Turkey and Egypt: Regional Geopolitics and Implications on US Policies

Turkey and Egypt: Regional Geopolitics and Implications on US Policies

Is Turkey’s rapprochement with Egypt a sign of reset in regional geopolitics? 

THO Nonresident Fellow, S. Suha Cubukcuoglu

In May 2021, a delegation from the Turkish Foreign Ministry led by the deputy minister Sedat Önal visited Cairo to re-start diplomatic talks and “normalize” relations with Egypt after an eight-year freeze. Notwithstanding prior contacts between respective intelligence agencies, this was the first face-to-face meeting between ministry officials since the break-up of bilateral ties in the aftermath of the coup in 2013. The visit came at a critical time as Turkey’s fractious relations with the US have come under the spotlight and Ankara seeks to make diplomatic gestures to overcome its regional isolation. After years of personal feud between the Turkish president Erdoğan and his counterpart Es-Sisi about Islamic political currents in Egypt, it appears that perceptions of interests and rational re-assessment of geopolitical risks on both sides have prevailed over ideational influences in foreign relations. Earlier signs of the rapprochement came in 2020 when Turkey lifted its veto over Egypt to progress its partnership with NATO as part of the Mediterranean Dialogue, which includes Israel and Jordan among other nations. Turkey has deep cultural, historic, and religious ties with Egypt that are heightened in importance since the Arab Spring uprisings and the discovery of offshore hydrocarbons in 2011 amid shifting geopolitical sands. Also, the Covid-19-induced economic recession in Turkey necessitated closer cooperation with its largest trade partner in Africa in order to break silos under a new regional umbrella and find areas for cooperation in energy, defense, and tourism. 

Egypt is an important player in the Middle East with an influential position in the Arab world. Situated on a critical trade route between the Indo-Pacific region and Europe, it has a largely young population, lucrative domestic market, and a strong army. The Suez Canal crisis in 2021 is a testament to the pivotal role of Egypt as home to a major maritime choke point for geopolitics and globalization. After the Camp David Accords in 1978, it became the first Arab country to recognize Israel and, since then, played an active role as a mediator in the Palestinian issue and provided the only gateway to Gaza at the Rafah crossing point. The short-lived democracy experiment between 2012 and 2013 with the elected president Mohamed Morsi ended in a military takeover. In fact, general Sisi’s coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party in 2013 was the turning point of popular Arab revolts. The event attracted severe criticism from Erdoğan and culminated in the withdrawal of ambassadors from both capitals, which also led to degradation of Turkey’s ties with Gulf Arab states, most notably the UAE, that backed the coup. From 2016 onwards, the fugitive terrorist FETÖ’s affiliates began to take refuge in Cairo, Athens, and Nicosia to make common cause with Israel and the UAE and form a united front against Turkey in the region. 

In this context, deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the Middle East aggravated its regional isolation. Although the US brokered a reconciliation agreement between Israel and Turkey in 2016, that is six years after the Gaza Flotilla (Mavi Marmara) incident, ties broke down again in 2018 after the US President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) founded in 2019 by Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Greek Cyprus, and supported by the US, has its headquarters in Cairo. Initially, the forum aimed to unite littoral states in the region, except Turkey, around a common goal to prepare, coordinate, interact, and develop common positions in energy security, but it gradually evolved into a security pact. Similar to the Quad of Indo-Pacific maritime security cooperation against China, the EMGF aims to tamp down on Turkey’s activism in the Mediterranean [1]. Since accession to the forum requires unanimity of all members, Turkey is unable to join there without a breakthrough in the Cyprus problem, which remains as the main hindrance factor to regional cooperation. There are critics who argue that it was a “huge mistake” to leave Turkey out of the club [2] and that the “EMGF cannot be a productive regional forum without Turkey” [3]. Nevertheless, ongoing geopolitical friction between Turkey, Greece, and Greek Cyprus continues to cast a shadow over rapprochement with Egypt, especially in negotiations over delimitation of maritime zones and equitable share of energy finds (see the Figure). Abrahamic Accords between Israel, UAE, and Bahrain also positioned Israel side by side with Egypt as the two pivot counties pushing regional efforts to construct new avenues for cooperation. 

