Egypt and Turkey resume talks to ease fraught relations

Officials in Cairo say Ankara has met key demands

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during the Grand Congress of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, March 24, 2021. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
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Egypt and Turkey on Tuesday resumed negotiations to normalise ties in a relationship that has been strained for almost a decade over many bilateral and regional issues.

Four months ago, the two countries began exploratory talks in Cairo to mend relations after goodwill gestures from Turkey.

The negotiations with Egypt, while still at an early stage and led only by deputy foreign ministers, are part of an energetic diplomatic drive by Ankara to improve frayed ties with Arab heavyweights such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The Turkish effort is motivated largely by Ankara’s wish not to lose the goodwill of some of its largest trade partners and to secure a place in plans under way to turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a global energy hub after the discovery of massive natural gas reserves.

The energy plans are led by Egypt, and Turkey’s arch-rivals Greece and Cyprus. They also include Israel, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinians.

“Our friends at the ministry are meeting [Egyptian officials]. If we decide together after the meetings, we will take the necessary mutual steps to appoint an ambassador,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told broadcaster NTV on Tuesday.

Egypt and Nato member Turkey have not shared ambassadors since 2013, when relations soured over the removal of Mohamed Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood by the military, then led by head of the army and future president Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

FILE PHOTO - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivers a statement following a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France November 26, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Picture

Egypt and Turkey have also been at loggerheads over Libya, where the two backed rival factions and what Cairo sees as Ankara’s menacing support to extremist groups and military presence across much of the Middle East.

The Turkish minister also held out the possibility of striking a maritime deal with Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, similar to the one Ankara struck with the government in Tripoli, the fractured Libyan capital, about two years ago.

That deal led to renewed tensions between Turkey and neighbouring Greece and Cyprus over energy exploration in the region. Egypt also rejected the deal.

The emergence of an anti-Turkey coalition in the East Mediterranean was a wake-up call that the deterioration in Ankara’s relations with all states in the region was dangerous
Samer Shehata

Mr Cavusoglu also proposed a summit of East Mediterranean nations to reconcile disputes over maritime borders and the exploitation of the area’s energy riches.

“Turkey and Egypt, along with other Middle Eastern states are modifying their positions as a result of changing dynamics and opportunities in the region, such as the arrival of the Biden administration,” said Samer Shehata, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma.

“For Turkey … what appears to be the emergence of an anti-Turkey coalition in the East Mediterranean was a wake-up call that the deterioration in Ankara’s relations with all states in the region was dangerous.”

Mr Shehata cited as contributing factors to the growing potential for improved Cairo-Ankara relations the thaw in ties between Egypt and its Gulf Arab allies and Qatar. He listed the continuing international mediation effort to end the war in Libya, where huge business opportunities await both nations if peace is restored.

“There’s also President Recep [Tayyip] Erdogan’s realisation that the El Sisi regime was not going anywhere and that continued ideological or principled opposition to Cairo’s new rulers would bring little benefit,” he said.

Egyptian security officials said Turkey has met some conditions set by Cairo for relations to be normalised but much remains to be done by the Turkish government.

Turkey has already ordered a halt to years of scathing criticism of Mr El Sisi and his government by Turkey-based TV networks run or inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation in Egypt.

Egypt reciprocated by stopping personal attacks on Mr Erdogan in the pro-government media.

Ankara has also moved to restrict the Brotherhood’s political activity on Turkish soil.

More recently, said the officials, Turkish authorities slapped travel bans on Brotherhood members wanted by Egypt in connection with terror attacks, including the assassination in 2015 of chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat and senior police and army officers.

“These are individuals who planned and ordered assassinations,” said one official. “They are about 15. Some of them tried to flee Turkey when relations began to improve, but were stopped by authorities.”

In this image made from UNTV video, Nicos Anastasiades, President of Cyprus, speaks in a pre-recorded message which was played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday Sept. 24, 2020, at UN headquarters. (UNTV via AP)

The security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said senior Egyptian intelligence operatives were among the Egyptian delegation in the talks with Turkish officials. The two-day talks end on Wednesday.

The potential for improved relations between Egypt and Turkey comes at a time when Cairo’s ties with Greece and Cyprus have deepened.

Cyprus is a Greek-majority East Mediterranean island invaded by Turkey in 1974, ostensibly to protect the island’s Turkish minority after a coup by radical Greek Cypriots seeking union with Greece, which was then ruled by a right-wing junta.

Turkey occupies a third of Cyprus to this day.

But the relative thaw in Cairo’s relations with Ankara appears to have had no impact on Egypt’s close ties with Greece and Cyprus, which include frequent joint war games and co-operation in a wide variety of fields.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades was in Cairo this week for talks with Mr El Sisi. The two leaders agreed to expedite work on an underwater pipeline to bring Cypriot natural gas to Egypt to be liquefied and exported to Europe.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was in Egypt in June, when he and Mr El Sisi agreed to forge closer relations in the fields of energy, trade and tourism.

Updated: September 07, 2021, 3:24 PM