Egypt ready to reconcile with Turkey after polls
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went on two important visits to regional capitals over the last two months: The first was to Riyadh on March 2, while the other was to Tehran on April 7. Between these two visits, a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran broke out in Yemen, with the former - accompanied by around 10 Arab countries - launching a massive operation into its southern neighbor to remove Iran-backed Houthi rebels from power.
Only two days after the beginning of the military operation in Yemen on March 25, Erdoğan openly announced Turkey’s support for it, promising to provide logistical and intelligence assistance and harshly slamming Iran over its efforts to increase its influence in the region through a sectarian drive.
Erdoğan’s visit to Riyadh and his strong anti-Shiite messages created a generally-accepted conclusion that Turkey had joined the Saudi-led Sunni bloc at the expense of its traditional non-sectarian foreign policy. This is why Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran and his messages that Turkey is categorically against sectarian-driven policies in the region were quite significant. What’s more, Turkey’s efforts to initiate a new regional effort for a political solution to the Yemen problem are worth noticing.
It all shows how Erdoğan could demonstrate one of his most dramatic U-turns in less than two weeks. However, contrary to the predictions of some pro-Erdoğan and pro-government analysts and journalists, these recent messages will not be enough to secure a mediatory role for Turkey. It is obvious that the government must do more to reposition itself in the region as a powerbroker.
One of the issues that is believed to be on the government’s immediate agenda is to reconcile with Egypt, the heavyweight of the Middle East and the Arab world.
Last year, two attempts (one in August, the other in late September) to mend ties between Turkey and Egypt were nixed by Erdoğan’s heavy-worded and sometimes insulting statements against the Egyptian leadership. According to diplomatic sources closely following the tension between Ankara and Cairo, the Egyptian side is ready to discuss ways to reconcile with Turkey, but it is aware that this cannot happen before the Turkish elections scheduled on June 7.
The Egyptians believe that Turkey – even President Erdoğan - is also on this page, especially after Erdoğan’s visit to Saudi Arabia on March 2. Sources suggest that Turkey cannot maintain the status quo with Egypt at a moment when it has decided to align itself with Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. At this point, Erdoğan’s abandonment of heavily-worded statements against Sisi and the Egyptian leadership is regarded as a positive development by Cairo.
Answering the questions of reporters travelling with him to Iran last week, Erdoğan put a few conditions before the normalization of relations with Egypt - instead of accusing Sisi of violating universal rights and staging a coup. Among Erdoğan’s conditions are the release of former President Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the retrial of thousands of Brotherhood sympathizers. This can be seen as a change in Erdoğan’s approach, as he has started to talk about the conditions for building ties.
But it is no doubt that Egypt will also have some conditions they it has already made public: Prohibiting Brotherhood television channels operating from Turkey and arresting some of the Brotherhood’s former high-level officials who fled to Turkey after Sisi took power. Of course, another condition would be for Erdoğan to not repeat his strong words against the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, which is regarded as a “red line” for Egypt.
Ro-Ro not important to Turkey?
One of the issues that Turkish attention has recently been focused on is the termination of the Ro-Ro transportation agreement signed by Turkey and Egypt in 2013.
A common understanding is that this termination was a kind of “revenge” taken by Sisi against Turkish interests. However, one of the points that should be kept in mind is that the Ro-Ro agreement was signed before Morsi came to power. Just like the Free Trade Agreement between Turkey and Egypt, this Ro-Ro agreement was made between Erdoğan’s governments and Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian leader who was ousted from his seat by the Egyptian people in the early stages of the Arab Spring.
The economic results of the two-year implementation of the agreement have led the Egyptian government to decide not to expand its mandate, according to sources, who said the entire revenue from transit fees that Egypt gained was only $13 million, whereas this amount could be multiplied if the Suez Canal was being used. Furthermore, this Ro-Ro agreement was hoped to be turned into a broader transportation agreement between the two countries, but this could never be achieved due to the chilly political climate.
Under these conditions, Egypt notified Turkey on Oct. 23, 2014 that it had decided not to expand the mandate of the Ro-Ro agreement. A week later Turkey responded, stating that “this agreement was not important to Turkish economy.”
Despite political tension and the ending of the Ro-Ro agreement, Turkish exports to the Egyptian market have continued to increase, signaling that there is still potential for further boosting economic relations in the event of reconciling diplomatic ties. But the Middle East will have to wait until after the upcoming elections to better see whether Turkey’s next government will undergo a drastic foreign policy change in the region.