Turkey and Egypt, two influential regional players with a complex history of cooperation and conflict, are now working on mending their ruptured ties, starting with appointing ambassadors and arranging meetings for senior state officials before the end of this year.
The most recent period of tensions between the two countries began in 2013, when the then Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, publicly protested the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi and accused the then Egyptian minister of defense, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, of leading a coup d'état against the Muslim Brotherhood leader. The subsequent exchange of outrageous media statements resulted in the withdrawal of ambassadors, marking the beginning of a 10-year-long diplomatic boycott.
From 2013 to 2021, the conflict was magnified by the two leaders’ divergent ideologies and perspectives on regional issues, most notably the Arab Quartet boycott of Qatar, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and the conflicts over maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.
A key turning point was the meeting between Presidents Erdoğan and Sisi in November 2022 in Doha, thanks to Qatar’s “football diplomacy” effort during the FIFA World Cup. The economic pressures of the war in Ukraine (and the resulting impact on energy and food prices), the growing trend of regional de-escalation and reconciliation, and foreign policy overreach are all factors that likely helped to pave the way for the meeting. In May 2023, with the conclusion of Turkey’s general elections, the rapprochement process gained speed, leading to the mutual upgrade of diplomatic missions to the ambassadorial level later that summer.
As officials navigate their way through the process of mending broken ties, it is essential to identify practical steps to capitalize on this diplomatic breakthrough. Sustainable peace can only be ensured by shifting the focus from political ideology to shared interests. One way to do that is by creating an inclusive, multi-track process that involves state institutions, businesses, non-governmental organizations, academics, and the grassroots.
Expanding economic collaboration
As Turkey and Egypt are both suffering from severe economic crises, expanding economic cooperation is a clear priority. On a positive note, despite the diplomatic impasse, the volume of trade between the two countries has been steadily growing, recording an unprecedented increase of 32.6% from $3 billion in 2021 to $4 billion in 2022, according to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and climate change have created a sense of urgency and an opportunity for collaboration in the area of food security, given that both Turkey and Egypt are major suppliers of agricultural products to Europe and the Middle East. These factors have also accentuated the importance of investing in renewable energy, a sector where Egypt has shown notable progress by establishing the Benban Solar Park, among other developments. Both Turkish and Egyptian companies are undergoing sustainability transformation processes to meet their climate goals and to integrate with European markets in line with the EU Green Deal. This offers additional opportunities for collaboration between the two countries in areas like making use of EU grants, establishing business-to-business forums, and training the agricultural sector on climate change adaptation, especially on agroecology and sustainable production methods.
The textile industry is another important area for bilateral cooperation, since the four largest textile factories in Egypt are Turkish. Many Turkish companies prefer Egypt as a production base as it enables them to benefit from the Qualifying Industrial Zones protocol between Egypt and the United States.
Tourism, which had always been an area of competition between the two Mediterranean countries, has now turned into an area of cooperation. The influx of Turkish tourists into Egypt after Cairo eased visa regulations in April 2023 is compensating for the absence of Russian and Ukrainian visitors. “Turkish tourism professionals working in Sharm el-Sheikh confirm that the number of Turkish tourists has increased by at least 5 times compared to last year ,” Salih Multu Sen, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt, stated, pointing to the fact that they can now secure a visa on arrival. “Tourism from Egypt to Turkey had already broken records last year. In the medium term, that is, within 5 years, it is quite possible that the number of Egyptian tourists visiting Turkey will reach 1 million people,” he added. Cooperation on sustainable tourism projects with the inclusion of locals to empower disadvantaged groups, such as women, could also be socially and economically profitable for both countries.
Exploring areas for regional cooperation
Another way of shifting the focus to shared interests is by exploring opportunities to enhance regional ties through strategic collaboration with the Gulf states and Israel. For instance, the coordination between Turkey and Egypt on facilitating intra-Palestinian talks and the alleged potential to initiate talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are positive developments. Ankara and Cairo could build on this by playing a role in the development of the Gaza Marine offshore gas field and trying to resolve the ongoing dispute with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
In Libya, Turkey and Egypt could cooperate on ensuring security and stability given the leverage they have over the warring parties. Both countries agree on the importance of restarting the political process and supporting democratic elections. Italy's recent initiative to open an economic corridor with Libya could present an opportunity for a trilateral collaboration mechanism between Egypt, Turkey, and Italy to support Libya’s integrity and reconstruction while addressing regional migration and economic concerns.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt could adopt a policy similar to that of Israel that allows it to maintain its agreements with Greece and Cyprus while exploring opportunities for maritime cooperation with Turkey. Since admitting Turkey to the East Mediterranean Gas Forum seems unattainable in the near future, Cairo and Ankara could explore other means to pursue energy cooperation, including private sector investments in infrastructure and renewable energy projects.
The two neighbors have already been capitalizing on their geographic proximity by shipping liquefied natural gas from Egypt to Turkey for local consumption and transportation to Europe. Egypt, Israel, and Turkey could explore the idea of creating a geo-economic triangle, perhaps involving some Gulf countries as well, to attract investment from an energy-deprived Europe.
Enhancing security ties
There is also great potential for Turkey and Egypt to collaborate in the defense sector through technology transfer, skill-sharing, and intelligence-sharing. Organizing joint research initiatives on military technology and joint military exercises would increase interoperability between their armed forces. Egypt would benefit greatly from Turkey’s experience as a member of NATO, while Turkey would benefit from Egypt’s refurbished naval capabilities and military bases.
Engaging the public
As the examples of Syria and Colombia make clear, peace cannot be attained without effectively engaging the grassroots. The official rapprochement process between Egypt and Turkey needs to be supplemented by efforts to boost people-to-people interactions via cultural and religious events, academic and civil society exchange programs, and joint forums to foster a broader sense of ownership. The process should be marketed to the public to build support through media campaigns, public statements, and the involvement of influential public figures.
Egypt and Turkey are on the threshold of a new period in their long and complex relationship. The success of the rapprochement process is paramount since it would be to the benefit of the broader region as well as the peoples of both countries. Focusing on future projects to enhance bilateral and regional well-being can help to ensure the sustainability of the reconciliation process. Creating a space to jointly pursue common sense solutions to shared challenges would go a long way toward rebuilding trust between Turkey and Egypt and helping them to navigate the often choppy waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
Dr. Pınar Akpınar is an Assistant Professor with the Gulf Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at Qatar University. Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian award-winning writer and Director of the MEEM Center for Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean Studies. Both are members of Diplomeds - The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.
Photo by Osmancan Gurdogan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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