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Ivan Bocharov

Referent at the Russian International Affairs Council

The Arab Republic of Egypt and the Republic of Turkey are the largest states in the Middle East and claim the leading role in the Islamic world. Relations between them soured in 2013 when a group of officers led by Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, loyal friend and ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The group later went on to form a strategic partnership with Ankara and Doha. After the overthrow of Mursi, Erdogan stated that al-Sisi overthrew the president of Egypt, elected by the people, during an armed coup. Turkey has offered refuge and protection to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and has launched a media campaign against the new government of Egypt. In response, Egypt gave the Turkish ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.

Since then, full-fledged diplomatic relations between the states are yet to be restored and currently exist at the level of chargé d'affaires. Turkey accuses the Egyptian leadership of establishing a totalitarian regime in Egypt, while Egypt blames Turkey for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organization. In addition, the two have vastly different approaches to solving problems in Sudan, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya.

Even though Turkey and Egypt are members of the international organization D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation (Developing-8) and remain important trading partners, the crisis in relations between them is a systemic one, and the economic factor does not play a key role in the interaction of the two countries. The contradictions associated with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey remain relevant. The rhetoric of the Turkish leadership has not changed: Erdogan condemns the head of the Egyptian state for death sentences against the internal political opponents of al-Sisi. The Turkish President claims that he will never speak to “someone like al-Sisi.” Taking into account the fact that over the past few years the dialogue between the heads of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Republic of Turkey has not been established, it can be assumed that an early normalization of relations between the countries is not possible. On the contrary, the crisis in relations between the two countries may become even deeper. The confrontation between Turkey and Egypt is aggravated by the personal enmity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At this stage, only a common threat or personnel renewal of the top leadership of one of the countries can reconcile Cairo and Ankara.

The Arab Republic of Egypt and the Republic of Turkey are the largest states in the Middle East and claim the leading role in the Islamic world. Relations between them soured in 2013 when a group of officers led by Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, loyal friend and ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The group later went on to form a strategic partnership with Ankara and Doha. After the overthrow of Mursi, Erdogan stated that al-Sisi overthrew the president of Egypt, elected by the people, during an armed coup. Turkey has offered refuge and protection to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and has launched a media campaign against the new government of Egypt. In response, Egypt gave the Turkish ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.

Since then, full-fledged diplomatic relations between the states are yet to be restored and currently exist at the level of chargé d'affaires. Turkey accuses the Egyptian leadership of establishing a totalitarian regime in Egypt, while Egypt blames Turkey for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist organization. In addition, the two have vastly different approaches to solving problems in Sudan, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and Libya.

A Military Coup in Sudan

On April 11, 2019, President of the Republic of Sudan Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a military coup. He was charged by the International Criminal Court with several war crimes, including the Darfur genocide, so the head of Sudan could safely visit only a few countries. One such country was Turkey, with which Khartoum developed considerably friendly relations. In December 2017, Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Sudan. During negotiations between the heads of the Turkish and Sudanese states, an agreement on transferring the Suakin Island to Turkey for a 99-year lease was reached. This news caused a stir amongst the Egyptian public.

In 1517-1865, Suakin belonged to the Ottoman Empire and was the country's main port in the Red Sea. The island has a strategically important geographical position as it is located close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the case of establishing a military presence on it, Turkey could have an additional impact on Cairo and Riyadh. Given that Turkey has deployed a limited contingent of troops in Somalia and Qatar, Egyptian politicians and media representatives suggested that a base could be built on Suakin. However, Erdogan said that Turkey would not go forward with the idea.

Besides, Turkey has actively developed trade and economic cooperation with Sudan. After the meeting of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Omar al-Bashir in 2017, Turkish construction companies participated in the implementation of hundreds of projects in Sudan.

After the military coup in April 2019, Turkey's influence in Sudan has declined. Cairo, in turn, welcomed the overthrow of al-Bashir. Almost immediately after the events of April 11, Egypt began to build a dialogue with the new Sudanese leadership in order to intensify cooperation in the security sphere. Now Egypt is trying to work out a common stance with Sudan on the exploitation of the Nile.

Confrontation between Egypt and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean

In January 2019, the energy ministers of Italy, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Palestine met in Cairo to form the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in the Egyptian capital. The participating countries agreed on mutual respect of interests in the field of mining following the principles of international law, and also decided to support each other's efforts in ensuring energy needs. Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tariq al-Mulla said that any country in the Eastern Mediterranean could join the forum if it agrees with the conditions approved by the founding countries. Among these conditions is the strengthening of cooperation through the creation of a systematic dialogue and the development of a common regional policy in the field of natural gas production. The parties agreed to jointly solve the issues of ensuring supply and demand for natural gas, maintaining competitive prices, rational use of resources, as well as the construction of appropriate infrastructure.

The ideas of the forum do not accord with interests of Ankara, which claims to extract resources not only in its territorial waters but also in those parts of the Mediterranean Sea that belong to other states, in particular Cyprus. After the meeting in Cairo, Turkish President Erdogan said that "other international actors could not carry out exploration operations in these areas (...) Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey."

