Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu paid a short visit to Cairo on 18 March, during which he held talks with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri. The talks covered a host of issues, from bilateral relations to regional questions such as the crises in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq along with the Palestinian question and the war in Ukraine and its impact on the world order.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 17 March announcing the visit and stating that its objective was to restore “normal” Egyptian-Turkish relations. It capped efforts by the two governments to explore ways to overcome their political differences and pave the way for the appointment and exchange of ambassadors.
Diplomatic relations between Egypt and Turkey have been at the level of chargés d’affaires for the last few years. Both governments recalled their respective ambassadors in the wake of Egypt’s June 2013 Revolution when relations had begun to worsen. From 2013 to September 2020, Egyptian-Turkish relations then went from bad to worse. The exploratory talks aiming to improve them date back to May and September 2021 in Cairo and Ankara, respectively, at the deputy ministerial level.
In a joint press conference held after the Cairo talks, the two ministers said that they had held “frank and deep” conversations on a range of issues. The Turkish foreign minister also said that the Egyptian and Turkish presidents would hold a meeting in the near future. Last November, the Emir of Qatar arranged a brief meeting between the two men during the opening of the World Cup in Doha.
An Egyptian-Turkish summit meeting could now take place during the next few months before or after the Turkish general and presidential elections in May. It is expected that the Egyptian foreign minister will pay an official visit to Ankara, the date of which will be announced in the next few weeks.
The rapprochement between the two regional powers comes as part of a region-wide reconciliation process that has seen the normalisation of relations between Turkey on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Saudi Arabia and Iran have also decided to resume diplomatic relations after seven years of estrangement and enmity.
Most Arab countries are looking forward to welcoming Syria back to the Arab League sooner rather than later. Even Turkey has been receptive to the idea of accommodating the Syrian government after more than ten years of siding with and arming Syrian militias to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
It goes without saying that a successful rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara would contribute positively to creating a Middle East that is more stable, more secure, and more prosperous provided that the Turkish government reconsiders its interventionist policies in the Middle East and North Africa and particularly in Syria and Libya.
Regarding the Eastern Mediterranean and the exploration and exploitation of gas and oil in the region, it is up to Turkey to decide whether it will keep unchanged its present policy of attempting to impose its own way in this regard or whether it will opt for a more cooperative approach with the member states of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum that has become a promising vehicle for tapping the gas and oil riches under the seabed.
During the joint press conference after the meeting last Saturday in Cairo, the Turkish foreign minister told reporters that he had discussed the issue of cooperation in the field of energy with his Egyptian counterpart.
It goes without saying that such cooperation presupposes the delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean by Egypt and Turkey, and, more importantly, the willingness of the Turkish government to settle its disputes with both Greece and Cyprus in this regard. In the meantime, another question that hangs in the balance is whether Turkey will revisit its two agreements with Libya, the first pertaining to the delimitation of the two countries’ respective Exclusive Economic Zones and signed in November 2019 and the second relating to the exploration for gas in these Zones and signed last year.
The former agreement has been contested by Greece, Egypt, and the EU. The three parties have made it clear that the agreement is a violation of the maritime rights of Greece and that it is not in conformity with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to which Turkey is not a party. Whether or not Turkey will reconsider its position in this context remains to be seen and will be known after the upcoming elections in May.
It is doubtful that in the process of normalising its relations with Turkey that Egypt will disregard its agreements with other Mediterranean countries on cooperating and sharing the gas and oil fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. One serious challenge facing the normalisation process set in motion between Egypt and Turkey last week is precisely how far the two countries are willing to go in cooperating in the energy field in the context of the agreements that they have both signed with third parties.
Egypt would welcome Turkey as a member of the Gas Forum, but a condition for membership is a commitment to respect international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Another no less serious matter is the military presence of Turkey in Libya. Turkey claims that the agreement it signed with the then Libyan government in Tripoli in November 2019 on military cooperation entitled it to send “military advisers” to train and assist Libyan forces in the western part of the country. Another related aspect is the presence of “mercenaries” in this part of Libya whose presence has been greatly, if not wholly, assisted by Turkey.
Egypt is unlikely to drop its demand for the withdrawal of all “foreign forces” and mercenaries from Libya. Perhaps Turkey will revisit the extent and nature of its military cooperation with the government in Tripoli after the Turkish elections take place in less than two months’ time.
The last ten years have shown that the deterioration of Egyptian-Turkish relations have not served the national interests of either Egypt or Turkey. As a result, the normalisation of their relations is in the interest of both, but this does not diminish the diplomatic and political challenges that lie ahead.
A meeting between the heads of state of these two Middle Eastern powers could provide answers to how they will overcome these challenges in the medium and longer term.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly