It seems that all the major players in the Middle East have come to the conviction that diplomacy and dialogue are the best ways to resolve the differences between them. They consider this approach a way to exclude chances for those who benefit from disputes among them.
Egypt, Iran and Türkiye, among others, represent active and influential countries in their surroundings, if not by virtue of history, then by force of geography. However, the interests of these countries always clash to the point of rivalry, despite of what brings them together is more important and deeper.
Relations between Cairo and Tehran were strained after the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat hosted the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, as a refugee after he was overthrown in a popular revolution led by the clergy.
Matters reached a breaking point when the new regime in Iran named one of the streets of the Iranian capital after Khaled Islambouli, the murderer of Sadat.
Despite the Iranian regime’s attempts during the past decades to reduce the state of suspicion with the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and after him the regime of President Al-Sisi, Cairo was reluctant to fully normalize relations.
The reason for this reluctance is due to the Egyptian rejection of Iranian policies in the region, which aim to export the ideology of the Islamic revolution and support the Shiites of the Gulf states in a way that threatens to detonate and undermine the stability of the region – a red line for Egyptian national security.
Similarly, relations between Egypt and Türkiye were strained, following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, following a popular revolution in 2013. Despite the justifications given by the Ankara government for rejecting Morsi’s overthrow, Cairo considered the Turkish position an ideological identification with the group and interference in affairs of an independent sovereign state. As a result of this tension, the level of diplomatic representation between the two countries declined.
This tension was reflected in the decline in the level of understanding between the two countries on issues of common concern, as well as in the inability to reach solutions regarding the interests of the two countries in Libya and the delineation of economic waters in the Mediterranean.
However, it is clear that the political leaderships in the three countries realized that the interests have become so important that they cannot be left in the winds of political intrigues.
In recent months, the pace of rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara has accelerated, starting with the famous handshake between the Egyptian and Turkish presidents on the sidelines of the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar last November, and ending with the participation of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the inauguration ceremony of the Turkish president.
Between the two events, there was a congratulatory call from Sisi to his Turkish counterpart on winning the recent elections, during which the two presidents decided to immediately start upgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries and exchanging ambassadors.
As for the relations between Egypt and Iran, they are also entering a new chapter after a long period of turmoil. Last month, news spread about the two countries’ plans to exchange ambassadors and to arrange a meeting between the two countries’ presidents.
These developments were expected following the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that took place two months ago, because now, Cairo finds itself free from any Gulf objection or blame for this behavior.
But in fact, the potential detente between the two countries is mainly driven by geopolitical factors that force them to prioritize their interests, such as the war in Ukraine and the growing influence of Moscow and Beijing in the Middle East.
Any sane person should encourage governments to adopt peaceful and constructive diplomatic options in achieving understandings that make everyone win. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to understand what’s going on.
Good opportunities for rapprochement
According to an informed Egyptian diplomat, indications of rapprochement between Cairo and Ankara have been noticeable over the past two years, but they were slow.
“The earthquake catastrophe increased the chances of rapprochement by visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to Türkiye, and then returning the visit from his Turkish counterpart”, he said.
The source indicated that the decision of the two presidents to raise the level of diplomatic relations is a good thing, but it depends on understanding on defining the maritime borders, which can be resolved after a direct meeting between the heads of the two states.
The source noted that the pace of rapprochement between the two parties in the coming period would depend on their ability to remove obstacles of normalization and the fundamental differences between them.
“Restoring diplomatic relations does not mean resolving the major differences between the two countries regarding issues of defining maritime borders or regarding ways to solve the Libyan crisis”, he said.
“Egypt has a great interest in restoring stability to Libya and winning a good share of reconstruction contracts. At the same time, Türkiye needs a legal demarcation of the maritime borders with Egypt, allowing it to freely explore for gas,” he added.
According to the source, resolving the differences in the two cases is linked to understandings with other regional and international parties.
However, an Egyptian expert on Cairo’s foreign relations said that Egypt’s openness to the two big countries, Iran and Türkiye, reflects the Sisi regime’s need to strengthen its regional relations in light of the great pressures it is exposed to from the Gulf states, especially with regard to the country’s economic crisis.
According to the expert, relations with Tehran and Ankara widen alternatives for the regime, which is struggling with an economic crisis and is required at the same time to efficiently manage the national security problems that threaten the country.
“The regime has become shackled by Gulf visions in managing regional crises, especially during the current Sudanese crisis”, he said.
However, unlike the well-informed diplomat, the expert expected that Cairo and Ankara would soon sign an agreement to demarcate the maritime borders, especially in light of the calm relations between Türkiye and Greece.
“The chances of normalization between Egypt and Türkiye are very good. The fundamental differences between the two countries over the continued support of the Turkish regime for the Muslim Brotherhood will not become an obstacle to the higher interests of the two countries”, he said.
However, the Egyptian diplomat expected that there would be significant progress on the level of economic relations, in a way that exceeded the path of resolving differences in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean.
The dilemma of balanced relationships
With regard to the possible rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, the informed diplomat said that it comes as a result of the efforts of the Sultanate of Oman and Iraq, which play an important role in restoring communication between Tehran and the countries of the region.
“Cairo and Tehran’s strong relations with both China and Russia increase the chances of the two countries achieving the greatest amount of political and economic gains”, he said.
“The rapprochement between the two countries can be considered part of the geopolitical maneuvers led by Saudi Arabia, as part of a broad restructuring of its foreign policies”, the diplomat added.
According to the expert in Cairo’s foreign relations, Tehran, by rapprochement with Egypt, can break the efforts seeking to establish an Arab-Israeli alliance against it.
“Egypt plays a pivotal role in facilitating a solution to the conflict between Hamas and Israel. Therefore, establishing strong relations with Iran can give Egypt greater influence and power over the various armed factions operating inside Gaza, thus achieving Egypt’s strategic goals on more than one front”, the expert said.
But according to the well-informed diplomat, Egypt will face the dilemma of balancing strategic relations with Tel Aviv and friendly ones with Tehran.
Whatever it is, in my personal estimation, all these countries are reshaping their relations on a pragmatic basis, but this should not lead us to imagine that there are strong possibilities for an alliance between them in the near or medium future.
These countries are looking for a solution to the deep crises they suffer from, especially the political and economic ones that have exacerbated following the Corona epidemic and the war in Ukraine.
It can be said without reservation that the Egyptian-Turkish, Egyptian-Iranian, and Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is a convergence of necessity that has overcome the political, historical, and ideological differences that have characterized the positions of the countries of the region in recent decades.