After Visiting Syria and Turkiye: Has Egyptian Foreign Policy Changed?

Nuha Yousef | a year ago




For nearly a decade, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has consistently voiced criticism of Qatar and Turkiye. Given this history, it seemed unlikely that relations between Cairo and these two countries would improve anytime soon.

Throughout the last 10 years, the Egyptian media, which largely supports Sisi, portrayed the situation as being at an impasse.

However, behind the scenes, it appears that there was a degree of cooperation between the Egyptian government and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. Despite the longstanding tensions, there are now multiple communication channels open between Egypt and both Qatar and Turkiye.

These channels have gone beyond mere diplomatic exchanges, leading to significant cooperation that few could have predicted.


Reconciliation With Qatar

The recent visits made by Egyptian officials to Doha, Ankara, and Damascus signify a shift in Cairo’s foreign policy.

Over the past decade, Sisi had relied on certain foundations for his foreign policy, but these had resulted in the loss of many allies and strained relations with regional powers. As such, there was a sense of urgency to reorient Egypt’s foreign policy.

The prime minister’s recent visit to Doha marks a significant milestone in the relationship between the two countries. Since the Al-Ula Agreement in January 2021, there has been a growing understanding between Egypt and Qatar.

This has led to the abandonment of the arrogant stance taken by Egypt and other blockading countries towards Qatar and a phased approach to tension reduction. The result has been fruitful cooperation across various fields.

President Sisi’s visit to Qatar in September 2022 was his first official visit to the Gulf state since coming to power. The visit was driven by a mutual desire to bring their views closer together following years of tensions and debates. These efforts were in response to regional and international challenges that necessitated a reconsideration of positions and orientations.

The visits to Ankara and Damascus were also significant, as they reflect Egypt’s willingness to engage with countries that it had previously had strained relations with.

While these visits may have been preceded by several indicators, they are nonetheless a reflection of Egypt’s desire to chart a new course in its foreign policy. Only time will tell whether these efforts will result in a lasting realignment of regional alliances.


Turkiye’s Rapprochement

Alongside the significant breakthrough in Egyptian–Qatari relations, there has also been progress made in relations between Cairo and Ankara.

Turkiye has repeatedly expressed its readiness to fully normalize relations with Egypt based on open channels of communication at the economic, intelligence, and political levels.

The warm images of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu holding hands with his Egyptian counterpart reflect the desire of both countries to return to pre-2011 levels of relations, despite their disagreements on some regional files.

Egypt wasted no time in providing humanitarian support to Ankara and Damascus during their time of great suffering, sending multiple shipments of medical and relief aid to those injured and afflicted in southern Turkiye and northern Syria.

In doing so, Egypt took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen its cooperation with Turkiye, and in turn, Turkiye filled one of the gaps in the regional conflict that has persisted for nearly a decade.

The signs of rapprochement between Egypt and Turkiye date back to 2021 when the two regimes realized that the continuation of their rivalry would lead to heavy losses for both countries and deny them the opportunity to achieve wholesale gains from the return to normalcy.

Despite their differences, both countries were keen to avoid escalation and provide positive messages to each other. One such message was Cairo’s rejection of pressure from France and Greece to undermine Turkiye’s interests in Crete during the border demarcation agreement signed by Egypt with Athens in 2020.

The recent developments in Egyptian–Turkish relations indicate a significant shift in Cairo’s foreign policy towards Ankara. While there may still be differences between the two countries on some regional files, they have made it clear that they are committed to strengthening their cooperation across various levels.

As with the situation between Egypt and Qatar, only time will tell whether these efforts will result in a lasting realignment of regional alliances.


Normalizing With Bashar

Since Sisi’s rise to power, his regime’s support for the Assad regime in Syria has been consistent, with Sisi publicly declaring his backing for the Syrian army and the Assad regime against what was described as “terrorist groups” in official Egyptian media.

Contacts, meetings, and understandings between the two regimes have been ongoing for eight years, with a notable meeting between the Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers taking place in September 2021 at the United Nations General Assembly.

Egypt has been a significant supporter of the Assad regime, allowing Iranian weapons to pass through the Suez Canal and providing intelligence cooperation between the two countries’ intelligence services.

Despite this, Sisi had not personally contacted Assad until after the earthquake that struck the region on February 6, when he offered condolences and sent 5 military planes loaded with medical aid to both Syria and Turkiye.

Sisi’s regime’s support for the Assad regime is a significant departure from previous Egyptian foreign policy, which had been predicated on close ties with the United States and the Gulf states.

However, the Sisi regime’s changing relationship with Qatar and Turkiye has led to speculation that it is seeking to balance its relationships in the region, particularly in light of the shifting geopolitical landscape following the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Despite these open channels between Cairo and Damascus, Sisi did not call Assad directly—let alone meet him—until the day after the February 6 earthquake in order to offer condolences, as indicated by the official spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Ahmed Fahmy, and to provide aid to the afflicted, as Egypt sent 5 military planes loaded with urgent medical aid to both Syria and Turkiye, to help in rescue and subsistence operations for those affected.


Reorienting Policies

It is clear from reviewing these developments that Cairo has begun to re-engineer its regional foreign policy in one way or another, as the map of alliances in the Middle East has witnessed during the past five years crashing ripples.

Therefore, the Egyptian rapprochement with Turkiye, Doha, and Damascus cannot be read in isolation from regional and international developments that imposed new positions that forced everyone to reassess positions again.

Political Ph.D. researcher Osama Fouad told Al-Estiklal that foremost of which are the changes witnessed by the US administration in the White House, the phased exit from the Middle East, as well as the challenges resulting from the escalation of Iranian influence and the threats resulting from international conflicts.

“One of the strong motives and incentives for Cairo to reconsider its foreign policy is the critical economic challenges faced by both Egypt and Turkiye, as the two countries are facing an economic disaster that would threaten security and stability in addition to threatening the regimes in the two countries, which prompted them to go back a little and reassess things before leaving their warm regions and crossing their red lines, to announce together the strategy of ‘zeroing crises,’” he said.

“Cairo is in dire need of Turkish and Qatari investments, the latter two are also in the same need for the Egyptian market, and politically, the three parties are far from straining the atmosphere again and relying on common grounds to enhance cooperation in facing the great challenges facing the region that no country can face alone,” he added.

“In general, it can be said that the features of change in Egyptian foreign policy stem primarily from a purely pragmatic dimension, like the rest of the policies of other countries in the world,” he concluded.