Turkey-Egypt rapprochement 'serious' but Cairo demands key actions

Handing over Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile such as Yehia Moussa is one of Egypt’s requirements

epa09116688 A general view of Mosque of Muhammad Ali at Saladin Citadel fortification in Cairo, Egypt, 05 April 2021. The mosque was commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848 and was the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century.  EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

Direct and backchannel talks between Egypt and Turkey in the last few months have indicated a rapprochement in the relationship, and diplomatic sources told The National that they were "the most serious" yet.

Over the last seven years, there has been no love lost between the two countries' leaders, Abdel Fattah El Sisi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Mr Erdogan has long considered Mr El Sisi's to be illegitimate, following the deposing of Ankara ally and Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi.

Cairo has accused Turkey of unwarranted hostility towards Egypt and has cut back intelligence, diplomatic and trade relations since 2014.

Within months of the removal of Morsi from power, Egypt's and Turkey's respective ambassadors were sent home amid fiery rhetoric spewed from both sides.

Many figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, viewed sympathetically by the Turkish government but outlawed in Egypt, fled to Turkey, leading to accusations from Cairo of interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs.

Perhaps more important in the deteriorating relationship were differences over the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

Ankara and Cairo have supported opposing sides in Libya's civil war. In the Mediterranean, Egypt sided with Greece and Cyprus in a row over gas exploration that Turkey sees as an attack on its territorial rights.

These scenarios led Ankara to establish security and maritime agreements with Libya’s Tripoli-based government in late 2019, deepening the confrontation with Cairo. The two countries increasingly found themselves on opposing sides of regional conflicts, from Syria to Libya as well as in the Gulf crisis.

But in direct talks that started in Washington last August, sources tell The National there has been seriousness and progress in the rapprochement in a way that has not been seen in the previous two years.

With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting both countries hard, the Turkish economy strained, the Gulf crisis easing and a realisation on the part of Ankara that Mr El Sisi is here to stay, these talks have progressed.

Sources say that while in the previous two years, Mr Erdogan would override his advisers, spoiling such efforts in speeches blasting Egypt, this time, the rhetoric has been toned down.

Intelligence and defence co-operation between the two countries has picked up as well, the sources said.

Last month, Turkey reportedly ordered Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media in the country to stop airing negative coverage of the Sisi government. In parallel, the official rhetoric improved.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu highlighted diplomatic contacts between the erstwhile foes while Defence Minister Hulusi Akar noted the countries shared history and traditions. Mr Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said “a new chapter can be opened” in Turkey-Egypt ties.

Earlier, there had been signs that Mr El Sisi’s government did not see its differences with Ankara as insurmountable.

A maritime deal with Greece in August last year took account of Turkish claims over the limited sovereignty of Greek islands that lie a few kilometres off the Anatolian coast.

It is eastern Mediterranean energy co-operation in particular that is prompting the rapprochement from Ankara’s side, Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert and scholar said.

"Ankara is watching how its rivals Greece, Israel and Egypt are coming together, establishing natural gas-related initiatives, while it's left out," Mr Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National.

“That leaves Turkey with one ally in the eastern Mediterranean: the Tripoli government of Libya.”

By seeking a rapprochement with both Egypt, and Israel, an isolated Mr Erdogan "is trying to corner Turkey's oldest adversary in the eastern Mediterranean, which is Greece", Mr Cagaptay said.

But despite the crackdown on Brotherhood-affiliated media, the expert and author of The New Sultan sees the Egypt-Turkey rapprochement to be in its early beginnings.

“We still need more confidence-building measures before we talk about possible normalisation of ties,” Mr Cagaptay said.

Egypt is demanding that Ankara hand over Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures that are living in exile in Turkey. One of these is Yehia Moussa, indicted by Cairo in 2019 in the assassination of Egypt's prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat.

Another demand from Egypt entails a change in Mr Erdogan’s rhetoric and recognition of the Sisi government. Some of the ideas being floated include a visit by Mr Erdogan to Cairo, which would symbolically counter his anti-Sisi remarks over the last few years.

Mr Cagaptay sees the prospects as premature, saying that it would first require an adjustment in Mr Erdogan’s rhetoric in general.

“The Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric is [Mr Erdogan’s] bread and butter, so there will be an adjustment beforehand.”

Mithat Rende, a former Turkish ambassador, said that Cairo demanded action.

“The Egyptians would like to see action – the Turks need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk to show, for example, that they will keep the Muslim Brotherhood at arm’s length, especially those still operating in Istanbul," he said.

"Turkey has expressed a desire for a new deal in the Mediterranean, a delimitation agreement and an exclusive economic zone that would offer Egypt extra territory the size of Qatar," Mr Rende told The National.

Turkey’s foreign ministry and the president’s communications directorate declined to comment on current developments.

Veysel Kurt, a researcher at the pro-government Seta think tank, said the "quest for normalisation. has led to an optimistic atmosphere", and said that the reappointment of ambassadors and a new maritime agreement between Turkey and Egypt "are not that farfetched".