At the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar’s Prince Tamim Bin Hamad scored one of his finest political goals by overseeing a historic handshake between the leaders of Turkey and Egypt. The friendly encounter in Doha earlier this month between the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 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 in both countries and months of Qatar-led shuttle diplomacy.
The importance of the momentous meeting between the leaders of Turkey and Egypt, which lasted for 45 minutes, does not stop at the threshold of melting away the personal prejudices that incited nine years of heated diplomatic tensions and state-sponsored media wars. This encounter marks a turning point in the bilateral ties between the two states. Yet, most important is its impact on the geopolitical and geo-economic future of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. On another level, it reframes Qatar in a whole new positive light as an active peacemaker and agenda-setter in the Arab Gulf region and beyond.
Since its successful reconciliation with Egypt in 2021, the Qatari leadership has been determined to fix the rift between Egypt and Turkey. This coincided with a sincere desire by the Turkish state to end conflicts with Arab and non-Arab neighbors in the Middle East. Over the past year, Turkey restored its broken ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and even Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt and Qatar successfully rebuilt their bond of trust as sisterly countries by fostering economic and diplomatic cooperation.
The conflict between Egypt and Turkey was not as intense as the conflict between Turkey and the Gulf states or as was the conflict between Egypt and Qatar. Despite that, the reconciliation process between Egypt and Turkey, which started in May 2021 with limited diplomatic talks in Cairo and Ankara, has been progressing at a snail’s pace. That is mainly because the heads of the two states have been avoiding each other out of fear of the public’s reaction in their respective countries, which has been fueled by the rhetoric of hate and anger for years. The recent meeting between El-Sisi and Erdogan is believed to have accelerated the process of diplomatic rebounding in the near future.
Mending the broken ties between Egypt and Turkey is the last missing piece of the puzzle for forming “the coalition of odds” that is believed will be leading the future of the Middle East for decades to come. In 2020, the term “coalition of odds” was coined by the writer of this analysis to refer to the new alliance of regional powers that has been forming under the pressure of international crises and regional challenges over the past few years.
This new alliance is mainly a quartet coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt. Each pair of these four countries stands at opposite spots on the spectrum of national strategic goals. However, each of them represents a crucial cornerstone of geopolitics, geo-economics, and military supremacy that, when integrated, will comprise a mosaic of power that has never been seen before in the greater region of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Together, this quartet of odds can contain Iran and mitigate the threats constantly raised by its militia. They can dominate the flow of world trade movement across the Red Sea and the Mediterranean thanks to their unique geographic locations and economic outreach in Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is also needless to mention their collective dominance over the majority of the world’s energy resources, including fossil fuel, hydrocarbon extraction, and green energy resources. Above all, they can form an unbeatable regional military coalition enhanced by the NATO experience that Turkey enjoys and the massive personnel and armament capabilities of Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
Economic cooperation could be an ideal starting point for accelerating the process of rebuilding Turkish-Egyptian relations. In complete contrast to the diplomatic impasse that kept Egypt and Turkey apart for almost a decade, commercial trading between them has been steadily growing. This year marked an unprecedented increase of 32.6% in the volume of trade between the two countries, compared to last year, according to the estimates of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce.
According to the latest statistics by the Egyptian government, during the first quarter of 2022, Egyptian exports to Turkey grew by 178.9% (960.6 million dollars) from 537.1 million dollars at the beginning of 2021 to 1.4 billion dollars at the beginning of this year. In comparison, the volume of Turkey’s exports to Egypt increased from 3.31 billion dollars in 2020 to 3.94 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2022. Over the past 25 years, Egypt’s exports to Turkey have been steadily increasing by 9.63% each year, compared to a 10.2% annual increase in Turkey’s exports to Egypt.
Since the last quarter of 2021, Turkey has begun to receive, for the first time, cargos of liquified natural gas (LNG) from Egypt’s Idku and Damietta offshore plants in the eastern Mediterranean. The geographic proximity between the two countries made the transfer of liquified gas a breeze in terms of speed and shipping costs. That should encourage the two countries to consider combining forces to combat the ongoing global energy crisis.
Turkey is situated at the southern gates of Europe and close to the North African countries that produce massive amounts of oil and gas, such as Libya and Algeria. Turkey also represents the adjoining entry point for the liquified natural gas coming from Egypt and Israel through Egypt's natural gas liquefaction plants to be exported to Europe. If the two countries agree to work together in that regard, they will not only solve the global energy crises but will dramatically lift up their struggling economies.
However, for this to happen, Turkey and Egypt need to clear the air about their conflicting economic and defense policies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Obviously, Egypt will not be able to back down from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement signed with Greece in 2020. Yet, this should not prevent Egypt from convening similar agreements with Turkey. Meanwhile, the time has come to give Turkey access to the East Med Organization, given the fact that it is the country with the longest border in the Eastern Mediterranean, regardless of its never-ending conflicts with Greece.
Logically speaking, it is in Egypt's best interest not to get involved in the century-long conflict between Turkey and Greece or to side with one party against the other. It is needless to mention that Egypt is set to harvest more lucrative benefits from a maritime agreement with Turkey than it can have from agreements with other countries on the northern side of the Mediterranean.
Consequently, that brings up the issue of Turkey’s and Egypt’s involvement at opposite fronts in the conflict in Libya. In addition to diplomatic talks, Egyptian and Turkish military leaders need to sit together to address the Libyan conflict, which each of them sees as integral to their national security. The Egyptian state is still concerned about the continued existence of Turkish troops on Libyan soil.
Turkey still supports the Tripoli-based government against the parliament, while Egypt is a staunch supporter of Khalifa Haftar’s forces in the eastern territories. Egypt considers this a threat to its national security, despite the insistence of the Turkish state that the troops in Tripoli are only there to preserve the balance of power and prevent the eastern militia from taking over the government.
The Next Handshake
In a televised interview last week, Turkey’s President Erdogan highlighted that his meeting with the Egyptian president was fruitful and left them “very happy.” But this is not enough. Despite its significant symbolism, the meeting between El-Sisi and Erdogan is merely the beginning of a series of serious negotiations that need to happen between the Egyptian and the Turkish states. The next handshake should not be limited to the diplomatic channels, especially given their record of failing to achieve real progress on that issue for an entire year. Direct communications between the two presidents, consultations between the intelligence bureaus of both countries, and, above all, military-to-military talks could be way more effective in realizing a successful reconciliation between Turkey and Egypt that is set to last for a long time on the solid ground of realistic visions.