When we launched the podcast in March 2020 we had no idea what sort of reception to expect. Now nearly 120 podcasts later we are delighted that they have been listened to more than 80,000 times in countries right around the world. That response is a measure of the outstanding quality of our contributors. We are fortunate to have them.
The Arab Digest newsletter will take a short summer break, returning on 15 August. And through the month of August we will feature our top ten podcasts, all of which have had from 1100 to 1700 listens each.
Podcast Number 7 – Cairo and Ankara: a new axis? with Dr Ali Bakir
Summary: after years of competing agendas and sometimes angry denunciations, energy opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean have driven two ideological foes toward a common ground of understanding.
Our podcast Cairo and Ankara: a new axis? ranks number 7 in the Arab Digest top ten podcast list. It was released 18 June 2021 and features Ali Bakir, a research assistant professor at Ibn Khaldoon center for Humanities and Social Sciences in Doha. Ali is an analyst following geopolitical and security trends in the Middle East, and especially those between Turkey and the Arab world. His conversation with Digest editor William Law focussed on the thaw in relations between Cairo and Ankara. In addition to the podcast which you can find here, we are publishing a shortened transcript version, edited for length and clarity.
Can you take us back to 2013 and the coup that brought down the government of Mohammed Morsi. Relations were pretty much rock bottom at that point weren’t they?
Let me take you a little bit back to the time before the 2013 military coup. In 2011 after the Egyptian revolution erupted, Turkey-Egyptian relations peaked in an unprecedented way. Turkey’s (then) president Abdullah Gül was the first foreign official to visit Cairo. But most importantly, Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Cairo opened new horizons to relations between Turkey and Egypt, several agreements were signed and also the first strategic council met and at the time Erdogan urged the Egyptians to adopt secularism. So all these developments took place before the Egyptians decided to elect their first civilian president in the first free and democratic elections. Now, when Mohammed Morsi became President in 2012 relations between Turkey and Egypt were at the best. They coordinated and cooperated closely regarding the hot issues in the region, including Syria, Iraq, Palestine, also the initiative to create a weapons of mass destruction free zone. This kind of cooperation reshaped the power balance in the region and this was not received well by some regional countries such as Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE. The idea that two elected governments were working together to reshape the region and support the Arab revolutions was met negatively. As a result in 2013 the defense minister at the time Abdel Fatah el-Sisi executed a coup, and this military coup was backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. So at this point, and because Western countries, the EU and USA were pretty much silent regarding this military coup and they didn’t take any measures to reverse it, Turkey felt the need to lead the criticism (about the coup.) And also it had its own motives as a country that had witnessed several coups. So it’s after the coup that relations started to deteriorate significantly between Turkey and Egypt. Egypt joined the anti-revolution camp at the time led by UAE and Saudi Arabia and relations started to take a negative turn indeed after 2013.
That was then but this is now and there are several reasons why things are warming up. And a big one is the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, and the whole issue of offshore gas and oil resources.
I think that there were two important motives (for rappochement) from Egypt’s side, also from the Turkish side, mainly the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. And those two topics provided the basis of the current rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey, besides, of course, the regional and international developments, including the victory of Biden in the presidential elections in the US and the Al Ula agreement, which was, in my opinion a game changer in the Egypt -Turkey and Egypt – Qatar relations.
Now when it comes to the conflict in eastern Mediterranean, it is a very complex situation involving politics, economics, and legal aspects, among other things. It all started in 2003 I believe when Cyprus which is a EU member started to take unilateral measures and to delineate its maritime borders with other countries without taking Turkey’s interest and the interest of the Turkish-Cypriots into consideration and in 2019, the initiative to launch the eastern Mediterranean gas forum was launched with Cairo as its base and it was obvious that this initiative was meant to isolate Turkey and to prevent it from utilising its rights and interest in the eastern Mediterranean. So this was a great issue of conflict with Ankara and Ankara responded by assertive policies in the eastern Mediterranean and also by a maritime deal with the UN recognised government in Libya. This deal, was criticised by Greece, and Egypt to some extent; however the Egyptian government and Egypt’s Foreign Minister actually noted that the deal didn’t harm Egypt’s interest in the eastern Mediterranean. And this was the first implicit message towards Turkey, because simply an Egyptian-Turkish maritime deal in that region will grant Cairo a vast maritime area that is around 15,000 kilometres. So it was in Cairo’s interest to reach an agreement with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean rather than with Greece. That’s why the bureaucrats in Egypt’s foreign ministry and also in general intelligence recommended that the President should follow an agreement with Turkey. However, because of two main factors I believe – bad relations with Ankara and also Sisi’s need for legitimacy and political and economic support from Europe and USA – he decided to make a deal with Greece rather than Turkey. And this Greece deal, although it was, let’s say partial, it kept the door open to an agreement with Turkey and this February (2021) Egypt sent a message that it is respecting Turkish maritime borders, motivating Ankara to reach out to Egypt.
