Turkey’s error-ridden, personalised foreign policy with Egypt

Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is continuing to flail about in both domestic and foreign politics. For so long as Erdoğan’s top enemy was Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who has suddenly become the subject of the Turkish president’s affection. Almost daily now do Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announce a fresh renewals of diplomatic relations with Egypt.

Ankara is essentially down on one knee as it pleads to Cairo, but Egypt has remained rather formal and distant in response. Following warm remarks from Turkey at the presidential level, Egypt has responded in more aloof fashion at the foreign ministerial level.

“Upgrading the level of the relationship between the two countries requires taking into consideration the legal and diplomatic frameworks that govern relations between countries on the basis of respecting the principle of sovereignty and the requirements of Arab national security,” a spokesperson from the Egpyt’s foreign ministry said last week. 

 “Egypt expects that any country that needs to establish normal relations with it [Egypt] should abide by the rules of international law and the principles of good neighbour policy and stop attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the countries of the region,” the official added.

The same statement effectively called on Turkey to refrain from interfering in Egypt’s domestic affairs, respect neighbourly relations and finally for Turkey to get out of Libya where the two are on opposite sides. This while ensuring a differentiation was made between Erdoğan’s regime and the people of Turkey.

What was it that isolated Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea while bringing Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece together into a united front? It was Erdoğan’s reduction of foreign policy to the military level and seeking an approach based on power and rights claims as opposed to sitting down at the negotiation table. This resulted in not just regional countries, but all countries and international institutions standing opposite to Ankara. And in the end, Erdoğan had to withdraw the survey ships he boastfully deployed to the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean, leaving the promise of glad tidings involving hydrocarbon resources from the waters to another time.

Nowadays, Erdoğan is seeking to regain the trump card Turkey lost with Greece by turning to Israel and Egypt after uttering a string of insults to the leaders and severing diplomatic ties with both countries. His disdain for Egypt stemmed from Sisi’s hatred for Mohammed Morsi, an ideological fellow traveller of Erdogan’s, and Sisi’s effective halting of Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman dreams through the hurdle he placed ahead of the Ikhwan Empire Erdogan hoped to establish in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

Let us recall the kind of words Erdogan has forgotten but once extended to Sisi. 

Ahead of a 2015 trip to Saudi Arabia, when Erdoğan was asked by a journalist in Istanbul whether his schedule would allow a meeting with the Egyptian president, Hürriyet newspaper cited Erdoğan as saying. "Are you joking? … There is nothing of this sort on our agenda. For such a thing to happen, serious positive steps need to be taken first.’’

In 2019, Erdoğan refused to attend a meeting with the Egyptian president on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. The Turkish president actually walked away from the dinner, where then- U.S. President Donald Trump was present when he saw Sisi at the table, leaving the seat allotted for him vacant. 

Last March, during an award ceremony for Turkey’s International Benevolence Awards, given to Turks and foreigners for their good deeds and inspiring people globally, Erdoğan had said there were world leaders looking to help burry the hatchet between Erdoğan and Sisi.

"I will not sit at the same table or come face-to-face with an anti-democrat, who convicted Morsi, who had the support of 52 percent of the population, and his friends,’’ HaberTürk cited Erdoğan as saying during the programme. 

In June of 2019 Erodğan went on record to call Sisi a tyrant.

“Sisi is a tyrant and not a democrat. He is not someone who stepped into office as the result of a real (process of) democracy,’’ TRT cited Erdoğan as saying as he criticised the Egyptian government’s refusal to hand over the body of Morsi to his family.

Erdoğan went on to say that he would not allow for Morsi’s death to be forgotten, as he would let the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 be erased from minds.

And now Erdoğan is acting as though none of this ever happened. Now it is as if he did not throw insults but act as if there was rather a small disagreement that can be mended and things will come back to normal just because he desires it to be so. It is all as if Sisi will forget these words and all the policies, regaining the trust of Erdoğan and casting aside the finely tuned balance of an alliance it formed in the east Mediterranean, starting with Greece.

Of course countries in conflict can sit at a negotiation table, hold talks and reconcile. But every war has a winner and a loser. Turkey has lost the struggle for power it entered with countries, starting with Egypt, in the eastern Mediterranean and has essentially waved a white flag by ignoring the arguments he uttered against Sisi.

Turkey’s current administrative style is not different from that of Germany, which started the Second World War.  All countries, starting with Egypt, are aware that Erdoğan is looking to gain power and waits on a change in international balances – that he is not seeking a relationship based in negotiations.

The problem is that Ankara’s interlocutors have diagnosed the problem with Turkey and are taking steps accordingly.  Turkey today is a country that must be kept at arms length, but when confronted does a complete U-turn with no promise that it will not do another U-turn in the future on any given issue. This is where the republic of 100 years is at the moment in terms of its foreign policy.