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Will Ankara break the ice with Cairo?

n a surprise move, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç recently stated that Turkey needs to break the ice with Egypt

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

In a surprise move, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç recently stated that Turkey needs to break the ice with Egypt; however, added that it should be Cairo which first needs to take a step in order to mend the ties between two heavyweights in the region.

In an interview with a Turkey-based channel, Arınç reiterated Turkey’s position towards the military ouster of Egypt’s first-democratically-elected President Mohammad Mursi in mid-2013 by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, saying that “Ankara doesn’t accept the overthrow of an elected leader and government by a military coup.” However, the most important statement made by the Turkish official was that “Turkey’s stance regarding Egypt may be different in terms of democracy and the country has witnessed a transitional phase; so, in terms of foreign policy, Turkey needs good friendly relations based on mutual understanding, particularly with Egypt.”

Strained relations

The relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained since the military ouster of Mursi, who enjoyed close ties with Turkish leadership during his one-year-presidency. Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a harsh position on the ousting of his ally in Egypt and regarded Sisi’s leadership as unacceptable and illegitimate. The tense relations between Cairo and Ankara led to the expulsion of the ambassadors in the two capitals and the downgrading of the diplomatic relations. Turkey’s conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) enjoyed close relations with the members of Mursi’s moderate Islamist party, the Freedom and Justice Party.

Ankara cannot play a crucial role in the region without Cairo’s support and cannot contribute to stability and peace in the Middle East without having friendly relations with Egypt

Sinem Cengiz

The response from the Egyptian side didn’t take much time. According to news reports released on Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that Turkish policies towards Egypt were based on “ideological thinking” and added that Cairo was waiting for a clear message from the Turkish side to restore the bilateral relations between two countries. The senior diplomat also added that Egypt would always be ready to positively interact with Turkey if Ankara does not intervene to domestic affairs of the Arab country. Given Erdogan’s harsh stance towards Egypt, Arınç’s recent reconciliatory statements over relations and the position of the Turkish foreign Ministry Shoukry says: “We are no longer able to know who exactly speaks for the Turkish position.”

Harsh stance

Ankara’s harsh stance on Egypt will not only alienate Turkey from Egypt but also from the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which threw their support behind President Sisi.

Turkey’s relations with the Gulf countries was further strained after Ankara heated up its rhetoric towards Cairo and the countries supporting it.

Given the importance of relations between Turkey and the Gulf, with which the Turkish government strived to develop political and economic ties over the past decade, Arınç also stated that “Turkey has long-standing and deep historical ties with Gulf states” and added that Ankara’s relations with the Gulf States will be improved sooner rather than later.

Remarks from the Turkish side came after Sisi met with a Qatari envoy recently in an effort to mend the strained ties with the tiny Gulf country, which took a similar stance to Turkey toward the ouster of Mursi.

Arınç has also implicitly stated that Turkey should not be at odds with an important regional player, Egypt, while the international community considers Sisi’s leadership to be “normal.” “Turkey still says it doesn’t accept an elected person’s ouster from the government through a coup as a principle. However, there is also an actual state and the whole world deems this actual state normal,” said Arınç. For his part, Erdogan, on several occasions, slammed the international community over its silence towards the army overthrow of Mursi.

Normalizing relations

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who paid a visit to Turkey recently, called on Turkish officials to take steps to normalize relations between Ankara and Cairo, saying that it was inevitable that relations with Sisi’s leadership would improve.

It would not be wrong to say that the pressure from the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, played a crucial role in Qatar’s announcement of its intention to normalize ties with Egypt. This pressure was also behind Qatar’s decision to expel the exiled leaders of the movement last September – a move which also seemed to annoy Erdogan and his leadership.

It seems like the real politics, or in other words, the risk of further isolation in the region, particularly after the shift in Doha’s position, has forced the Turkish leadership to restore relations with the Egyptian government.

There is nothing wrong in Turkey’s principled position towards the military coup against an elected leader. Also there is nothing wrong if a leader (Erdogan) has sympathy towards a movement (Muslim Brotherhood). However, pursuing an ideologically oriented foreign policy in relations with other countries is something that does not serve the national interests of a country. Unfortunately, this was what happened in as the Turkish government took the crises in Egypt personally and reacted as if it was Turkey’s internal issue.

Needless to say, Ankara cannot play a crucial role in the region without Cairo’s support and cannot contribute to stability and peace in the Middle East without having friendly relations with Egypt, a most influential country in the Arab world. When Middle East politics is discussed, two major powers - Turkey and Egypt - come to mind. The balance of power in this volatile region depends on the relations between these two countries. Throughout history, the Turkey-Egypt alliance acted as a significant determinant in the balance of power in the region and it has become an accepted fact in international relations that the relations between these two regional players have a significant impact on the dynamics in the region.

Therefore, given Egypt’s crucial role and central position in the Middle East, it would be in Turkey’s best interests to acknowledge the reality on the ground and revisit its positions towards regional countries in order to avoid alienation in the region. It seems like in the long term, there will not be any change in Egyptian leadership, therefore, if Turkey wants to strengthen its position in the region, it will need to restore relations with Cairo. Turkey and Egypt should acknowledge the fact that the relations between two countries should be established on the basis of state to state relations rather than government to government relations.

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Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz"

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