BACKGROUND: Since coming to power in 2003, Turkey's then prime minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sought to transform Turkey into an inter-regional power that can set the terms for a new pattern of connectivity between Europe, Africa and Asia. Turkey originally promoted its inter-regional connectivity agenda with a soft power policy dubbed "Zero problems with neighbors" that emphasized "political dialogue, economic interdependence and cultural harmony." The 2011 'Arab Spring' marked a turning point in this policy. As civil unrest spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Erdoğan prioritized championing the Muslim Brotherhood parties in several Arab states that were seeking to ride the wave popular protests to political power. Erdoğan's strong backing of the Brotherhood set Ankara and Cairo on a collision course following the Egyptian army's 2013 ouster of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood-led government and former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi 's 2014 election as Egypt's president. Cairo expelled Turkey's ambassador while Ankara declared Egypt's ambassador persona non grata. Turkey provided refuge for high level Muslim Brotherhood members to continue their activities, including the operation of Istanbul-based television channels.
The rupture in relations led to a widening geopolitical split. Egypt initiated a process of developing strategically significant, trilateral economic and security cooperation with Greece and Cyprus. Concurrently, Cairo and Ankara backed opposing sides in Libya's civil war. The 2015 discovery of the Zohr natural gas field off the coast of Egypt, the Eastern Mediterranean's largest natural gas find, entrenched the division between Cairo and Ankara, as a plan emerged to pool Egyptian, Cypriot, and Israeli gas and use Egypt’s liquefaction facilities to cost-effectively market the region’s gas to Europe as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Egypt-based LNG scheme excluded Turkey from the marketing of Eastern Mediterranean gas, undermining Ankara's aspiration to become an energy hub for Middle Eastern and Caspian basin natural gas to reach Europe. Ankara further objected to the ongoing exclusion of Turkish Cypriots in the northern half of the ethnically divided island from the development of Cyprus's offshore natural gas despite being the legal co-owners of Cyprus's natural resources.
As Egypt developed closer coordination with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, Turkey became even more severely constrained in its ability to defend its interests by a common front composed of the region’s natural gas producers and Greece. The alignment created a set of interlinked security partnerships that became increasingly supported by Italy, France, and the United States, each of whom has significant economic investments in Eastern Mediterranean gas. Finding no other recourse to prevent what Ankara viewed as a multinational effort at containment, Turkey engaged in series of acts of gunboat diplomacy from 2018-2020 in the Eastern Mediterranean. Contrary to Ankara's desired outcome, the actions served to push Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel into closer economic and security cooperation. Multilateral energy cooperation among Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean antagonists was formalized with the 2020 inauguration of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), an international organization for developing the region's natural gas founded by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Italy. France was subsequently admitted as a member in the Cairo-headquartered EMGF in March 2021 with the U.S. granted permanent observer member status. Turkey remains excluded from the so-called OPEC of Eastern Mediterranean gas.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey's gunboat diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean reflected a larger policy shift starting in 2016 in which Turkey opted for 'coercive diplomacy', prioritizing the use of hard power instruments and the development of forward bases to expand Turkey's influence abroad. Curtailing the regional influence of Sisi's Egypt and its close partner, the United Arab Emirates, (UAE) formed one of the main objectives of Turkey's use of hard power. Erdoğan repeatedly denounced Sisi publicly during this period, even decrying him in an extended 2016 Al-Jazeera television interview as a "putschist" who “has killed thousands of his own people."
In April 2016, Turkey opened its Tariq bin Ziyad base in Qatar that now houses 5,000 Turkish military personnel. A year and half after opening its Qatar base, Turkey opened an extensive military training facility in Mogadishu, Somalia in September 2017. With the Turkish military's ability to house its own naval, air, and land assets at its Mogadishu base, Ankara acquired a military position reasonably close to the Gulf of Aden, the eastern entry into the Red Sea corridor. By virtue of the Mogadishu base, Turkey has established Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) extending from its Mediterranean coast through the Red Sea corridor to the Horn of Africa, and from the Horn to Qatar in the Persian Gulf. Critical for the functioning of Turkey's partnership with Qatar, Turkey’s Mediterranean-to-Mogadishu SLOC also serves the expansion of Turkey's economic and political influence in the greater East Africa region.
Two months after Turkey opened its Mogadishu base, Ankara attempted to challenge Egypt's Red Sea dominance by acquiring Sudan's Suakin port in the heart of the corridor. In December 2017, President Erdoğan made a historic visit to Sudan, the first visit by an acting Turkish head of state, in which Sudan agreed to lease its Suakin port to Turkey for 99 years. While Turkey ostensibly agreed to restore the Ottoman era port for tourism, Sudan's then foreign minister revealed that Khartoum had acceded to Ankara building a dual-use port "to maintain civilian and military vessels," adding that Turkey and Sudan had signed an agreement "that could result in any kind of military cooperation."
