Warming Ties Between Turkey and Egypt Are a Sign of the Changing Geopolitical Landscape
A possible deterioration in its relationship with Washington is driving a rapprochement between Ankara and some Arab capitals
Despite the cold diplomatic relations between Egypt and Turkey, Ankara on Friday offered to send a tugboat to help Egypt free a massive container ship blocking the Suez Canal, amid news that ties may be warming up between the two countries.
Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoglu said his country was ready to dispatch the Nene Hatun emergency response ship, which is “one of the few machines in the world capable of carrying out an operation of this magnitude.”
“We offered to help them and if they respond favorably, we will send help,” Karaismailoglu said, according to the Anadolu state news agency. Egypt, however, did not request any international assistance and the ship was successfully dislodged on Monday morning.
Relations between the two regional rivals reached rock bottom following the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s former Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who was strongly backed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Other disputes between them include the nearly decade-long war in Libya, which is now unwinding and where the two countries support opposing sides.
And in a sign that it wants to mend fences with Cairo, Ankara has pressed Egyptian opposition media based in Istanbul to “tone down” criticism of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Istanbul became a bastion for media outlets for Arab dissidents fleeing persecution from Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya following the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
Yusuf Erim, chief political analyst and editor-at-large for Turkish public broadcaster TRT, told The Media Line that the two regional powers have many shared interests.
“Egypt was, is and always will be very important to Turkey, and good relations are a top foreign policy priority for Ankara,” he said.
Erim says that the hostile relations between the presidents of the two countries impacted official ties.
“Unfortunately, the bad relationship between Erdogan and Sisi had a trickle-down effect on the relationship and neither side was able to compartmentalize the freeze in relations since the 2013 coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi and saw Sisi come to power,” he said.
Even though diplomatic ties have been almost nonexistent, other essential cooperation has continued.
“Let’s not also forget that Turkey never cut off relations with Egypt, there was always communication at least on the intelligence level, and we are seeing that upgraded to the diplomatic level,” Erim said.
Erim also said that Turkey’s president “will put the interests of the citizens above his relationship with Sisi.”
He added that, with the changing geopolitical landscape in the region, this détente was inevitable.
“I think one of the main factors driving this rapprochement is the changing regional dynamic and the return of the Iran nuclear deal, and an end to fighting in Libya where both sides reach an understanding that Turkey’s interests are protected and Egypt’s national security is respected, and the territorial integrity of the North African country is kept intact,” he said.
Let’s not also forget that Turkey never cut off relations with Egypt, there was always communication at least on the intelligence level, and we are seeing that upgraded to the diplomatic level
Hasan Awwad, an expert on Middle East politics at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, told The Media Line that Turkey’s economic and security interests in the Mediterranean require sitting at the table with Egypt, and this requires a “softening” of the rhetoric and media “incitement.”
Awwad says the fight over natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean played a major role in shifting Ankara’s stance on Cairo.
“Defining the maritime borders between Egypt and Libya in the Mediterranean is considered a matter of national security for Turkey, especially after the Egyptian borders are demarcated in the Mediterranean. If relations work out, Egypt will give political concessions in the Mediterranean and perhaps in Libya, where Turkey is present,” he said.
Erim said that the election of US President Joe Biden and his focus on human rights also may have forced both presidents to reevaluate their regional policies.
“Both countries want to prepare themselves for Biden’s hands-on approach with his desire to meddle in the countries’ domestic issues and bring up many domestic matters on the bilateral plate of the United States versus either Turkey or Egypt,” Erim said, adding: “Both countries understand if their relationship with the United States deteriorates, it’s good to have alternatives in your foreign policy portfolio for cooperation.”
Turkey’s financial capital is home to three Egyptian television channels: El Sharq, a liberal outlet owned by opposition figure Ayman Nour; Watan, the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Mekameleen, an independent channel close to the Islamist movement.
Nour denied the news that the channels are being pressured to change their editorial line or risk being shut down. He told media outlets that there are no “restrictions,” but rather a request to “adjust” their editorials.
Nour said that the talk of closing the Egyptian TV channels broadcasting from Turkey is totally “untrue.”
These news channels have posed a great deal of trouble for Sisi’s rule, because they are followed by millions of Egyptians inside the country and they offer them a contrasting narrative on how life is inside their country away from official oversight.
Through these channels, Egyptians found out about anti-government protests and about Sisi building many palaces. The channels’ news programs also have freely discussed government corruption.
Ankara announced last week that it had established diplomatic contact with Egypt for the first time in seven years.
Yasin Aktay, an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, denied Ankara was planning to expel or hand over Egyptian journalists and political opponents to Cairo.
“Turkey will not arrest anyone or hand anyone over,” Aktay said on social media.
Repairing ties with Egypt seems to be part of a broader Turkish plan to ease tension with regional Arab states following years of tension with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and after military campaigns in Syria, Libya and Iraq.
“Erdogan will keep the Egyptian opposition and its media tools as a pressure card because the Egyptian regime cannot be trusted. But it will decide the ceiling of their attack on the regime,” Awwad said.
Outspoken Egyptian journalist and harsh critic of Sisi, Moataz Matar, is the host of his namesake show “With Mu’taz,” one of the programs that the Turkish authorities are keeping an eye on for its constant and relentless attack on the government.
Matar said that he has not yet received an official request to back off, but he insisted that “Turkey stands on the right side,” adding in a post on social media that he respects Ankara’s decision.
“We do not want to burden Turkey. Just when we feel that we are getting pregnant at this time, we leave. We should never be a burden,” he said.
Erdogan will keep the Egyptian opposition and its media tools as a pressure card because the Egyptian regime cannot be trusted
Matar says the demand by Sisi to silence the channels “proves that their criticism [of the regime] for the past seven years was effective.”
“Our passports were taken away from us and we were not broken; our money was confiscated, and we were not broken; we were expelled, and we were not broken; our families were imprisoned, our families were separated, and we were not broken; our people were hung on the gallows unjustly, and we did not break or bend,” he said.
A producer at one of the channels in Istanbul confirmed to The Media Line the apparent warming of relations, conceding that “the political rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey may have some repercussions.”
The producers of two shows at one of the channels said that the general feeling is that their “time is up.”
Media personality Mohamed Nasser opposes the Egyptian military regime and is known for his stinging criticism of Sisi’s rule. He hosts a popular program, “Masr Al Naharda” or Egypt Today, on the Mekameleen satellite channel, which is broadcast from Turkey.
He discussed Ankara’s decision on social media.
“I respect the Turks and appreciate their stance and what they have done,” he said in a post.
Nasser said that he can’t continue to work with restrictions, and he is looking to move to a new country.
“The land of God is vast,” he said.