by Leo Kendrick
Deputy foreign ministers from Turkey and Egypt met in Ankara for a second round of reconciliatory talks earlier this week, aimed at restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. The meeting, only the second high level talks between Turkey and Egypt since 2013, was characterized by both sides as “positive”.
The talks took place in Ankara on Tuesday and Wednesday (7-8 September) between Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal and Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Loza. The first round of talks between the two ministers was in May, as the countries work to restore bilateral relations, which have been severed since late 2013.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt soured in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, largely due to Turkey’s outspoken support for the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was deposed in a coup d’etat in July 2013 led by then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Morsi’s eventual replacement. Morsi’s removal was met with strong opposition from Ankara, prompting a deterioration in diplomatic relations that culminated in the recalling of both ambassadors in November of that year.
Turkey’s falling-out with Egypt coincided with a deterioration in relations with other Arab states as well. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies of the Sisi regime and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, also saw their relations with Ankara suffer. The Gulf dispute starting in 2017 saw them again take opposing sides, with Turkey supporting Qatar amidst a diplomatic fall-out with other neighboring Arab states. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 further soured Turkish-Saudi ties. Finally, Turkey found itself opposed to the Saudi-UAE-Egypt coalition in the Libyan conflict, taking sides with the UN-approved Tripoli government. These developments left Turkey isolated diplomatically, with few friends in the eastern Mediterranean and Arab World save Qatar as relations with Israel also suffered. Describing the isolation Turkey has experienced in recent years, Turkey’s former Foreign Minister and retired ambassador Yaşar Yakış said in an interview with Medyascope earlier today (9 September) that “Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors hit rock bottom.”
Following the first meeting in May, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had remarked “We will not look at what Turkey says, but what Turkey does.” Former Foreign Minister Yakış emphasized the centrality of the Muslim Brotherhood issue in restoration of Turkish-Egyptian relations, saying “The Muslim Brotherhood is to Egypt what the PKK is to Turkey. But it even goes a step further because Sisi came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood.” Therefore, the easing of Turkey’s formerly hard-line support for the Muslim Brotherhood, classified by the Egyptian government as a terrorist organization, is a critical step for any restoration of ties.
Turkey’s softened approach on the Muslim Brotherhood issue is no doubt a major reversal, especially for President Erdoğan, whose passionate support for Morsi and the Brotherhood following their downfall often took on a zealous tone. The “Rabia”, a four-fingered hand gesture used by Morsi supporters protesting his deposition, was co-opted by Erdoğan himself, using the gesture even in domestic politics to express solidarity for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s toppled government. Medyacope’s Ruşen Çakır described Turkey’s seeming abandonment of the Muslim Brotherhood cause as a “step backward,” one necessary for any diplomatic thaw.
The recent warming of Ankara-Cairo ties follows a similar pattern of rapproachment between Turkey and its Arab neighbors. Just last month, a phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan pointed to a similar diplomatic thaw. The phone call had been preceded by a visit to Ankara by an Emirati National Security Advisor in mid-August.
Turkey shares stronger economic ties with the UAE and Israel than it does with Egypt. As such, the warming of Egyptian ties is seen as being mostly strategic, an important step in remedying Turkey’s regional diplomatic isolation of late. Transatlantik contributor Ömer Taşpınar told Medyascope in an interview yesterday (9 September) the closer economic relationship between Turkey, the UAE, and Israel will result in faster diplomatic reconciliation, a process that may take longer with Egypt.