Last month, Turkey resumed diplomatic contacts with Egypt, 8 years after an Egyptian uprise toppled Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood president that was close to Ankara. However, last week, on Tuesday, Turkish foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey remains opposed to Egypt declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. This shows that the Egyptian approach towards normalization with Ankara is still cautious. Cairo wants to see Turkey removing its support to Islamist organizations that oppose the current Egyptian government. Ankara, in its turn, is really interested in easing tensions with Egypt - a delegation will visit Cairo in early May and Cavusoglu is supposed to have a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry.
The Turkish authorities in Ankara have been alarmed by Cairo’s increasingly close ties with both Greece and Cyprus and by the emergence of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Moreover, the more recent reconciliation between Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia has further isolated Turkey.
Turkish traditional ties to the Muslim Brotherhood go way back. Cavusoglu stated last week that, in 2013, Turkey viewed the organization as a “political movement” trying to come to power through elections, not a terrorist group. He also said that, in 2013, Turkey saw the overthrow of Morsi as a “coup” and its position back then was not tied to any person or party, but to objective facts.
After the overthrow of Morsi in 2013, the Turkish AKP party (still the ruling party of Turkey today) gave public support to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (today President) claimed at the time this was so because Turkey would stand by "whoever was elected" as a matter of principles. That year, Erdogan was also famously photographed performing the Rabaa sign with his hand, in solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood. The gesture was used by supporters of the brotherhood in Egypt. In November 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador. Ever since, tensions had been escalating, and it peaked in June 2020, when Sisi denounced Turkish military presence in Libya as a threat to Egypt.
In 2018, Assad too accused Erdogan of having “close ties” with the brotherhood. Since the Arab Spring, Turkey has in fact become a kind of regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international network. Istanbul hosted many of their events and meetings. Mekameleen TV (Egyptian opposition channel), for instance, is based in Instanbul. During the demonstrations, Turkish intelligence officer Irshad Hoz was arrested in Egypt and Turkey supported the brotherhood with trained activists and weapons, and also received fugitives. In fact, according to a October 2020 Center for Research and Intercommunication Knowledge special report, Turkey has often counted on Muslim Brotherhood networks as soft and hard power tools that can be mobilized against certain governments to promote Turkish national interests.
Amid such Egyptian-Turkish tensions, however, bilateral economic relations remained solid, including their free trade agreement and that is why these relations have often been described as a “love-hate” relationship. In 2019, Egyptian-Turkish trade volume supposedly reached $5,2 billion. To some extent, this is what drives reconciliation today. The transitional government that took power in Libya last month, supported by both Cairo and Ankara is what makes relaxing tensions possible right now.
Turkish-Egyptian relations impact on a number of regional issues around the Mediterranean and beyond: both countries have sealed conflicting maritime agreements with other coastal countries.
Last week Cavusoglu said Turkey does not see Libya as an “area of competition” with Egypt. He also said in an interview that his country is willing to sign an agreement with Egypt regarding the issue of maritime boundaries (in the eastern Mediterranean).
Turkey wants to secure a place for itself in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, an initiative launched by Egypt that includes Italy, Palestine, Jordan, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus - and not Turkey. Its aim is to coordinate gas-importing and gas-exporting countries in the region.
With the election of Joe Biden, whose speech is aligned with European denunciations of human rights infringements, tensions with the US pertaining to the Turkish purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system have raised. The recent recognition by Biden of the Armenian genocide is yet another sign that indicates US-Turkish relations are deteriorating. Meanwhile, amid tensions with Russia also over Donbass, Erdogan certainly is more isolated now and in search of new allies. Egypt has recently reconciled with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and all these countries now face pressures from Biden on the topic of human rights. All of this helps to explain Erdogan’s “abandonment” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The challenge is that the two countries have conflicts of interests and different views for the region. Under Erdogan, Turkey seems to aspire to the role of a leader of a broader Islamic world that also includes lands where Turkic ethnicities live (even as minorities), beyond the religious issue. This was visible in the role Turkey played in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Ankara has already pressured anti-Sisi media broadcasting from Ankara to cease attacks against the Egyptian government. Despite the good will gestures coming from Ankara, Cairo’s reaction has been more cautious and cold. In order for Turkey to enhance its ties with Egypt, it will be necessary to further distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
By Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
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