Ramadan starts today (Thursday 23 March) in most Middle Eastern countries. And according to a well-informed political source, before the Muslim holy month ends, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may well visit Egypt for talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in an official re-launch of Egyptian-Turkish relations, marking the climax of the slow rapprochement that began last year after relations were ruptured in 2013.
“The dates of the visit are being considered by both sides. The question is whether this visit will happen before or after the presidential election due in Turkey in mid-May,” a government source in Cairo said. He spoke after Saturday’s visit to Cairo of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who was received by his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri. Following talks, the two held a press conference during which they spoke of their commitment to improving bilateral relations.
The source said that both Egypt and Turkey are working out the details of the relaunch of bilateral relations, including “the possible upgrade to full diplomatic representation later this year”. He anticipated a big push forward on economic cooperation, details of which are currently being discussed.
The source added most of the points Egypt is keen to “clear” with Turkey relate to regional rather than bilateral issues, though a standing demand for continued guarantees that Turkey will not allow its territory to be used as a platform for political lobbying against the regime in Cairo remains. Ankara, he said, had already taken “significant steps on this front as a necessary prelude to the groundbreaking handshake” between the presidents of Egypt and Turkey in Doha on the sidelines of the Qatar-hosted World Cup last autumn.
The same source said Cairo remains concerned about Ankara’s intentions in Libya, Syria, and the Eastern Mediterranean zone, though there is “hope we can move forward on getting Turkey to pull support to the militias in the west of Libya and get it to use its political influence on the government in Tripoli to move towards a more inclusive approach with other political powers, both in the east and south of Libya.”
On the east of the Mediterranean, the source said that it had been “decided” that Cairo and Ankara will begin legal discussions on maritime demarcation. Such talks, he added, are unlikely to be simple given that Cairo has made a point of not weighing in on disputed areas between Turkey and Greece despite the Egypt-Greece demarcation, while Turkey agreed a demarcation with the interim government in Libya in 2019, ignoring any concerns Cairo might have and before Egypt had finalised its own maritime demarcation agreement with its western neighbour.
Egypt’s position on Syria is clear: it is seeking an end to all foreign intervention to allow for the “rehabilitation” of the country. The source added that Egypt “understands” that much of Ankara’s room for manoeuvre in Syria depends on the outcome of discussions between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Russia. Plans are underway to schedule a series of meetings between the four countries at the deputy foreign minister, foreign minister, and head of state levels.
Such engagement is part of a wider opening towards Syria after a decade of isolation following Damascus’ brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad visited Muscat last month and Abu Dhabi earlier this week, and high-level Arab officials and parliamentarians have been visiting Damascus in increasing numbers. In late February, Shoukri visited both the Syrian and Turkish capitals in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit both countries.
Egyptian political sources argue that the change in attitude towards Syria is similar to Egypt’s opening towards Qatar, and then towards Turkey: they are all part of a regional political reshuffle that seeks to prioritise stability and economic cooperation.
The reshuffle includes a shift in Iranian policy that allowed for the signing of a security agreement with Saudi Arabia, and de-escalation in Yemen where Riyadh and Tehran have been supporting opposing sides. Other elements include talks between Iran and the UAE on security de-escalation, and the signing in Baghdad this week — coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the US-led war on Iraq — of a security agreement that will facilitate Baghdad and Tehran jointly managing border issues. Ali Shamakhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said this week that management of relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iraq lays the ground for economic cooperation and the containment of Iran’s debilitating economic crisis.
According to official Egyptian sources, the de-escalation agenda being pushed in many regional capitals is now seriously threatened by Israeli escalation against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. In Sharm El-Sheikh, security delegates from Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and the US were working on plans to halt any further escalation earlier this week and issued a joint statement pledging to take steps to lower tensions.
Within less than 48 hours, however, Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli minister of finance, had provoked Arab anger by issuing a statement in which he said “there is no such a thing as a Palestinian people, Palestinian history, or Palestinian language.” Smotrich made his inflammatory remarks in Paris on Monday, speaking in front of a map of Israel that included the occupied West Bank and parts of Jordan.
On Monday, Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador to Amman and on Tuesday morning Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said that Amman had received official Israeli confirmation that it respected Jordan’s borders. He added that the Israeli government needs to distance itself from Smotrich’s statements.
Egyptian official sources say that there is only so much countries like Egypt and Jordan can do to contain Palestinian anger in the face of inflammatory Israeli statements and the failure of the Israeli government to suspend the illegal construction of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land occupied in 1967. It is impossible, they add, to predict the consequences of such provocations across the region.
Last week, the Israeli press reported that the UAE, which has been at the forefront of accelerated normalisation with Israel, was considering suspending elements of its security cooperation with Israel in reaction to the statements of extremist Israeli ministers.
Diplomatic sources in Cairo say that the US, the EU, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey — which resumed full diplomatic relations with Israel last summer — are pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “contain his ministers” before things get out of hand. The fear, the sources add, is that these provocative statements will lead to the outbreak of a new Intifada, a sentiment fuelled by the approaching holiday season during which Passover will coincide with Ramadan.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly