Turkish President Abdullah Gül met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak late last month to discuss bilateral relations and the Middle East peace process. In a Q&A, Paul Salem discusses Turkey-Egypt bilateral relations historically, explains their actual status, and reviews the potential issues for increased cooperation and/or conflict between the two countries.
How would you characterize Turkish-Egyptian relations historically?
For most of the 2Oth century, Egypt and Turkey were effectively part of different "regions." Until recently, Turkey was generally orientated toward the West -- with its inclusion in the NATO alliance -- and had fairly tense relations with the countries of the Arab East. Turkey was viewed suspiciously by the Egyptian-led Arab world, but relations improved after Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, as Turkey had strong relations with Israel in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Has that changed recently? If so, how?
The general situation has shifted over the past decade for several reasons: The rise of the AKP party helped Turkey rebuild relations with the Arab world. The growth of Turkish exports pushed Ankara to seek markets in the Middle East. And the collapse of Iraq and rise of Iran encouraged Egypt and other Arab states to reach out to Turkey to help counterbalance Tehran's growing reach.
The Turkish role rose to a new level after the Gaza war of December 2008 to January 2009 and the flotilla incident of June 2010. These crises catapulted Turkey to a leadership position in the eyes of the public over the blockade of Gaza and consequently raised tensions with Egypt, which considers the Gaza issue an area of exclusive Egyptian influence.
What are the potential issues for increased cooperation and/or conflict between the two?
Areas of cooperation between Egypt and Turkey are numerous. They are both strongly in favor of stability, Arab-Israeli peace, and a non-nuclear Iran. They also share an interest in good relations with the West. Furthermore, they have complementary economic interests. There is significant Turkish investment in Egypt, and Egypt is an important market for Turkey. Both Egypt and Turkey need access to Arab Gulf markets and would benefit from significant economic development in Iraq. Their economic interests are compatible because Egypt mainly exports labor whereas Turkey exports manufactured goods.
There are no major conflicts between Turkey and Egypt. Egypt was not happy, however, that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a strong public role over the Gaza issue after the flotilla incident. In terms of the peace process, the two countries have complementary advantages in the sense that Egypt can play a significant role with Hamas and Fatah, whereas Turkey can play a significant role mediating between Syria and Israel.
Egypt initially was not open to a larger Turkish diplomatic and political role in the Middle East. Cairo has softened its position, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa has proposed the establishment of a committee within the Arab League that would include Turkey and Iran in order to work together on regional issues.