Our Chairperson, Dalia Ziada, had an interview with Harici News in Turkey to discuss the future of Egypt-Turkey relationship after the victory of the Turkish President Erdogan with the presidential election in late May.
The foreign policy priorities of Turkey, after the presidential elections, can be divided into two categories: to find a position in new Asian initiatives while lowering tensions with the West. The primary factors promoting Turkey’s normalization with its neighbors and Middle Eastern nations are the economic challenges that require this foreign policy direction.
In the normalization train of the Arab states, who assessed the damage after the Arab Spring, Turkey believes there is a wagon set out for it. Following the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, a final settlement in Syria will take up a sizable portion of Ankara’s post-election foreign policy agenda.
On the other side, relations with Egypt have a greater impact, the contacts between Ankara and Cairo are extensive, encompassing Turkey’s contacts with the West in the context of the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
In this context, we interviewed Dalia Ziada, Director of the Center for Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean Studies regarding how Egyptians considered about the Turkish election process.
Egyptian President congratulated President Erdogan. What can that say about a new era which has begun between the two countries?
The Egyptian and Turkish presidents’ phone call in the wake of the elections is an important indication of the sincere intentions of the top policymakers in both countries to start a new page in their relationship. Honestly speaking, there are some giant differences between the perception of each of the two presidents on crucial regional and domestic policies. That includes for example the situation in Libya, the complex maritime conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Islamists’ right for political participation. However, we are seeing an unprecedented determination by both sides to get over these differences and focus on the common ground of economic and geopolitical cooperation.
Ironically, many observers had expressed their pessimism about the potential of the rapprochement process between Turkey and Egypt to succeed as long as the two heads of state, El-Sisi and Erdogan, remained in power. Yet, in December 2022, the two heads of state met in Doha, warmly saluted each other, and then spent 45 minutes talking about the next steps they should take to overcome the obstacles that kept their countries separated for too long. The friendly encounter between the Turkish and the Egyptian presidents cannot be seen as a standard act of courtesy that happened out of sheer coincidence. It was the climax of a year of backstage arrangements by dedicated diplomatic missions and concerned civil society organizations in both countries.
Since then, the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministers have been exchanging visits and making public promises about implementing the reconciliation process as soon as the general elections in Turkey are completed. As the election in Turkey has been completed successfully, this week, the two countries need to continue working on completing the reconciliation process for their mutual benefit and the entire region’s benefit.
Mending broken ties between Turkey and Egypt is not only beneficial for the political well-being of the two states. It is equally important for the personal image enhancement of each of the two presidents before their peoples and also before observers from the international community. Egypt is having a presidential election in less than a year. Improving his relationship with President Erdogan will dramatically increase President El-Sisi’s support among the huge Islamist-biased voter base.
How the Turkish elections resonated in Egypt. What are the prominent evaluations in the Egyptian press?
In general, the Egyptian people are so impressed and inspired by the democratic process in Turkey and the political maturity of the Turkish people who massively participated in the voting at the parliamentary elections and the two rounds of the presidential elections. We wish – we dream – to see a similar democratic process in the coming presidential election which is expected to happen in mid-2024. In other words, the successful democratic practice in Turkey has set the bar high for election processes in Middle East countries, in general, in countries where people are yearning for democratization, such as Egypt and most North Africa countries, in particular.
On another level, the street reaction to President Erdogan’s victory varies greatly from one citizen group to the other. The majority of the Egyptian grassroots citizens, who are mainly characterized by their religious piety, are so excited. They are celebrating President Erdogan’s victory, as they perceive it as a victory of a Muslim idol over the opposition party leaders who exhibited hatred towards Muslims and Arabs.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian intellectual elite, who are mostly secular, are expectedly not so happy with President Erdogan’s victory. Some of them warned that he will encourage the political Islamist groups – such as the Muslim Brotherhood – to seek political competition in Egypt once again and renew the state of political instability in the country. But, in my opinion, that is a little too exaggerated, especially in light of improved ties between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents in the past few months.
On the political stage, most members of the government, political parties, and media agree that it is time for Egypt to reconcile with Turkey and with its elected president. “The past should remain in the past;” they say. That is a healthy attitude, I think, because it will pave the way for a lot of mutual benefits for Egypt and Turkey in the future, and will also be beneficial to the regions of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
How do you consider the normalization process between the two countries to proceed after the election? Which steps could be taken initially?
In their first phone call after the successful completion of the Turkish presidential elections, presidents Erdogan and El-Sisi agreed to immediately proceed with their reconciliation process by elevating their diplomatic ties to the ambassadorial level. That is a very significant first step for two reasons:
First, it fixes the rift that had been broken between the two states in 2013 and had kept the two countries estranged for ten years. The ambassadors were the first scapegoats to be slaughtered during the dramatic breakup between Egypt and Turkey, then. Each of the two countries immediately declared their mutual ambassadors as persona non grata. Therefore, the return of the ambassadors today is like an official declaration of the end of the decade-long conflict and the beginning of the negotiations phase.
Second, upgrading the diplomatic missions to ambassadorial levels is so crucial to accelerate and facilitate the discussions on critical bilateral and regional issues that represent a conflict of interest between the two states. Right now, the mutual diplomatic missions in both countries are limited in size and scope to the level of chargés d’affaires. Therefore, most negotiations between the two countries had to happen through security channels and intelligence bureaus more often than they happened between diplomatic missions. This caused the reconciliation process to go very slowly in 2021.
The rapprochement process only started to leap when the Turkish ambassador, Salih Mutlu Şen, got hired as charges d’affaires in Cairo, in the second half of 2022. He exerted a tremendous effort to wake the embassy from the dead by directly engaging with ordinary citizens in the Egyptian streets and reaching out to media personnel, civil society organizations, and political groups. That paved the way for a successful meeting between the two presidents, El-Sisi and Erdogan, in November 2022 in Doha. After the presidential meeting, the reconciliation process took a whole new turn.
Therefore, I believe that raising the diplomatic representation to the ambassadorial level will allow diplomatic channels to take the lead in the negotiation process, thus accelerating the rapprochement process and improving the quality of the outcomes of future negotiations.
However, that is not enough. There must be direct and personal talks between presidents Erdogan and El-Sisi, at the nearest time possible. It is not a secret that the two leaders adopt divergent – if not contradicting – political ideologies. For example, El-Sisi’s political image is mostly built upon his role in removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013. In contrast, Erdogan’s legacy is entirely based on his image as a successful Muslim leader, coming from a political Islamist party, in a secular democratic system of governance. How the two presidents are going to compromise their ideological differences is so important for the success of the reconciliation process between Egypt and Turkey and for ensuring its sustainability in the long term. Such a compromise can only happen through direct face-to-face and heart-to-heart conversations between the two presidents over the coming weeks or months.
In parallel to that, the senior policymakers and government officials from Egypt and Turkey should engage in lengthy discussions about enhancing their areas of cooperation and limiting their areas of conflict. For example, Egypt and Turkey already have a successful record of economic cooperation that can be further improved. In the meantime, there are a lot of areas of potential cooperation between our two militaries, building upon the history of cooperation in the defense industry sector between the two countries. They will also need to discuss their conflicting foreign policies in the Levant region, and the Eastern Mediterranean region, keeping into consideration the concerns and the interests of other key players in these regions, such as Libya, Syria, Greece, and Israel.