With Turkey's growing military presence in Libya and the establishment of Turkish naval base in Sudan, Egypt faced the strategically unpalatable prospect of facing a Turkish hard power presence on both its eastern and southern borders. However, Turkey’s effort to secure Sudan’s Suakin port as dual-use facility was stymied by the April 2019 ousting of President Omar al-Bashir that ended the Sudanese strongman's 30-year rule and gave rise to a new government financially backed by Egypt's Emirati and Saudi partners to the tune of $3 billion.
Sudan's change of government not only sidelined Turkey's progress in creating interregional connectivity with the Horn of Africa; it solidified Egypt's own ambitions to be the geopolitical gatekeeper of an interregional Euro-Africa corridor via the Eastern Mediterranean. In October 2020, Egypt and Sudan signed a new transportation connectivity agreement that will create modern rail connections between Egypt and Sudan, creating a rail link from Egypt's southern city of Aswan to the Sudanese border town of Wadi Halfa, which is presently the northern terminus of Sudan's rail line from the country's capital, Khartoum. Combined with the eventual upgrade and completion of South Sudan's rail links between its borders with Sudan and Uganda, Egypt will preside over a rail corridor that links the growing economies of East Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean coast. With maritime connectivity from Egypt's ports to Greece's massive transshipment port at Piraeus and its freight rail service that ultimately reaches Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland, Egypt will become the hub of a Euro-Africa commercial corridor reaching as far as the equator.
Also in October 2020, Sudan followed the UAE’s lead and normalized relations with Israel, adding an additional strategic dimension to the commercial corridor, further marginalizing Turkey's influence in the Eastern Mediterranean-East Africa geopolitical continuum. Turkey's isolation is yet further deepened by the transformational connectivity that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been developing across the Red Sea. A capstone to the new Saudi-Egyptian connectivity is the construction of Saudi Arabia's $500 billion new innovation city, Neom. Over thirty times larger than New York City, the state-of-the-art, high technology mega-project and special economic zone is being constructed in Saudi Arabia's northwest Red Sea region and will create enhanced commercial connectivity with nearby Egypt, Jordan, and possibly Israel. Egypt is also spearheading a new Egypt-Jordan-Iraq cooperation alignment that enhances Cairo's influence across the heart of the Arab Middle East to Turkey's southern land borders.
CONCLUSIONS: Egypt, the largest Mediterranean nation by population and the third largest in Africa, is emerging as the hub of a new of pattern of inter-regional commercial connectivity between the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and the wider East Africa region. In parallel, Egypt also forms the keystone of the new inter-regional security architecture undergirded by Cairo's defense partnerships with Athens, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Khartoum. The power of these defense ties was put on prominent display during the late August 2020 naval stand-off between Turkey and Greece when the Egyptian Navy and the UAE Air Force conducted concurrent joint exercises with the Hellenic Navy and Air Force respectively in the Eastern Mediterranean. The striking demonstration of solidarity with Greece caught Ankara off guard and was soon followed by the September 15, 2020 signing of the 'Abraham Accords' normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel, later followed by Sudan and Israel, further solidifying a new Eastern Mediterranean-Arabian Peninsula-greater East Africa architecture.
With its own inter-regional aspirations currently constrained by its antagonistic relationship with Egypt, Ankara has faced the ineluctable necessity of recalibrating its policy toward Cairo. Initiating diplomatic overtures to the Sisi government in early 2021 that resulted in the May 2021 senior level rapprochement talks, Turkey's ability to improve its relationship Egypt will greatly depend on the extent to which Ankara curtails Muslim Brotherhood activists in Turkey, as a sign of its commitment to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Arab states. An easing of tensions with Cairo on this basis could also open the door for Ankara to improve its relations with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. Ankara's achievement of a geopolitical détente with Egypt and its Arab Gulf partners would result in an enormous commercial payoff for Turkey. By establishing a geopolitical modus vivendi, Turkey could pursue commercial synergies with Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia that would incorporate Turkey as a leading partner in the emerging architecture linking the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and the wider East Africa region. Rapprochement with Egypt could be the road to Turkey's rise an inter-regional economic power.
Prof. Michaël Tanchum teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Navarra, Spain and is a Senior Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES). He also holds fellow positions at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University, Israel, and at the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). @michaeltanchum