The past seven years have witnessed a major divergence between Turkey and Egypt, two countries that share centuries of long history, mutual culture and a strong bond between their societies. With the latest developments in Libya, this already existing discrepancy between the two derailed, reaching a point of possible confrontation in the field. According to experts, this major disagreement is the result of a pattern that the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi pursues in its regional foreign policy. That is to say, the personal political interests of the Egyptian government overshadow the national interests of Egypt itself, leading the country to ally with regional actors that offer no benefits.
“The el-Sissi regime regards President (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan’s rule as his greatest enemy today,” said Kutub El Araby, former assistant secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Press Council.
“Therefore,” he continued, “he (el-Sissi) is sympathetic toward all Turkey’s opponents in the region and in the world.”
Back in 2013, el-Sissi, who was leading Egypt's military at that time, plotted a coup against then-President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in 2012 and had really close ties with Turkey.
The military crushed the Muslim Brotherhood movement in a major crackdown, arresting Morsi and many of the group’s leaders, who have been in prison undergoing multiple trials ever since the coup. Since the coup, Turkey has been a fierce critic of the Egyptian regime.
For many pundits, since then, Egyptian rule has been struggling with legitimacy problems, while its regional position and power have been gradually declining with repetitive actions and alliances.
“Egypt is one of the most important countries of the MENA region. However, its regional role declined as the military coup weakened Egypt economically and politically,” said Ahmet Uysal, the head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM).
“As Egypt lost its hard power in areas such as economy and military,” he said, “its soft power also decreased because its prestige and credibility were also worn.”
In Araby’s opinion, one of the main reasons behind this decline in power is the fact that although some regional parties, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, supported the coup, in the end, this support brought more harm than benefit to Egypt.
“El-Sissi became indebted to these regional powers, and he began to control the rhythm of his foreign policy on the agenda and interests of these small parties,” he stated.
Araby further highlighted that in his opinion, this dependence on the regional powers, especially on the UAE, will continue to exist as long as el-Sissi holds power in Egypt as he also gains personal financial benefit from this alliance.
According to Ammar Fayed, an Istanbul-based Egyptian researcher who focuses on Middle East politics, there are three motives that form el-Sissi's foreign policy.
“The first and most important is anti-Islamism,” Fayed said, referring to political Islam “not only inside Egypt but all over the region.”
The second one, Fayed said, is the full commitment to the traditional Arab regional system.
“This commitment directly creates the counter-revolution campaign led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This alliance made a decision to defeat any political transformation in the region. They are the Knights Templar of the traditional Arab regional system,” he said, noting the states’ past experiences with the riots that took place during the Arab Spring.
However, when compared to the anti stance against political Islam, Fayed said, this defense of the traditional Arab regional system becomes secondary.
“El-Sissi does not care if his agenda will destroy a stable country, like Qatar, or drive another to a more bloody future like Libya, if this will add more success to his anti-Islamism campaign,” he said, referring to the blockade on Qatar imposed by neighboring countries three years ago.
The final motivation of el-Sissi is a “resurgent nationalism” to restore the country’s historical role in the region, which, Fayed said, is very “problematic” for two main reasons: Firstly, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE consider Egypt an equal and secondly, Egypt's economic difficulties weaken the country’s hand in various regional problems.
“Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted only an active Egypt rather than a hegemonic one. They still see themselves as regional powers who are more qualified than Egypt itself. Thus, whenever el-Sissi tries to act independently and create a distance from their policies, they try to pressure him, especially economically,” Fayed underscored.
“Besides,” Fayed continued, “there is an ongoing debate about Egypt’s ability to lead the region while its horrible economic deficit restricts its ability to project power even in its direct national interests – just like in the Nile.”
El-Sissi’s foreign policy leads to suffering
The power struggle with Ethiopia over the Nile and its water supply comes to the forefront as one of Egypt's major struggles in the region given that it poses a direct threat to its national interest with the risk of a water shortage.
Ethiopia said last month it had hit its first-year target for filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a colossal concrete structure 145 meters (475 feet) high that has fueled tensions with downstream nations for nearly a decade.
The more than $4 billion project is situated in western Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, which converges with the White Nile in the Sudanese capital Khartoum before flowing north through Egypt toward the Mediterranean Sea.
Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors worry the dam will restrict vital water supplies.
They are especially concerned about what might happen should there be a drought, while Ethiopia is still filling the reservoir, a process that will take several years.
Egypt depends on the Nile for about 97% of its irrigation and drinking water and says it has “historic rights” to the river guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959.
Ethiopia was not a party to those treaties and does not see them as valid.
It signed a separate agreement in 2010 with other countries, which Egypt and Sudan boycotted, that allows irrigation projects and hydroelectric dams.
On July 14, leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan held their latest virtual summit as part of that process, with all parties saying afterward that there was an agreement to continue talks.
But it is unclear what progress has been made.
With Ethiopia celebrating hitting its first-year filling target, Egypt has come under pressure at home to take a harder line going forward.
“El-Sissi manages the dam’s negotiations in a manner that preserves the system and obtains legitimacy and not to maintain the water security of the Egyptian state,” said Essam Abdelshafy, director of the Egyptian Institute for Studies and chairman of the International Relations Academy.
“Unfortunately,” Abdelshafy continued, “the result will be disastrous for Egypt because it depends on the Nile to meet 95% of its water needs, and it gets 55 billion cubic meters annually; now it may not get 30 billion, which means losing more than 50% of its share of water, and thus the damage will be great and devastating.”
In fact, as Araby stated, el-Sissi’s signing of the Declaration of Principles agreement in March 2015 with then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was the major turning point in the Renaissance Dam crisis. He stated that the biggest obstacle for Ethiopia in constructing the dam was financial difficulties, and with the 2015 deal, this problem has been diminished.
“According to international rules that prevent funding of disputed projects between some countries, the international financial institutions were not willing to provide funding for the dam project, but el-Sissi’s signing of the Declaration of Principles agreement removed this barrier to the funding authorities, which made it easier for Ethiopians to start implementing the major works of the dam,” he said.
Fayed, on the other hand, stated that Egypt’s so-called allies in the region have also become ineffective in defending the country’s interests when it comes to the dam conflict.
“Egypt has not yet benefited from Ethiopia’s deep relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE to a lesser degree, although these countries are the most prominent allies of the Egyptian regime,” he noted.
“Generally speaking,” he continued, “the Egyptian failure in this critical case, reveals the lack of choices as a result of the lack of Egyptian influence in the Horn of Africa region.”
Egypt acts against Libyan interests
Similar incapabilities of Egyptian foreign policy, pundits said, can also be seen in Libya, where a civil war has been ongoing since 2011 with the country divided between two conflicting parties.
Araby stated that it is reasonable and expected for Egypt to have interests in Libya and feel the need to intervene in the country considering the two countries’ geographical and cultural closeness. However, the el-Sissi government’s current policy in the war-torn country is far from beneficial for both parties and brings nothing but damage.
“Yet,” he said, “what happened is a blatant interference against the will of the Libyans, against their wealth and their aspiration toward freedom and democracy and building a modern civil state.”
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Haftar forces are supported by Egypt, France, Russia, Jordan, the UAE and other key Arab countries. The U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is backed by Turkey, Italy and Qatar.
“Egypt’s intervention and failure in Libya also endanger the Egyptian regime. The el-Sissi administration knows this and knows that the great powers will not give Egypt a share of Libyan oil and gas, but it is clear that they are putting too much pressure on the intervention,” Uysal said.
Conflict with Turkey unlikely
However, despite this heavy involvement, experts state that a face-to-face confrontation with Turkey is unlikely in Libya as Egypt is aware of how badly such a conflict might turn out for it.
“El-Sissi will not enter into a confrontation with Turkey, because he knows that the damage will be very great,” Abdelshafy said.
In a move likely to worsen tensions in North Africa, Egypt’s parliament approved a proposal on July 20 that empowers military intervention in neighboring Libya. In a secret vote, chaired by Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal, the parliament authorized el-Sissi to “take all necessary measures to protect the country’s national security.”
