Erdogan’s Charm Offensive Will Not Satisfy Egypt, Syria, or Israel
Wherever you look, Erdogan wants a “reset” and “rapprochement.” But in every single case, there will be a price to pay.
Turkey may have an opportunity to fix its relationship with Egypt, which it broke a decade ago. The outcome will depend entirely on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy choices, and whether he remains the country’s president after the May 14 elections. It will be difficult to normalize ties between the two countries, however, as Cairo has a list of tough demands and Erdogan is obstinate. To achieve progress, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, but the meeting did not end as Cavusoglu would have liked. Shoukry informed Cavusoglu that three things had to happen before normalization: Turkey would have to terminate all its military activities in Libya, extradite all members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey that are wanted by Egypt, and resolve its differences with Cyprus and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean.
To put things in context, although Egypt is a priority for Erdogan, Ankara has been exploring the possibilities of mending fences with several Arab states as well as Israel since 2021. Obviously, had Erdogan not spent the last decade torpedoing his relationships with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean powers, he would not need to knock on doors today. So why mend fences now? This is relatively easy to answer: The biting reality of Turkey’s regional isolation is forcing Erdogan’s hand to attempt to roll back his hatred for regional competitors. Egypt, Syria, and Israel would all be interested in rebuilding ties with Turkey, but they all have big asks.
Beginning in 2013, Erdogan tore apart Turkey’s bilateral relationship with Egypt, a country that is arguably the leader of the Arab World and a close U.S. ally, Egypt. Following the overthrow of the country’s democratically elected, albeit Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president, Mohammed Morsi, Erdogan disparaged Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a brutal “tyrant,” whom he refused to recognize. The ensuing fallout resulted in the termination of diplomatic ties between Ankara and Cairo. Soon, Erdogan began touring the world, professing that the “world is bigger than five!”—a reference to the unfair and ineffective composition of the UN Security Council’s permanent five member states, who willingly turned a blind eye to dictators and persecution of Muslims. While he was comfortable criticizing the Egyptian regime being ruled by an unelected military dictator, Erdogan conveniently remained silent on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims by China, as well as the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, where he swore to protect the region’s Muslim Tatar minority, and then forgot about them.
In the late 2010s, Ankara has taken to pursuing unacceptable positions toward Cairo. Erdogan threw his support behind Libya’s Fayez al-Sarraj much to the chagrin of Cairo, who supports his counterpart Khalifa Haftar. The decision to back Sarraj resulted in the Libyan government delimiting its maritime borders with Ankara, in an agreement that is not recognized by any other government in the region, as it cuts across much of Greece’s maritime borders by ignoring the existence of Crete. The move also conflicts with existing maritime borders established by countries under the umbrella of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF)—which Egypt is a member of. While maritime borders are a vital element of national sovereignty, in this case, their importance is heightened owing to the existence of natural gas deposits underneath the sea, which all countries would like to monetize and consume. While EGMF members go about this in a diplomatic and legal manner, Turkey acts as a belligerent spoiler. It does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, contests the maritime borders of Greece and Egypt, and has sent in its own exploration and drilling ships into contested waters, escorted by military vessels.
Egypt’s approach to foreign policymaking shows that since coming to power, Sisi has not been idle. He has made himself palatable to the United States and invested a significant amount of diplomatic capital in establishing robust ties with other notable regional actors such as Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. The EGMF is perceived to be legitimate and has strong international support. If Erdogan seeks a reset with Sisi, he will have to abandon his existing Libya and Mediterranean policies.
Per Cairo’s suggestion, Ankara does have the option of dropping its antagonistic approach to maritime borders and joining the EGMF. This will be hard to achieve, however, owing to the long-standing maritime disputes between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. That being said, instead of trying to force its hand, Ankara could try to achieve its goals through diplomacy rather than belligerence. On the other hand, Erdogan could satisfy Egypt’s demands on the Muslim Brotherhood without much effort. The Brotherhood’s footprint in Turkey is much smaller than it used to be. Many of its members have left the country and steps were recently taken by authorities to close down a television station affiliated with the brotherhood. Inaction on the other hand is not really an option for Turkey, and Erdogan knows this.
His decision to shake Sisi’s hand at the opening of the FIFA World Cup in 2022 was not a chance encounter. Rather, it was a carefully choreographed photo opportunity, as well as a tacit admission that his entire Middle East foreign policy over the last decade is a failure. Erdogan’s fantasy to be surrounded by a region that is ruled by leaders close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he hoped to notionally lead, has all but vanished. From Egypt to Tunisia to Iraq to Syria, there is presently a zero chance of establishing Sunni regimes that are close to the brotherhood’s worldview, which Erdogan has long admired. Instead, they are all led by strongmen who have succeeded in eliminating contenders. This is the reason why Erdogan is also attempting to “normalize” ties with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, whom he sought to overthrow, presumably to have him replaced by a Sunni alternative. For this to bear fruit, however, Assad is demanding the removal of the Turkish military presence inside of Syrian territory—yet another bitter pill for Erdogan to swallow.
Finally, there’s Israel, a state which Erdogan is seeking a rapprochement with once again. In 2007, Erdogan accused Israel of being a “baby killer,” and followed up this statement by attempting to breach a naval blockade of Gaza in 2010 that resulted in an armed confrontation and an end to diplomatic ties. Like Egypt, Israel did not sit on the sidelines. Its signing of the Abraham Accords and participation in the EGMF have helped the Jewish state establish substantive relationships with the Arab states in its neighborhood and marginalized Ankara. To overcome this, Israel and Turkey have recently succeeded in reestablishing diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level. However, a relationship built on trust is unlikely to materialize unless Turkey satisfies some key Israeli demands such as the expulsion of Hamas leaders from its territory, as well as shutting down its offices.
Wherever you look, Erdogan wants a “reset” and “rapprochement.” But in every single case, there will be a price to pay. The states he wants to build relationships with have a long list of justified grievances against Erdogan. Addressing these grievances is a tall order, but Erdogan doesn’t have many options. Turkey is pretty much alone and will continue to be, unless bold choices are made.
Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). He is also an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He tweets @sinanciddi.