Egyptian, Turkish Leaders Share a Valentine’s Embrace, but Will It Last?

Wednesday’s red-carpet reception at Cairo represents a complete policy turnaround for President Erdogan. For a decade, the Ankara strongman has used every epithet in the Turkish language to describe President al-Sisi.

AP/Ali Unal
President Erdogan during a speech at the presidential palace at Ankara, May 28, 2023. AP/Ali Unal

Presidents al-Sisi of Egypt and Erdogan of Turkey are acting like long-lost Valentines as they kiss and make up, yet even as trade and military cooperation between their countries increases, it’s natural to wonder whether the attraction between two opposites can last.

Wednesday’s red-carpet reception at Cairo represents a complete policy turnaround for Mr. Erdogan. For a decade, the Ankara strongman has used every epithet in the Turkish language to describe Mr. al-Sisi, labeling him a killer, butcher, and a ruthless dictator. 

Now, though, the two presidents have reached an agreement to extend their bilateral trade to $15 billion a year and cooperate on security. Like many world capitals, Cairo is eager to gain access to Turkey’s growing military drone industry, while Ankara seeks to enlist Egypt in its quest to become hub for energy exports to Europe from the Mediterranean. 

The two countries severed ties in 2013, when Mr. A-Sisi, then the military chief of staff, seized power away from Egypt’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader. At the time, an Ankara presidential spokesman boasted of Turkey’s “precious loneliness” as top critic of the Egyptian coup. “Now Erdogan is eating crow” by going to Egypt to repair relations, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s Turkey watcher, Sinan Ciddi, tells the Sun. 

“The person that Ankara called as a dictator still in #Cairo and many political supporters of #Mursi is still in jail,” an independent Turkish journalist, Tamer Yazar, writes on X. Other critics taunt Mr. Erdogan for changing his tune on Mr. al-Sisi.  

Tectonic shifts in regional relations are common, and even more than other leaders, Mr. Erdogan “can flip on a dime,” Mr. Ciddi says, adding that Mr. al-Sisi is well aware of the Turkish leader’s mercurial nature.   

Beyond trade and military cooperation, these leaders also are listening to public anger in their countries over Gaza. “We will continue to cooperate and stand in solidarity with our Egyptian brothers to put an end to the bloodshed in Gaza,” Mr. Erdogan said Wednesday during a Cairo joint press conference alongside his host.

Egypt has expressed objections to a planned Israeli invasion of Rafah, which sits on its border with Gaza. Yet, while Mr. Erdogan, a longtime Hamas supporter, accuses Israel of “genocide,” Cairo maintains strong intelligence and security ties with Jerusalem. 

Weeks after Hamas’s October 7 attacks, Israel recalled its ambassador to Ankara and vowed to “reassess” relations with Turkey. In contrast, even as public demands are growing to sever ties with Israel, Cairo’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, made clear this week that Egypt will stick by the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

As Israel completes its plans to eradicate the remaining four Hamas battalions at Rafah, Cairo is concerned about a mass escape of Gazans into Egypt. Aware of those fears, Israeli military officials are sharing with Egyptian counterparts details of plans to evacuate civilians from the border town.  

In contrast to Hamas-supporting Turkey, Egypt is ultimately threatened by the terrorist group, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. A former Israeli military official, Brigadier General Amir Avivi, told the Sun he expects the Egyptians “to want to have Israelis on the other side of the border, and not the Muslim Brotherhood, which endangers them existentially.”

While Egypt is emerging as a major player in Gaza diplomacy, Turkey has largely been pushed to the sidelines. It now wants back in, and relations with Egypt could become its ticket.

Mr. Erdogan has already repaired relations with other former foes, signing a $2 billion arms deal in 2021 with the United Arab Emirates and last year cutting an even larger cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, some eyebrows were raised but it did not come as a huge surprise when Mr. Erdogan warmly shook Mr. al-Sisi’s hand in 2022 during the World Cup at Doha. That year, trade between the countries grew to $5 billion, from $4 billion the previous year. Now they hope to that to $15 billion a year.

In the last few weeks, Mr. Erdogan instructed Turkish television stations to cool down the invective they have been spewing against Mr. al-Sisi even after the Doha handshake. 

“I’d like to emphasize the continued connection between our peoples over the past 10 years, while our trade and investment relationship saw steady growth,” Mr. al-Sisi said Wednesday at the joint Cairo press conference with his new friend.

Yet, only last year Turkey was courting Israel, and now the Egyptian president is seeing how Mr. Erdogan is turning his ire at the Jewish state. “Sisi is no fool, so it remains to be seen how much of a rapprochement is really possible between Egypt and Turkey,” Mr. Ciddi says.

The New York Sun

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