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Turkey Turns to Longtime Foe Egypt Amid Increasing Isolation

Turkey is attempting to mend ties with its long-time regional rival Egypt due to Ankara’s increasing geopolitical isolation, analysts told The Media Line.

Ankara on Friday said that after being at odds with Egypt for years it was holding diplomatic talks with Cairo on topics such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the civil war in Libya and access to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kultur University, told The Media Line the talks are part of a larger overture from Turkey to shift its stance in the region.

Turkey has recently expressed interest in improving relations with other rivals as well, including Saudi Arabia, Greece and Israel.

In January, Ankara held talks with Athens over the Eastern Mediterranean, where the two have had a decades-long dispute over Cyprus.

“There is a drastic shift of foreign policy attitude in Turkey recently and Egypt is part and parcel of it,” Akgun said.

Tensions increased over maritime rights when some of Turkey’s top rivals, including Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus, formed an international forum to help export gas to Europe and Asia.

With exports potentially passing south of Turkey, through the Eastern Mediterranean, many analysts believe Ankara felt boxed in by its neighbors.

In response, Turkey explored for gas in the disputed waters off the coast of Cyprus, riling both Ankara’s friends and foes.

Turkey claims it has the right to do so because it has an agreement with a breakaway administration that controls a section of the island, but which is only recognized by Ankara.

“Ankara is almost completely isolated in the East Mediterranean,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It has no friends.”

Cagaptay told The Media Line that Ankara is trying to mend ties in an attempt to undermine the gas forum alliance of its rivals.

“They’re trying to kind of break this by going after Egyptians and Israelis and trying to charm them and bring them into Ankara’s fold,” he said.

But Cairo does not seem very charmed so far.

Reuters news agency reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said talks were “not at the highest level, but right below the highest level. We hope that we can continue this process with Egypt much more strongly.”

However, Egypt reportedly downplayed contacts between the two countries.

“It is an attempt to knock Turkey back and get Turkey into a position where they might give concessions on scenarios that Cairo cares about,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the geopolitical risk analysis firm Stratfor.

He told The Media Line that Egypt has less motivation to mend ties since its economy has fared better during the pandemic than Turkey, which fears its isolation will make it difficult to improve its finances.

A more cooperative foreign policy would appeal to foreign investors, many of whom have been spooked by the government’s unorthodox economic policies.

These policies include Erdogan appointing his son-in-law as finance minister, as well as insisting that the central bank keep interest rates low in the belief that easy access to borrowing would fuel economic growth.

US sanctions in 2018 sparked a currency freefall that led to rising inflation and unemployment which has only worsened during the pandemic.

Erdogan knows well the major political cost of a struggling economy.

Turkey’s poor finances are often blamed for Erdogan’s party losing the 2019 mayoral elections in Ankara and Istanbul, the biggest loss for the president since coming to power.

Some analysts believe it also motivated him to drum up nationalist support from his conservative base and launch an incursion into Syria months later to fight against US-backed Kurdish forces.

There have been some positive signs for Turkey’s economy with the central bank recently increasing interest rates and Erdogan’s son-in-law leaving his position.

But the country’s dire financial situation remains, with fears that Turkey’s reserves are running dangerously low.

Bohl said these concerns are forcing Turkey to back away from its more aggressive stance in the region.

“They want to get rid of all of the baggage of their more assertive foreign policy … so they can recover in 2021,” he said.