Egypt is keen to emerge as a regional energy hub: It has over 7 trillion m3 proven gas reserves and low-cost liquefaction plants in Idku and Damietta, suitable to export Egyptian, Cypriot, and Israeli gas to world markets. This all looks good on paper; however, not only the economic slowdown since 2020 hit oil companies hard but also the EU pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 55% in 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which means there is no demand for the East Med gas in Europe [4]. So, Egypt’s proposed role as a gas export hub is questionable. Still, Egypt is one of the early movers in the offshore energy field and has significant leeway as a market leader in regional gas production. It is self-sufficient in terms of meeting its requirements for domestic consumption. Leading to this, Cairo signed an EEZ delimitation agreement with Greek Cyprus in 2003, just a year before the de facto divided island joined the EU, and with Greece in 2020, leaving only the “middle section” to be demarcated with Turkey. There were two key points that received Turkey’s attention here: First, Egypt did not extend the EEZ boundary with Greece to disputed waters around the tiny island of Kastellorizo, and second, Egypt’s announcement of a bidding round for gas exploration in Block 18 in the Mediterranean respected Turkey’s proposed EEZ (see the Figure). Ankara perceived these as “signals” from Egypt considering Turkish interests and henceforth decided to extend an olive branch to Cairo in February 2021. 

It is important to mention that Egypt seems to start from a stronger position in negotiations with Turkey. For Ankara, the key is to open a wedge between the Greek/Greek Cypriot and Egyptian positions and break the sense of encirclement around Mediterranean maritime disputes. The main issue for Egypt is the precarious situation in Libya. Just as Syria is a critical neighbor in Turkey’s soft underbelly, stability in Libya is crucial for Egypt’s security. Turkish Foreign Minister H.E. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Libya and Saudi Arabia are important in this regard and aim to reassure the Sisi government that Ankara is ready to hold a tripartite summit with Tripoli and Cairo to jointly tackle the most contentious issues in Libya. The two sticking points in discussions are the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya under GNA’s control and the presence of Egyptian opposition members in Turkey. If both countries can reconcile on a common set of principles for further exploratory talks, this would also align with the US president Biden’s liberal international approach to the Middle East, which is based on the rule of law in dispute resolution. This is in contrast to the Trump-era approach in 2017, which was based on power politics under Saudi Arabian leadership to contain Iran and secure Israel. The latter is still the main priority for the US in the Middle East but Iran’s come-back to the stage with the revival of the JCPOA and direct talks between Iranian-Saudi delegations soothe tensions in the Gulf and shift the attention to the East Med as the next hot spot in the regional order. In this regard, Turkey and Egypt are two crucial actors that can alter the balance of power. This is where NATO should play an active role to monitor regional threats and coordinate bilateral efforts at the tactical level to de-escalate tensions around Libya and the East Med [5]. A reset in regional geopolitics is unlikely at this stage and bilateral talks may anyhow take time to conclude but at the least there is now will on both sides to find common ground and create mutually acceptable conditions for a lasting settlement.

Figure: Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Claims

Source: TRT World, 2020


[1] Babones, Salvatore. 2021. “Friday’s Quad Summit Needs to Address Indo-Pacific Maritime Security | Foreign Policy.” March 10, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/10/quad-summit-biden-alliance-china-military-security-defense-indo-pacific-india-japan-australia-united-states/

[2] Surkes, Sue. 2020. “Mistake to Leave Turkey out of New East Med Gas Club.” Times of Israel, September 27, 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/mistake-to-leave-turkey-out-of-new-east-med-gas-club-international-expert/.

[3] Ladislaw, Sarah, and Nikos Tsafos. 2019. “Energy Spheres of Influence.” September 13, 2019. https://www.csis.org/analysis/energy-spheres-influence

[4] Ellinas, Dr Charles. 2021. “Egypt Gas Sector Forging Ahead | Cyprus Mail.” Https://Cyprus-Mail.Com/ (blog). January 31, 2021. https://cyprus-mail.com/2021/01/31/egypt-gas-sector-forging-ahead/

[5] 17th NATO Mediterranean Dialogue Intelligence Experts’ meeting. 2019. “Mediterranean Dialogue”. November 27, 2019. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_171499.htm.