President al-Sisi has faced extensive criticism for leading his country toward an authoritarian path. One of his fiercest critics was Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who did not mince his words about al-Sisi, calling him a tyrant, an oppressor, and a murderer. After a decade of feuding, the two leaders have apparently mended the fences. President Sisi was scheduled to visit Turkey on July 27th, marking the beginning of a new era between Cairo and Ankara. However, at the eleventh hour, he chose to cancel his trip, opting instead to attend the Africa-Russia summit in St. Petersburg where he would meet with Russian President Putin. This abrupt cancellation was intriguing, and subsequently, the Egyptian media brought to light underlying issues that still plague the bilateral relations.
According to an anonymous source who spoke to Arabi21, there were some issues that concerned Sisi and ultimately led to the cancellation of the visit. Firstly, Egypt was troubled by Erdogan's meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, alongside Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, just one day before Sisi's scheduled visit. Egypt regards itself as the primary authority on Palestinian matters, particularly when it comes to conflicts among various Palestinian factions. The Egyptian government viewed this meeting as Turkish outsiders meddling in its own sphere of influence. Additionally, Cairo does not see eye to eye with Hamas due to the latter's close affiliation with the Brotherhood. Secondly, while Israel refuses to export more natural gas through Egypt, citing a lack of production capacity, it is simultaneously negotiating with Turkey to transfer its natural gas through Turkish territory to Europe. These concurrent negotiations undermine Egypt's aspirations to establish itself as a regional energy hub. Thirdly, Sisi insists that Erdoğan must take more significant actions against the Brotherhood's leadership, headquartered in Turkey.
Despite these and many more unresolved differences, Turkey and Egypt exhibit striking similarities, though not in a positive sense. To begin with, Egypt is facing a long-due economic crisis. Poverty has become widespread among the Egyptians due to years of sluggish growth, rampant inflation, and declining purchasing power. The country suffers from a chronic current account deficit and looks desperately for foreign investment, especially from the Gulf countries. However, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are convinced that Egypt will require continuous assistance to remain financially stable if reforms are not implemented. Under pressure from its allies in the Gulf and the IMF, the Egyptian government sells state assets and plans to introduce harsh economic policies.
The economic crisis in Egypt also has serious ramifications for its regional aspirations. In Sudan and Libya, Egypt was compelled to reassess its position due to its diminished capacity to project power. In the Sudanese conflict, Egypt favors General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with whom the Egyptian army holds considerable influence in Sudan, over the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. However, Egypt is cautious about taking an active role in the conflict, fearing it could alienate its regional benefactors, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In Libya, the Egyptian government supported the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, which sought to take over the UN-supported government in Tripoli in 2019. However, the situation shifted when Turkish military involvement came into play, and the Haftar forces faced the risk of collapse. Turkey and Egypt agreed to calm tensions to avoid further military escalation in Libya.
The deterioration of the Egyptian economy and decline in regional relevance go hand in hand with a crackdown on dissent. Over the last ten years, the Egyptian prison population has nearly doubled, reaching around 120,000 people. Human rights organizations report that at least half of those incarcerated are there for political reasons. The highly anticipated Egyptian National Dialogue, unfortunately, did not bring much respite to the political atmosphere in the country.
Turkey also does not perform outstandingly in many of these fronts. It suffers from debilitating inflation rates due to irrational economic policies that have eroded the purchasing power of the population. The total government budget deficit reached unprecedented levels due to extensive promises made during the presidential election campaign. As in the Egyptian case, Turkey seeks Gulf money to support its fragile economy. To this end, Erdoğan and his ministers make frequent visits to the capitals of the Gulf countries. Some of the Gulf investments in Turkey may involve Turkish asset sales.
Similar to Egypt, the Turkish government's pursuit of rapprochement with the Middle East has resulted in certain policy trade-offs. Historically, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood was a pillar of the AKP's approach in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and others. However, Turkey has reconsidered its relationship with the Brotherhood throughout the region. To appease Sisi, it has instructed the Brotherhood to mute their criticism of the Egyptian government on their television channels based in Turkey. When the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, was arrested this year, the Turkish response was no more than expressing concerns.
The crackdown on dissenting voices in Turkey also goes on relentlessly. During the last 7 years, more than 2 million Turkish citizens have been prosecuted under terrorism charges, and more than 300 thousand of them were arrested. Both Egypt and Turkey assert that there are no political prisoners in their country.
Turkey and Egypt stand as two influential powerhouses in the Middle East. However, both nations have undergone a significant decline in the region over the last decade. Authoritarian policies and misguided economic decisions have undermined their ability to tackle the economic and political challenges they confront. Although achieving a relationship built on mutual trust remains uncertain, their dire need for normalization will eventually drive them to set aside their differences, at least for some time.