Turkey’s fractured relations with Egypt unlikely to improve, whoever is in power

Bilateral relations between Turkey and Egypt will probably remain fractured because geopolitical faultlines across the Mediterranean are deepening, said Nicholas Danforth, a non-resident research fellow for the Athens-based Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

“Turkey’s national security and foreign policy goals are now incorporated into a much larger dynamic,” Danforth told Ahval Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar in a podcast.

Danforth, based in Washington D.C., spoke with Baydar on a report he wrote for ELIAMEP published last week entitled 'A Mediterranean Duel: Erdogan, Sisi and the Fate of Egyptian-Turkish Relations'. 

Egypt and Turkey have become estranged since a military coup in Egypt in 2013 brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power and he began a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, frequently condemned Sisi as a dictator and became a safe haven for Egyptian exiles opposed to the government in Cairo.

Danforth said that the political conflict between Erdoğan and Sisi is simultaneously “personal and ideological”.

The roots of their animosity began with the 2011 Arab Spring. Turkey was very supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohammed Morsi that replaced President Hosni Mubarak.

After Sisi took power, Erdoğan became particularly resentful of the West’s refusal to condemn his actions. That animosity deepened after Western political leaders spoke out in support of the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey that coincided with the Egyptian coup. Erdoğan’s anger at the West reached new heights after a coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 drew meek condemnation, feeding into the idea that the United States and Europe wanted to see him fall as Morsi had three years earlier.

Danforth described this combination of Western silence towards Sisi and criticism of Erdoğan as strengthening the latter’s insecurities.

“This very much played into a perception of Western hypocrisy on Erdoğan’s part,” said Danforth. “When you look at the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, this very much contributed to his perception that the Gezi protests and the coup attempt were part of a Western plot against him.” 

Egypt’s diplomatic relations with Turkey deteriorated further after the failed putsch. Sisi backed Turkey’s rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their blockade of Qatar in 2017 and has opposed Turkey’s maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean, signing a contradictory border deal with Greece.

The two countries support opposing sides in the Libya conflict and almost came into direct confrontation last summer when Sisi threatened to intervene militarily should the Turkish army-backed Libyan Government of National Accords (GNA) persist with a counter-offensive in the east of the country, near the Egyptian border.

Egypt has also drawn closer to France and Greece, who have strongly opposed Erdoğan’s policies in Libya and in the eastern Mediterranean.

The dynamics between Turkey, Egypt and other regional powers are now complicated by the arrival of President Joe Biden.

Biden has been critical of both Erdoğan and Sisi for their autocratic behaviour, and his administration has promised to make human rights an important pillar of its agenda. But the United States has more often than not sided against Turkey in regional disputes, and Ankara’s antagonism towards Egypt will win it no favours in Washington, Danforth said.

“One of the problems for U.S-Turkish relations is that for whatever bilateral issues they have, Turkey has, in part because of this conflict with Egypt, has put itself against all of America’s partners and allies in the Middle East,” Danforth said.

U.S. indifference towards Turkey existed during the Trump administration, though was cloaked in part by warm personal relations between President Donald Trump and Erdoğan. Trump also courted Sisi and the United States adopted policies and views that ran counter to Turkish interests in the region. For example, last year Washington lifted an arms embargo on Cyprus and accused Turkey of undermining NATO through its territorial disputes with Greece.

For Turkey, there is some recognition that its political tussles with Egypt and others can only go so far. For months, rumours have circulated that Turkey was interested in repairing ties with Cairo. Last month, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even described the bilateral relationship positively.

However, words will not be enough to overcome deep levels of distrust between Turkey and Egypt. Danforth said their estrangement is likely to persist whoever is in government.

“Even if Sisi & Erdoğan decided to bury the hatchet, even if new governments came to power, it would be difficult to end the dispute,” he said.