Erdogan and Sisi: old enemies become new friends?

Erdogan and Sisi: old enemies become new friends?
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Tracing the remarkable about-face of Erdogan’s approach to Egypt

CAN BURGAZ- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was invited to the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar, shook hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for whom he has long harbored great hostility. Erdogan's handshake with his longtime enemy sparked a major public outcry. Many believe Turkey's economic problems played a role in this rapprochement, and it is rumored that similar moves could occur in the run-up to the elections.

How did Sisi become an "enemy"?

In the 2000s Turkey experienced economic development while it implemented numerous democratic reforms as part of the ongoing EU accession process. Thus, when the Arab Spring began, Turkey had the confidence to export its ideology to the region. When Hosni Mubarak, with whom Turkey already had frosty relations, was overthrown and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through an election, the AKP elite rejoiced. Turkey supported the Mursi government in all respects.

However, when protests broke out in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood government and Morsi was ousted in a military coup, the AKP government reacted sharply to it. Around the same time, the Gezi Park protests broke out in Turkey, and the government, fearing the same fate as in Egypt, overreacted to what was happening in the country. In response to this harsh reaction, the Egyptian government declared the Turkish ambassador persona non grata, and Turkey responded in kind. Since then, diplomatic relations between the two countries have continued at the chargé d'affaires level.

The Impact of the Egyptian Coup on Turkey's Political Culture

After the Gezi protests, the cultural conflict in Turkey reached its peak. Society was now completely polarized and divided. Erdogan wanted to exploit the conflict created by the coup in Egypt. The anti-coup protests took place in a place called Rabia Square, and 'rabia' means four in Arabic. Erdogan started to make a four sign with his hand and adopted this sign.

He added a nationalistic overtone to this sign, different from the one he had used in the past, and created an amorphous political symbol. Erdogan began explaining at each meeting that each finger stood for a value, enumerating them as "one nation, one flag, one country, one state."

Erdogan now made the four sign with his hand and repeated his slogan at every meeting. A sculpture with the four sign was placed on his work table, and statues of a hand making the four sign were erected in some towns.

Sisi the Archenemy

Since then, Erdogan repeatedly criticized the West for turning a blind eye to the coup in Egypt. For Erdogan, Sisi had become a political target and he lashed out at him at every opportunity. For example, in the 2019 Istanbul municipal elections, which the main opposition party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu narrowly won, the elections were controversially rescheduled. In a speech during that process, Erdogan associated his opponents with Sisi, declaring, "Will we vote for Sisi or for Binali Yildirim (AKP candidate) this Sunday?"

Also in 2019, in his speech at an award ceremony of the Turkish Religious Foundation, Erdogan said, "There are those who want to reconcile me with Sisi, I have never accepted that and I won't ever agree to it. Why? Because I would never sit at a table with an anti-democrat who imprisoned Morsi and his friends, who received 52 percent of his people's votes."

Détente: What has changed?

Turkey's tough stance toward Egypt was considered excessive even in ruling circles, and it was considered that it was in Turkey's interest to maintain diplomatic relations at least at some level. The 2019 Eastern Mediterranean Energy Forum changed this whole equation. The forum, founded by Egypt, Cyprus, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine, claimed rights to natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, prompting a strong reaction from Turkey. In return, Turkey signed an agreement with Libya. However, seeing that it was being pushed out of the game, Turkey found itself in a tight spot.

2019 was a year when Turkey had problems with almost every country in the region. The government realized that this strategy had Turkey cornered, especially in the energy area, and initiated a reconciliation effort in the region.

Turkey resumed diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, with which it had maintained hostile relations in previous years, and sought to initiate a negotiation process with Egypt. Officials from the foreign ministries of both countries held exploratory talks in 2021, the first in Cairo in May and the second in Ankara in September. Turkey and Egypt's support for different sides in Libya has undermined that process, but the handshake between the two leaders in Qatar is a sign of a possibility for returning to the negotiating table.

Is Peace on the Horizon?

The outcome of Turkey's steps to improve relations with the countries of the region, especially in the energy field, is eagerly awaited. Not only the energy sector, but also the government's need for foreign exchange resources in view of the upcoming elections in 2023 has brought it closer to the countries of the region. Meanwhile, in Turkish-Egyptian relations, Turkey is the pleading party. This is because there is no main issue for which Egypt is in need of Turkey. This puts Egypt in a strong position at the negotiating table.

For example, Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria and Iraq were not welcomed by Egypt. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry expressed its disapproval of the Turkish and Iranian airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. In the statement, Egypt called for "not violating the sovereignty of the two brotherly Arab countries."

In his analysis for the BBC, journalist and analyst Fehim Tastekin explains that the energy equation in the in the Eastern Mediterranean is an important factor. As the picture in the Eastern Mediterranean developed in favor of the bloc of Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus with the support of the US and the EU, the Turkish government, in its own words, tried to "disrupt the game" by signing a maritime jurisdiction agreement with Libya in 2019. For their part, however, Egypt and Greece signed a counter maritime jurisdiction agreement.

According to Mr. Tastekin, the energy question in the Eastern Mediterranean can take a direction towards either conflict or regional peace. In this regard, the need to turn the opportunity into a partnership can be seen as the main motive for seeking normalization. Tastekin comments, "Now that Turkey has turned the page with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel, polarization with Egypt is no longer tenable. However, the situation in Libya has the potential to sabotage this rapprochement."

Khalil Al-Anani, senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, sees Turkey's desire to improve relations with countries in the region as the driving force in this regard. However, Al-Anani notes that the two countries have differing views on many issues. "Despite some positive signs demonstrating an improvement of relations between Egypt and Turkey, both sides still differ on some issues. Unless these differences are resolved, one cannot expect the full and sustainable normalization of relations between the two countries in the foreseeable future."

Sedat Ergin, foreign affairs columnist for the Hurriyet daily, points out that despite all the messages and diplomacy Ankara has been conducting since 2020 with a view to normalizing relations, Egypt is dragging its feet. According to Ergin, Egypt sees itself in a stronger negotiating position, as most of the demand for restoring relations comes from the Turkish side. He adds that all these developments underscore the idea of the founders of the Turkish Republic that Turkey should stay out of the disputes and problems of Arab countries, both within and among themselves.

"Such a view should not be interpreted so narrowly as to mean that Turkey must remain a mere bystander in everything. However, in light of the events we have witnessed recently, we should reflect more on the value of this doctrine that has been bequeathed to today's generations."

According to Hurcan Asli Aksoy and Stephan Roll, researchers at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the biggest obstacle to normalization between the two countries is the ideological difference between the two regimes. According to Aksoy and Roll, “The Egyptian military’s assumption of power in 2013 was expressly directed against efforts to embed religious issues more strongly in the state. Since both leaders actively promote their respective ideology in the region – through Turkish support for Islamist opposition groups and Egyptian support for General Haftar in Libya and the Assad regime in Syria – the rapproche­ment between their countries has strict limits.”