed to sustain the Muslim Brotherhood network rather than help boost bilateral trade.
In any case, a real rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt won’t be possible as long as the ideology is rampant in shaping Turkish foreign policy, even when it makes no sense. That does not mean both countries will not engage in a transactional relationship when it is suitable for both. But even that will remain limited in its scope and targeted in its purpose, as seen in Saudi initiatives.