So the eastern Mediterranean issue is one important topic that provides the basis of rapprochement between the two countries. I’m not saying it is easy to reach an agreement between the two sides, but it is a topic that both can sit and discuss, and try to reach an agreement on this matter at some point in the future .
You mentioned Libya. Egypt very strongly supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar who was backed largely by the United Arab Emirates. That seems to have cooled down. Do you think that Egypt has abandoned Haftar now and is much more receptive towards the way the Turks have handled things in Libya?
The main aim was to topple the UN-recognised government and take power by military force and enter the capital Tripoli. But with Turkey’s last-moment help and support the GNA foiled this plot and obviously Egypt lost the bet on its horse, Haftar. So from that point on Egypt had to adapt to the new realities on ground and with the fact that Turkey has the upper hand in Libya.
As a result I believe Egypt slowly, slowly changed its position and sent official delegations to Tripoli, opened a consulate and sent an ambassador and recognised the transitional process. And that was pretty much a big deal because Egypt was aligning its position with Turkey at this point. Now, Libya is very important for both countries: Libya has long borders with Egypt. And Turkish-Libyan relations are old. Libya, for example, was the first foreign country to host contracting and construction with Turkish companies, it was the first overseas country to receive such projects and Turkey had projects estimated at $13 billion dollars. And at a certain point Libya hosted more than 80,000 Turkish workers, businessman, professionals etc. Relations are deep, Turkey has interests there. And the maritime and security deal with Libya is very critical to Turkey in eastern Mediterranean. Both countries have an interest to stabilise Libya and to try to benefit from the coming economic opportunities in the construction sector or in the eastern Mediterranean. So this is another point that both can sit and discuss and try to align their agendas.
I wanted to ask you about the 2017 blockade of Qatar which Egypt joined with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Do you think that the Egyptians had much choice in that?
Well, I can say that, yes and no at the same time. Yes because Egypt obviously has its own motives and reasons also, and especially when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood issue and Al Jazeera, which was causing a great headache for the military regime in Cairo. And no, because as you said UAE, especially UAE, and of course Saudi Arabia, they had a lot of leverage over Cairo and its foreign policy at that point. They pumped a lot of money, some estimations even put the money channelled from UAE, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Kuwait to Sisi since the military coup at $90 billion dollars. So the UAE was basically leading Cairo’s foreign policy at that point, but I think when the Egyptians realised that the blockade was turning into a fiasco and Doha emerged stronger and in a better position, they started to take their own interests into consideration.
For example, unlike UAE and Saudi Arabia, Egypt didn’t block the Qatari investments in Cairo and at the end of 2017 Egypt increased its economic interaction with Turkey for the first time since the military coup in 2013. And these were really indicators that something was going on behind the doors and I think that by 2019 / 2020, Egypt also realised that letting UAE lead its foreign policy, especially in Libya, backfired and that’s why the Egyptians started to try to diversify relations.
Since the Al Ula agreement in January 2021 that ended the blockade relations between Doha and Cairo have warmed considerably
Once the Al Ula agreement was reached the Egyptians flipped their position and achieved a very fast rapprochement. And now relations are warming up with Doha. There are just a few points that are still in the discussion process and they are not very serious. They cooperated in the Gaza crisis and Israeli assault on the Palestinians. They also are cooperating regarding a unified Arab position against Ethiopia when it comes to Egypt’s interest in the Nile GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) quagmire that Egypt is in right now. So I think that things are going pretty well and we don’t see the ideological aspect which is usually stressed upon by foreign panellists and experts and is usually given too much weight. Egypt’s interest right now is to fully utilise Qatar’s financial and political and diplomatic might.
This warming up between Ankara and Cairo. How far can it go? And what are the implications for the region?
This rapprochement is about interests. And both Turkey and Egypt are pragmatic enough to take the necessary steps to discuss their interests and also take more steps and measures towards normalisation. Now I can say that at this point there is a slow but steady progress in this matter and things are going really well. Upon Egypt’s request Turkey sent its first foreign ministry delegation to Cairo and they discussed, frankly, several issues, including bilateral and regional issues. So they are aiming for the next steps, probably appointing ambassadors and the visit of Egypt’s foreign minister to Ankara.
But having said this, I also urge caution because as I said before, it’s all about interests. And at a certain point if Cairo’s traditional allies gave it more carrots in return for halting such rapprochement or stopping the normalisation process with Turkey, then probably Egypt will choose this option. But right now I think that we have a good opportunity to make progress in this matter based on genuine interest in bilateral and regional issues, including Libya and eastern Mediterranean. We should not forget that Libya right now is worth billions of dollars of economic opportunities for Cairo, which is witnessing a challenging economic situation. Also stabilising Libya will allow at least 1 million Egyptian workers to work there, while generating billions of dollars to the Egyptian economy.
On Friday 12 August we feature Elisabeth Kendall’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: down but not out, number 6 in our all-time top ten podcast countdown.