Cairo may be looking to score tactical gains by using Ankara to regain its own value in the eyes of its partners
By Ali Bakir, Middle East Eye
Last month, Egypt announced a new oil-and-gas exploration bid round in the Eastern Mediterranean. It notably took into consideration the coordinates of the continental shelf as declared by Ankara, according to the 2019 agreement between Turkey and Libya, registered by the UN last October. Ankara thus understood the Egyptian move as a positive message.
And this was not the first message of its kind. Despite criticising the Turkey-Libya maritime agreement, Egypt’s foreign ministry raised eyebrows during the Rome conference in December 2019 by asserting that it “doesn’t harm Egypt’s interests” in the Eastern Mediterranean.
When Egypt signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Greece in August 2020, experts noted that the agreement took into consideration Turkey’s reservations on the maritime borders of the islands. According to Turkey’s foreign minister, the agreement supported the Turkish thesis that the islands do not have sovereign continental shelves.
Cairo has recently introduced changes to its Libya policy that have brought it closer to Ankara. In the face of new facts on the ground in the North African country after Ankara successfully turned the tide against renegade Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, Egypt took a number of steps, sending a high-ranking diplomatic and security delegation to Tripoli and announcing plans to reopen its embassy for the first time since 2014.
These messages didn’t go unnoticed in Ankara. On 3 March, Turkey’s top diplomat endorsed Cairo’s respect of his country’s maritime borders. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu focused on the shared interests between the two countries and signalled Turkey’s readiness to negotiate and sign a maritime jurisdiction agreement with Egypt.
Three days later, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar got involved in the Egypt diplomacy when he stressed during the Blue Homeland 2021 tactical exercise that the two countries share historical and cultural values, hinting at the potential for new developments.
Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin endorsed these statements when he told Bloomberg that “a new chapter can be opened … in our relationship with Egypt”. The fact that these messages are coming from the highest officials in the Turkish establishment reflects their seriousness.
The carefully crafted messages between the two countries respond not only to their common interests, but also to changing international and regional dynamics. US President Joe Biden’s victory in last year’s election pushed many regional countries, including Egypt and Turkey, to recalibrate their policies to accommodate the new administration.
On the regional level, Egypt was unhappy with the outcome of the recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, as its supposed allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, neither coordinated with Cairo nor took its interests into consideration when they agreed to reconcile with Doha.
The GCC reconciliation allows Turkey to strengthen its relations with Qatar, Kuwait and Oman while reaching a detente with Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, the UAE. In January, Egyptian officials had to listen to UAE officials express a desire to normalise relations with Turkey and to build on their mutual economic interests, while Egypt was on the brink of a collision with Turkey in Libya as a result of Emirati pressure.
Parallel to this, Greece and Turkey had their first official direct talks in five years on the standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the UN prepared to convene a meeting to test whether a solution was possible to the Cyprus problem.
Cairo must have calculated that it would not be in its interests to remain anti-Turkey while its partners in the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean – mainly the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Israel and even France – were de-escalating with Ankara. This might explain why the diplomacy between Egypt and Turkey seems to have intensified lately.