Soon thereafter, Turkey began illegal oil and gas drilling in the Mediterranean. In November 2019, an agreement was signed between Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Faiz Saraj, to establish maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is noteworthy that proposals to conclude such an agreement have been received by the Tripoli government since 2018, but the GNA rejected them. After the intensification of hostilities in Libya, the government of Saraj found itself in a situation where it was forced to conclude an appropriate agreement with Ankara. The signing of a memorandum on the establishment of a zone of exclusive economic interests of Turkey has significantly aggravated relations with the countries of the EastMed Gas Forum, including Egypt.

As for the clash of interests between Turkey and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is necessary to mention the confrontation in Syria. Turkish troops and special services support some terrorist groups operating in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR); in particular, provide finance and weapons to the Jabhat al-Nusra movement. Also, the Turkish army is fighting the Syrian Kurds, engaging in military clashes with the government army of Syria. Egypt, on the contrary, explicitly declares its support for the government of Bashar al-Assad, contrary to the traditional position of its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the fall of 2019, Egypt condemned the Turkish military invasion of Syria and called for an emergency meeting of the League of Arab States to establish a common position on the Turkish military campaign in the SAR.

Contradictions between Ankara and Cairo on the Libyan Issue

Grigory Lukyanov, Ruslan Mamedov:
Playing Pick-Up-Sticks in Libya — 2

With the intensification of hostilities in Libya in the spring of 2019, the contradictions on the Libyan issue intensified between Ankara and Cairo. Egypt supports the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey supports the GNA. France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Turkey have repeatedly violated the UN arms embargo. In particular, the Republic of Turkey delivered weapons to the GNA on ships, which, according to the documents, should have been carrying construction materials and children's toys to Libya. In addition to small arms, armoured vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles are being delivered to Libya.

The conflict in Libya now plays a key role in deepening the crisis in relations between Egypt and Turkey. For Turkey, the stability of the GNA positions is vital, since a memorandum was signed on the establishment of a zone of exclusive economic interests of Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. If Haftar captures Tripoli, Turkey will not have a single ally in the Eastern Mediterranean. In these conditions, it will become even more difficult to apply for natural gas production in the territorial waters of other countries. Cairo supports the troops of Haftar. Egypt is interested in an early end to the war, in the establishment of full control on the Libyan-Egyptian border, and the elimination of all Islamist groups operating in Libya, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

In November 2019, a memorandum of military cooperation was signed between Tripoli and Ankara. On January 2, 2020, the Turkish parliament decided to send Turkish troops to Libya to support the government of Saraj. The conclusion of an agreement on military cooperation, as well as the dispatch of a limited contingent of troops, led to a new stage in the internationalization of the conflict and aggravation of the confrontation between the parties at war in Libya, as well as between the countries supporting them. After Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the need to bring Turkish troops into Libya, Haftar met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and asked the President of Egypt for additional military support.

In response to the actions taken by Turkey, Egypt held military exercises involving one of the Mistral helicopter carriers, a submarine, frigates, and military boats, as well as special forces units. Besides that, the Egyptian Air Force participated in the manoeuvres. During the exercise, the interaction of various units of the Egyptian armed forces during air-sea operations was tested. Also, the speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives supporting Haftar, Aguila Saleh Issa, said that the Libyan parliament might ask the Egyptian leadership to send their troops to Libya in the event of foreign military intervention.

The situation has escalated. On January 8, 2020, the heads of the Russian and Turkish states called on the LNA and GNA to establish a ceasefire. Later a meeting of Saraj and Haftar took place in Moscow, then a conference in Berlin. The summit, held in the capital of Germany, was attended by representatives of those states that play an important role in the settlement of the Libyan conflict, including Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, and the UAE. The conference participants agreed to refrain from interfering in the Libyan conflict, to promote its settlement, and to observe the arms embargo.

Despite the agreements reached, the parties failed to comply with their obligations. A large consignment of Turkish heavy military equipment has arrived in Tripoli, including armoured combat vehicle ACV-15, 35mm anti-aircraft guns, and self-propelled howitzers T-155 Firtina. Besides, Turkey was negotiating with the government of Saraj on the construction of a small military base near Tripoli. On this base, it is planned to deploy Turkish special forces and units of the naval forces, as well as create an airstrip and a point of direct communication with the GNA. Some players hoping for victory in the civil war by the troops of H. Haftar have also already managed to violate the arms embargo: this is how the UAV Wing Loong II, which was supporting the LNA units, was destroyed to the east of Misrata. Presumably, it was operated by operators from the UAE.

Trade and Economic cooperation

According to the Arab Barometer [1] , in 2016, only 19% of the surveyed Egyptians supported the strengthening of economic ties with Ankara; the fact that economic interaction should become weaker, said 47% of respondents. For comparison, in 2013, the year of the "June 30 Revolution" and the severance of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Turkey, the development of trade and economic cooperation was supported by 48% of respondents, only 10% of respondents stated the need to weaken the economic ties of Egypt with the Republic of Turkey.