The decision came a week after the Tobruk parliament gave Egypt a green light to intervene militarily in Libya under the pretext of “protecting the national security” of both countries.
Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha described the Egyptian parliament’s decision as a “declaration of war."
According to Araby, as the U.S. involvement in Libya increases, the possibility of a Turkey-Egypt conflict lessens.
“I still believe that el-Sissi will not enter the war and that he only wants to maintain a position at the table of any possible political settlement to the crisis. The thing that strengthens my view is that the United States, which is a mutual friend of both the Egyptian and Turkish governments, will not allow a military confrontation between them in Libya as the American role began to develop in Libya after a period of indifference,” he said.
Cooperation in East Med benefits both
Another aspect of the Libyan conflict and the Turkish-Egyptian dispute is the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. Just like many other regional and international actors, both Turkey and Egypt have their own interests in the basin, claiming remarkable amounts from the region’s natural resources. However, the surprising thing is that, for experts, the two countries’ interests in the region, in fact, do not conflict even though political alliances suggest otherwise.
“In my personal assessment, the Egyptian and Turkish interests are complementary and not conflicting in the Eastern Mediterranean, and if there was a democratic government in Egypt, it would have cooperated with Turkey strongly in this matter that benefits the two countries,” Araby said.
Although there are varying estimates, most figures suggest that the Eastern Mediterranean region has over 70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas or approximately 1.5% of the total natural gas reserves in the world.
Most of this natural gas is found in the fields of Glaucus, Aphrodite and Calypso, which are licensed by the Greek Cypriot administration. Other areas with intense natural gas in the region are Israel’s Leviathan and Egypt’s Zohr.
Similarly, Abdelshafy also said that the interests of Egypt and Turkey are not incompatible in the Eastern Mediterranean; on the contrary, their cooperation can enhance the interests of the two countries.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “the el-Sissi regime is not working to preserve the Egyptian wealth.”
“In the East Mediterranean, Egypt needs to ensure its rights which may not diverge with Turkey’s view. However, Egypt needs Greece and France to have a balance against Turkey in Libya. So, Egypt cannot turn its back on Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean for the sake of Turkey, while it needs Greece in Libya,” Fayed said, explaining Egypt’s motives in acting against its own interests.
Despite the fact that Turkey has the longest shoreline in the region when it comes to drilling activities, no country has felt the need to consult or engage in dialogue with Ankara on the issue. Still, until very recently, Ankara expressed willingness to establish dialogue channels with the various regional countries, and yet all its attempts fell flat with no response. Egypt even organized the East Mediterranean Gas Forum this year, inviting all the regional countries, except for Turkey.
Before the coup took place in Egypt, Ankara and Cairo planned to have joint naval maneuvers in the region. However, following the coup, as bilateral ties worsened, these plans were removed from the agenda as Turkey was replaced with Greece in the joint activities of Egypt.
However, Egypt has been put in a disadvantageous position right now by signing a deal with Greece, since an agreement with Turkey would benefit the country more.
According to Uysal, the easiest way of discovering new gas reserves in Egypt still goes through Turkey to European transport.
“He needs to cooperate because it is almost impossible to arrive somewhere by excluding Turkey. However, he cannot act normally from external pressures and ideological concerns,” Uysal said.
“It is important here to separate the files, to maximize the strategic gains for Egypt and Turkey, so that there can be economic and strategic coordination in the gas file, away from their political differences,” said Abdelshafy.
In his opinion, the two countries are very important pillars in the triangle of the major regional powers in the region, together with Iran.
“We must maintain the relations of the two countries and work to develop them and not leave Egypt controlled by countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel, because this would be disastrous for the region,” Abdelshafy said, adding that just like any rule, el-Sissi’s position in Egypt is also temporary and both countries should remember that.
“A possible cooperation between the two countries (Turkey and Egypt) would serve the stability and development of the region,” Uysal said, referring to the historical ties, common aspects and common interests of the two countries.
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