ANALYSIS - Türkiye and Egypt: Normalization process in Eastern Mediterranean
Normalization process between the 2 countries has been going forward slowly but steadily
The writer is a research assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center.
On June 1, Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati visited Cairo to attend a meeting of the Islamic Development Bank. The trip marked Türkiye’s first ministerial-level visit to Egypt in nine years. Although he was not on a mission to discuss bilateral relations, Nebati’s presence had a symbolic meaning given the latest progress in Turkish-Egyptian ties.
During much of the last decade, bilateral ties between the two regional players have been complicated. However, recent critical regional and international developments compelled both sides to recalibrate their positions on contrasting issues, in an attempt to adapt to the new dynamics in the game. The rapprochement between Ankara and Cairo started at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
At the time, Egypt introduced major changes to its Libya policy amid Ankara’s role in its neighbor. It turned the tide of its attitude against warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces, prompting Libyans to sit down and discuss peace plans. Furthermore, Egypt kept the door open with Türkiye for some kind of arrangement in the Eastern Mediterranean, implying that it respects the coordinates of the continental shelf as declared by Ankara.
Ankara reciprocated by endorsing Egypt's new position and stressing the importance of cooperation between the two countries, particularly in matters of mutual interest. Türkiye’s senior diplomat and officials reiterated this message several times. Parallel with these developments, communication between the two countries’ intelligence channels paved the way for senior bureaucrats to sit together and discuss issues of bilateral and regional concern.
The official rapprochement between the two capitals kicked off in May 2021. Delegations led by deputy foreign ministers of the two countries conducted two rounds of exploratory talks last year: one in Cairo in May, and the other one in Ankara in September. In these meetings, officials addressed bilateral and regional issues and the need to achieve peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
The normalization process between the two countries has been going forward slowly but steadily. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry underscored the progress achieved several times in the second half of 2021. This April, Türkiye’s foreign minister did not rule out the reciprocal appointment of ambassadors, highlighting that a meeting at the ministerial level is still a possibility.
The normalization between the two countries should not be seen as an isolated attempt but as part of wider regional normalization processes. In 2021, Cairo normalized its relations with Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did the same with Türkiye. Saudi Arabia sat down with Iran, and Türkiye sought to normalize its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Surprisingly, economic relations between Türkiye and Egypt continued to grow over the last decade despite tense relations. At the end of 2017, more than 305 Turkish companies were operating in Egypt and employing some 75,000 workers, providing indirect job opportunities and family income to nearly one million Egyptians.
Acknowledging the mutual benefits of shielding economic activities from political fluctuations, the volume of bilateral trade between Ankara and Cairo scored a historical record in 2018, crossing the $5 billion thresholds. The positive trend continued in 2019 when Türkiye emerged as the third-biggest import destination for Egyptian goods, and Cairo became Ankara’s largest trading partner in Africa before the pandemic put pressure on both sides.
On the regional level, a stable and prosperous atmosphere in the Middle East serves quite well the interests of both sides. In this sense, one particular country, Libya, has great importance for both Ankara and Cairo. Stabilizing Libya could boost cooperation between the two countries on several levels, including trade, business, investment, and construction and contracting.
The Eastern Mediterranean
A possible delimitation of maritime boundaries between Türkiye and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean remains the most critical shared interest between the two countries. If realized, it would be a game-changer for the whole region.
In 2020, Cairo signed a partial delimitation agreement with Athens despite the recommendation of Egyptian officials at the Foreign Ministry and General Intelligence Service. They suggested a deal could be made with Türkiye given that it would grant Cairo a sizable maritime concession. In February 2021, Egypt announced a new oil and gas exploration bid round in the Eastern Mediterranean. The announcement notably took into consideration the coordinates of the continental shelf as declared by Ankara.
The two countries realize the geostrategic importance of delimitating their maritime boundaries, but in the past geopolitical complications prevented them from doing so. Now the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean came to realize that no agenda can be enforced in the region without Türkiye. Likewise, Ankara maintains that cooperation and a fair sharing of resources is the best solution for everyone.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call for an Eastern Mediterranean conference that excludes no single country would provide the most proper platform to discuss relevant formulas and tools to utilize the riches under the sea. The Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon resources have gained more importance recently against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and European countries’ desire to cut their dependence on Russia’s oil and gas. Türkiye is strongly seeking to establish critical cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean with Egypt and Israel.
A delimitation between Türkiye and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean would be the key to major changes. Besides Türkiye securing its rights, delimitation could grant Cairo between around 15,000 and 26,500 square kilometers (5,790-10,231 miles), while encouraging other countries to seek collective solutions rather than bilateral agreements. Moreover, a pipeline from Israel to Türkiye, instead of the EastMed project, would carry the gas to Europe and unlock the region’s potential.
Having said this, it remains to be seen how the Egyptians will move from this point on, and whether third party arrangements and moves in the region will help facilitate Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement or maybe challenge it. Regardless, the normalization is probably set to continue as challenges do not mean the two countries will not disagree on certain issues, but rather that they will continue working together in areas of mutual interest.
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