Mutual reassurance: Why Europe should support talks between Egypt and Turkey

By facilitating a rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara, European governments could make progress towards their strategic objective of stabilising the Middle East and North Africa

“Egyptian and Libyan Flags”
Image by gr33ndata

For much of the past decade, the intense rivalry between Egypt and Turkey has created instability across the Middle East and North Africa. But the two countries may now have a brief opportunity to ease the tensions between them, given the current truce in Libya and the recent easing of tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. European states should actively encourage Cairo and Ankara to engage in a broader discussion on regional issues, in a bid to advance negotiations on the crises in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean – both of which directly threaten Europe’s interests.

The Egyptian-Turkish rivalry dates back to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military takeover of Egypt in 2013, in which he deposed the Turkish-supported Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi. From that point on, Egypt and Turkey sided with two competing regional camps: Cairo joined a Saudi- and Emirati-led alliance intent on countering the perceived threat from Islamists, and Ankara established a partnership with Qatar. This competition has had deeply disruptive effects in Libya, where the rivals have supported opposing sides in the country’s long-running civil war. And it has had a similar effect in the eastern Mediterranean, where Egypt and Turkey have been on opposite sides of a series of energy and political disputes.

While some European capitals – such as Paris and Athens – may see Cairo as an ally in their own stand-offs with Ankara, they should look to build on the Turkish government’s reported outreach to its rival behind closed doors in recent weeks. The move seems to signal a turn towards pragmatism in Ankara that could help Europe pursue its strategic goal of stabilising in the region.

The prospect of dialogue

In Libya, Ankara backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while Cairo sponsors General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces, which are nominally under the control of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Turkey maintains this position to protect its political and economic interests in Libya, and to address its fears that it is being squeezed out of the eastern Mediterranean by its regional and European rivals. Egypt, for its part, aims to prevent a hostile government – one that it has long seen as a vehicle for Islamists – from controlling the country on its western border, which would pose political and security challenges.

While Ankara perceives its goals in Libya as important, it seems willing to compromise on them in a way that it is not on issues such as Syria’s Kurdish question.

Turkey and Egypt have long seen their objectives in Libya as being directly opposed, but they may now have an opportunity to negotiate over their disputes there. Turkey is experiencing financial hardship and risks overextension in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, the eastern Mediterranean, and Libya. While Ankara perceives its goals in Libya as important, it seems willing to compromise on them in a way that it is not on issues such as Syria’s Kurdish question. Moreover, having helped the GNA push back Haftar’s military assault on Tripoli in 2020, Ankara sees its Libyan allies as being in a more secure position than ever. Having recognised that it will maintain at least some influence in Libya, Turkey may be more willing to negotiate than it once was.

In turn, Egypt now acknowledges that the military balance on the ground precludes total victory for Haftar, and that it will have to deal with the GNA if it wants to stabilise the country and protect its interests (or even reduce Turkish influence) there. Cairo may be happy to chart an independent path in Libya – even if its Gulf allies, particularly the UAE, appear to be more committed to backing Haftar and eroding Turkey’s position in the region. In recent months, Egypt has sought to side-line Haftar; promoted the House of Representatives speaker, Aguileh Saleh, as its political representative in Libya; welcomed Fathi Bashagha, the GNA interior minister, to Cairo; and sent a diplomatic delegation of its own to Tripoli.

These moves could bring Turkey and Egypt closer together by establishing links with former rivals in the Libyan conflict. Their quiet negotiations are making progress, albeit slowly.

By helping facilitate such rapprochement, European states could improve the prospects of de-escalation in the eastern Mediterranean and the wider region. In recent years, Egypt has pursued a joint policy with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to contain Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, including by excluding it from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum they launched in Cairo in January 2019. The United Arab Emirates joined the forum as an observer in December 2020, adding to the impression that it is an anti-Turkish body.

Against this background, European countries should encourage Turkey and its rivals to negotiate compromises on issues such as gas quotas. For instance, Cairo may be willing to use Egyptian plants to process gas extracted from Turkish concessions in Libyan waters, in return for allowing Ankara to channel some of this gas to Turkey. Ultimately, Turkish-Egyptian tensions are geopolitical rather than economic – but such compromises could incentivise the sides to reach a workable agreement on broader disputes, partly by addressing Turkish concerns about its potential exclusion from the region.

Why mutual reassurance is in the EU’s interest

To be sure, there remain immense obstacles to Ankara and Cairo engaging in open negotiations. There is deep, long-standing hostility and mistrust between the sides. And neither wants to pay the political price of backing down. For Egypt, doing so could threaten the political and economic support it receives from key Gulf states such as the UAE. For Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of the coup in Egypt and Sisi personally will be extremely difficult to go back on.

However, even partial a de-escalation of the Turkish-Egyptian rivalry would serve Europe’s interests in stabilising the Middle East and North Africa. While progress in this will be determined by Cairo’s and Ankara’s political will to change course, Europeans can support the effort by making use of their strong diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt and Turkey.

Some EU governments will need to work to prevent their own rivalries with Ankara from disrupting a rapprochement between the two countries, by acknowledging the value of a turn towards negotiations even as they continue to take issue with Turkish policy more broadly. Italy could potentially take the lead here – given that it has strong ties to Egypt and Turkey, and that it engages in energy cooperation with both countries. Working with EU member states such as Germany, Italy should encourage Egypt and Turkey to negotiate with each other. Rome should press Cairo to test recent Turkish political overtures in Libya, aiming to persuade the sides to restrain their Libyan proxies and thereby prevent further conflict. This initiative could serve as a platform for addressing Turkish-Egyptian disputes in the eastern Mediterranean and, eventually, could create space for talks between European capitals and Ankara on how to repair their relationship.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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