Nevertheless, despite the deepening crisis in relations between Egypt and Turkey on political issues, in recent years, there has been an intensification of trade and economic cooperation between them. In 2018, Egypt and Turkey set a record for the volume of bilateral trade. Thus, the volume of Turkish exports to Egypt reached $3.05 billion, an increase of 29.4% compared to 2017. Egyptian exports to Turkey amounted to $2.19 billion, which is 9.68% more than in 2017.

It can be stated that despite the absence of steps to normalize relations between Cairo and Ankara, economic cooperation is developing. This is for two key reasons. Firstly, Egypt is going through a deep economic crisis. The decline in the level of trade cooperation with Turkey, which ranks third among the countries-importers of Egyptian products, will inevitably hit the Egyptian economy. Secondly, Turkey is actively developing economic cooperation with African countries. So, in the period from 2003 to 2017, the volume of trade between Turkey and the states of the African continent has grown six times and amounted to $17.5 billion. A significant part of cargo transportation is carried out through the Suez Canal, and the interruption of economic ties with Egypt will negatively affect trade not only with Egypt but also with other African countries.

The Republic of Turkey and Egypt are opposed to each other in several areas. Thus, Turkey has developed a multi-level and multi-format partnership with Sudan. Turkish construction companies participated in the implementation of many projects; trade and economic cooperation were actively developing between Ankara and Khartoum. Besides, Turkey has used Sudan as leverage over neighbouring Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Of course, Suakin is a small island, and it is impossible to place large military units on it. Nevertheless, the prospect of construction on Suakin Island naval base could have allowed the Turkish Republic to exert more influence on Cairo and Riyadh. As a result of the overthrow of al-Bashir, the military came to power, and the Islamists lost their former influence. This accords with the interests of Egypt, and now the leaders of the two countries are developing cooperation in the field of national security. On the contrary, the current situation in Sudan creates additional challenges and restrictions for Turkey.

In 2019 and 2020, disagreements between Egypt and Turkey intensified over the distribution of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean. The creation of a new regional energy organization, the EastMed Gas Forum, has shaken Ankara's position in the region. In response, Turkey stepped up illegal geological exploration and signed a memorandum with the Libyan GNA on the establishment of a zone of exclusive economic interests. This measure allowed Turkey to substantiate its claims to the resources of the Mediterranean but led to even greater isolation of the Turkish Republic. With the intensification of hostilities by Turkish troops against the Syrian Kurds and the SAR government army between Cairo and Ankara, disagreements on the Syrian issue intensified.

The confrontation between Turkey and Egypt in Libya is the most dangerous. Here, both sides are defending their national security. Ankara is a formal justification for the extraction of resources in the Mediterranean Sea. Cairo is the security of the western borders. The Berlin conference did not lead to significant progress in resolving the Libyan conflict. Egypt and the Republic of Turkey will continue to, directly and indirectly, support the opposing LNA and GNA. Egypt and Turkey have comparable military capabilities (Table 1), but most likely they will not use it. It is important to take into account the belonging of Ankara and Cairo to military-political alliances. In the event of a hypothetical armed conflict, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may intervene, NATO countries will be obliged to intercede for Turkey. A big war is not beneficial to anyone; therefore, most likely, the parties will continue to confront each other with non-military methods.

Table 1. Source: https://arabic.cnn.com/middle-east/article/2020/01/02/weapons-explainer-turkey-vs-egypt-ranking

Egypt Turkey
Soldiers (thousands) 440 355
Tanks (thousands) 2,16 3,2
Armored vehicles (thousands) 5,735 9,5
Aviation, including: 1 092 1 067
Fighters 211 207
Stormtroopers 340 207
Attack helicopters 46 94
Warships, including: 320 194
Aircraft carriers 2
Corvettes 7
Submarines 4 12
Patrol ships 50 34
Frigates 9 16
Cruisers 10

Even though Turkey and Egypt are members of the international organization D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation (Developing-8) and remain important trading partners, the crisis in relations between them is a systemic one, and the economic factor does not play a key role in the interaction of the two countries. The contradictions associated with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey remain relevant. The rhetoric of the Turkish leadership has not changed: Erdogan condemns the head of the Egyptian state for death sentences against the internal political opponents of al-Sisi. The Turkish President claims that he will never speak to “someone like al-Sisi.” Taking into account the fact that over the past few years the dialogue between the heads of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Republic of Turkey has not been established, it can be assumed that an early normalization of relations between the countries is not possible. On the contrary, the crisis in relations between the two countries may become even deeper. The confrontation between Turkey and Egypt is aggravated by the personal enmity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At this stage, only a common threat or personnel renewal of the top leadership of one of the countries can reconcile Cairo and Ankara.

First published in the collection “IV Международный конкурс студенческих научно-аналитических работ по ближневосточной проблематике им. Е.М. Примакова. 2020. М.: Грин Принт, 2020.”


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