Egypt remains skeptical of new Turkish-Saudi rapprochement
Well-informed Egyptian sources revealed that the close relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not prevent “each country from keeping a margin of independence to move as it sees fit at the level of the region.”
Thus, two days ago, Riyadh showed an apparent flexibility towards Turkey, while Cairo has not yet taken any specific step towards Ankara to indicate a reaction to the many political messages sent by senior Turkish officials.
The sources told The Arab Weekly that “the Egyptian leadership likes to proceed slowly and cautiously and not take the initiative in this kind of complex crisis, especially when the components of the crisis are unstable and controlled by different parties. It prefers to bet on the time factor, which can create a reality with ill-suited colours.”
The sources indicated that “Egypt understands the motives for the change in the Saudi position” towards Ankara, given Riyadh’s assessments that a positive development will not harm its interests and goals at this delicate stage. The problem, according to the sources is that the Turkish leadership “is not sincere and will never have completely clear intentions. They kept the file of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination open intentionally so that they can use it for political gains at any moment.”
The sources said that Egypt and Saudi Arabia had in the past different readings of what was happening in both Syria and Yemen, not to mention Iran, and yet their relations were not affected at any stage because of their shared understandings on the broad outlines that maintain their alliance.
Cairo and Riyadh intersect with Ankara in the files of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. The first file is rather a major problem, and Riyadh seems to be willing to overlook a good chunk of the obstacles in that file if the current US administration is determined to find an appropriate settlement for the crisis and not leave it to the watch of the new administration.
Cairo, however, has a different angle on the dilemma with Qatar, in that this dilemma is intertwined with the second file, namely Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. From an Egyptian perspective, the crisis with Qatar cannot be defused without reaching a deal that includes the Brotherhood file in which Ankara and Doha have similar views.
The issue becomes even more difficult in light of the fact that Turkey is dealing with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey as a project for an Egyptian “government in exile” waiting for the opportunity to return home and resume pursuing their initial goals. This in turn represents a covert questioning of the legitimacy of the current Egyptian regime, and justifies embracing the Egyptian Brotherhood, despite all of its failures.
The sources said that Cairo is waiting for what will emerge from the recent phone conversation between the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Senior Saudi officials have already announced that “there was no problem with Turkey,” and there is persistent talk about a dialogue already in motion between the two countries.
The countries boycotting Qatar consider Egypt to be the major counterweight to Turkey’s support for Doha, since Cairo, with its human and political weight, will always be an obstacle to any Turkish expansion in the region.
Turkey, however, has invested heavily economically, politically and in the media on its project, presenting it as a plan for radical change. This in turn means that the depth of the crisis between the two countries is beyond the stage of being resolved by a couple of reconciliation sessions.
Egyptian political sources ruled out that Qatar would back down from its support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its efforts to restore their rule in Egypt, even if Turkey was able to change some of its stances towards Egypt.
The sources indicated in a statement to The Arab Weekly that Cairo had drawn a red line for Ankara in Libya, which has held up until now, while Turkey has placed a similar line in the trenches of its Muslim Brotherhood project, and it is still holding as well. What Cairo is doing is waiting to see how far can this line hold up in the midst of a remarkable ebb and flow of the situation.
The sporadic messages recently sent by Ankara to Cairo did not explicitly address the fate of the exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and focused on hints related to the eastern Mediterranean and Libya issues, in which Cairo had already taken steps to keep Turkey at bay and resist its provocations by forming a regional and international safety net, in which any change needs great coordination efforts with different parties.
Observers say that the card of the Brotherhood is important for both Turkey and Egypt, and none of them will neglect it, except under certain pressures or tempting gains. The Turkish regime believes that sacrificing the Egyptian Brotherhood will cost it dearly, since it espouses the same ideology and approach to power as the Brotherhood, and giving all of that up is a heavy price to pay, unless, of course, the alternative offer is much more generous.
Cairo is not interested in settling the Brotherhood file with Ankara, because it is a card that gives it a broad space for continuing on the path of its hard-line policy towards the Islamist current funded by Turkey and Qatar, and any reconciliation with Ankara would implicitly lead to an easing up of this tough policy.
Observers do not rule out a sudden change in Egyptian calculations regarding the Brotherhood file due to the arrival of Democratic President Joe Biden to the White House, and thus the probability of reaching an understanding with Turkey regarding this file in the near future becomes rather strong, because doing so may rid both Cairo and Ankara of one of the bothersome tools of political pressure on each party in the coming period.
They add that the dilemma and the solution at the same time lie in the fact that some Western countries may decide to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, in light of the recent bloody terrorist attacks that occurred in France and Austria. Egypt may find in this development the perfect opportunity to go on undermining the group, and Turkey will be forced to increase the distance between it and Egypt so as to exclude trading off the Islamist current.
Cairo-based Turkish researcher, Mohamed Obaidallah, said that Erdogan is preparing to make an about-turn towards the West to ease off his tense relationship with it. He, Erdogan, fears the scenario where the anti-Erdogan campaign in Europe intensifies to such an extent that Joe Biden will jump on its bandwagon with enthusiasm. The Turkish president had already received warnings about the consequences of continuing his transgressions, and even might face now sanctions for his previous blackmailing.
In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Obaidullah considered that such a turnabout could give Cairo a good opportunity for further political movement, because it means that Erdogan will not be as willing as before to exercise his passion for creating pressure on some countries by his involvement in crises and hot spots here and there, including Libya, which would represent a great threat to the Egyptian national security.
The Egyptian government tends not to abandon its wait-and-see policy in dealing with developments in the region, before choosing the best path to follow, usually the one with least risks and damages, especially as the Middle East will soon come under the scrutiny of a new administration at the White House.
Egyptian sources who spoke to The Arab Weekly did not expect a change to occur in Cairo’s current position, regardless of the extent to which the Saudi open talks with Turkey could reach. Egypt’s battle with Ankara began years before Riyadh’s, and the escalation processes went on in separate episodes, related to each country’s calculations.
So, if the central knot in Egypt’s crisis with Turkey lies in the latter’s embrace of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and supporting extremists, then it will also be the key to resolving the crisis or perpetuating it.
The article was first published in the Arab Weekly and reprinted with permission.