It is easy to see why Turkey and Egypt have been so estranged of late. Ankara refused to recognize the government in Cairo after it came to power in a military coup in 2013. Several of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders displaced by the military found refuge in Turkey, itself governed by a like-minded Islamist party sympathetic to their plight. The intervening years have done little to repair relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a tyrant. Cairo has tried to enlist the help of Israel, of all countries, to block Turkish aid to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Ankara supports militias in Libya that Egypt does not, and more generally, Turkey has made recent diplomatic forays into the Arab world, over which Cairo has long felt a sense of stewardship.
But it appears as though Egypt and Turkey may be willing to set aside some of their differences for their respective well-being. In fact, sources close to ongoing negotiations suggest that an agreement, whereby Egypt would overturn the death sentences of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in exchange for official recognition of its government, may be in the offing. Central to the negotiations has been Saudi Arabia, which, in light of a variety of regional developments, including the rapprochement between the United States and Iran, is trying to rally Sunni states to its side.
Whatever differences Egypt and Turkey have with each other have been superseded by greater security and economic threats. Both countries are struggling to contain extremist activity within their borders. For Egypt, the tipping point came in October 2015, when Islamic State militants bombed a Russian airliner above its most important tourist destination, Sharm el-Sheikh. Meanwhile, militants from the Sinai Peninsula and Libya have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds Egyptian soldiers and police officers, and domestic extremists have likewise killed security officials, including an Egyptian prosecutor general.
Aid Comes at a Price
But managing these kinds of security issues first requires solving the serious economic problems — high unemployment, high food prices, low currency reserves, an inability to attract foreign investment — that helps compel disaffected youths to join extremist groups in the first place. Enter Saudi Arabia, which has the money the Egyptian economy needs to stay afloat. Over the past few years, Riyadh has given Cairo billions of dollars worth of investments, loans and grants, though, notably, it gave more money to al-Sisi once he stabilized the country.
Saudi aid, of course, came at a price. Cairo is being pressured to agree to Ankara's demands to overturn the Muslim Brotherhood death sentences — a ploy to improve Saudi-Turkish relations — and would have to continue to increase its support of the military coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen (and possibly support Saudi-backed groups in Syria).
This tactic comports with Saudi Arabia's broader regional strategy of building a Sunni state alliance that can counter Iran as Tehran makes its way back into the international community. To that end, Riyadh has tried to recruit members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for a joint counterterrorism grouping, and Egyptian military power would be helpful in either regard. And Egypt, for its part, has an interest in going along with Saudi Arabia's plans. Without the financial means to combat militancy in the Sinai and Libya, Egypt benefits from having another foreign patron, especially one that Cairo can play off its other backers, including the United States and Russia. Moreover, Egypt understands that resolving the crisis in Iraq and Syria, with its complicated web of external players, could end some of the violence cropping up inside its own borders — something Cairo probably cannot do on its own.
Saudi Arabia is determined to surround itself with Sunni states it can manage. But notably, that determination stems from its own domestic security concerns, particularly among the Shiites in the east. Saudi Arabia is less susceptible to extremism than Egypt, thanks in part to the superior Saudi economy, but low oil prices could eventually create the kind of economic instability on which jihadist recruiters thrive. That the Saudi government is so involved in the conflict in Yemen attests to how highly it values stability — especially Sunni-led stability — on its borders.
It also explains why Saudi Arabia would want Turkey on its side. As in Yemen, Riyadh is trying to establish a Sunni state, in this case to the north in Syria and Iraq. And the Saudi efforts to do so have come at a time when Turkey, like Egypt before it, is reaching a tipping point following the Syrian suicide bombing two weeks ago that killed 10 Turks and foreigners in the heart of Istanbul's tourist district. Having missed an earlier opportunity, Turkey may now be ready to more forcefully intervene in the conflict to its south. Of course, increased military operations there will aggravate tensions with Russia, forcing Turkey to work with other partners to stabilize its border. To avoid isolating itself, Turkey would operate more effectively under the umbrella of a coalition of Sunni states, since politically, Russia can less easily attack a broader coalition. This shared imperative with Saudi Arabia unites the two Sunni powers as never before.
The deal Saudi Arabia has helped to broker with Egypt and Turkey has been months in the making. Saudi King Salman broached the subject with al-Sisi as early as March 2015, just before promising billions in aid to Egypt at an economic summit, according to Stratfor sources. Death sentences for the most prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders, such as former President Mohammed Morsi and Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, are firmly in place, but Cairo quietly overturned or otherwise reduced the sentences for other members in December and reduced one of Badie's several charges. (Egyptian security forces continue to arrest Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protesters.) Notably, Cairo is unlikely to overturn Morsi's sentence so long as Egyptian security remains unstable; doing so would provoke pro-Brotherhood and anti-Brotherhood elements alike. Still, the concessions in December may be enough for Erdogan to recognize the military junta.
Turkey has worked hard to improve its Middle Eastern relationships recently, and moving under the umbrella of a broader coalition with Saudi Arabia would not only aid Turkey's image in the Arab world as it becomes more assertive, but also help to mitigate a potential backlash from Russia on the battlefield if there are more participants. But there are also economic considerations at play. In 2015, Ankara was excluded from a group that benefitted most directly from the discovery of Egypt's Zohr natural gas field. Turkey is now eager to reinsert itself into this energy equation and promote itself to Israel and Cyprus as the most economically viable transit state through which to pipe natural gas to Europe.
Here, too, Egypt's and Turkey's interests align. For Turkey to benefit from the Zohr field — and for Egypt to become a member of Saudi Arabia's alliance — Ankara will have to recognize the legitimacy of the government in Cairo.
Such shared interests may smooth the path to closer cooperation between Turkey and Egypt, but the question remains just how quickly the two countries can overcome their differences. In April, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, of which both are members, is set to convene in Istanbul. Should al-Sisi attend, it will be the first time a high-level Egyptian official has visited Turkey since the military coup in 2013. The summit, then, will be good indicator of whether Saudi efforts to bring about a rapprochement are proving fruitful.