As Egypt and Turkey Mend Ties, Could Defense Deals Follow?

After an upgrade in diplomatic relations, some experts told Breaking Defense that defense cooperation may be in the interest of both countries, but there’s a long way to go.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, after giving a joint press conference in Cairo, on March 18, 2023. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — The recent agreement by Turkey and Egypt to restore diplomatic ties could be a step towards potential defense cooperation between the two nations, experts said, but in the end it’s too early to predict and critical hurdles remain.

“I think we are more in a state of détente than entente,” said David Des Roches, associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies. “The relationship is more likely to be transactional in the short term. If both sides gain trust in each other, then the relationship can expand.”

Earlier this month Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu traveled to Cairo, reportedly a first for a Turkish foreign minister in more than a decade, and said that after “frank” talks, he and his Egyptian counterpart planned to “raise diplomatic ties to the highest level as soon as possible,” indicating the reappointment of ambassadors to their respective embassies. Ties had ruptured in 2013 after a coup in Cairo removed the Turkey-supported Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi.

In an interview with reporters in Cairo, Cavusoglu reportedly said that in addition to discussions about trade and transportation issues, the two countries also talked about defense cooperation and military dialogues. Turkey and Egypt, he said, must “work together for the peace and survival of our region.”

But as with the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, experts told Breaking Defense that a cooling of diplomatic tensions wouldn’t necessarily, or quickly, translate to a dramatic change in cooperation on defense issues or any major defense procurement deals. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t longer-term interest.

“Before the coup in 2013, Egypt was interested in acquiring UAVs, corvettes and armored vehicles from Turkey,” said Arda Mevlütoğlu, a Middle East defense expert who works at a Turkey-based defense consulting firm. “After a possible reestablishment of strategic partnership, drones, guided weapons, armored vehicles and C4ISR systems [could] be acquired.”

The Hurdle Of Libya

One of the largest remaining obstacles in the Turkey-Egypt relationship is Turkey’s involvement with Egypt’s neighbor to the west, Libya. Turkey has supported the Tripoli-based government and deployed troops there since 2020. Meanwhile Egypt has backed rivals in the east, though Cairo has apparently softened its stance in recent years. Turkey also claims a 16-nautical-mile-wide maritime corridor through the Mediterranean from Turkey’s west coast to the waters off northern Libya.

“Libya is definitely a point of contention, and the fact that we are seeing this agreement [between Turkey and Egypt] now may mean both parties judge the situation in Libya is close to either a settlement or at least a stable division,” Des Roches said.

Ahmad Eliba, a defense expert at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, was the most skeptical about potential significant defense cooperation between Cairo and Ankara, and pointed to Libya as a matter that would have to be settled first.

“I think the next step will be in security and not defense cooperation, mainly in Libya,” he said.

The ‘Ideal’ Industrial Partner

Eliba said he was doubtful of further defense cooperation mainly because there wasn’t much to speak of even before the 2013 coup.

But other experts said there are areas in which both countries could see the benefits of working together – especially considering armed drones.

“Armed drones, especially the Bayraktar, is most likely the number one item on Egypt’s shopping list,” Des Roches said, referring to the Turkish drone made famous in the Ukraine conflict. “It’s possible that the Egyptians will also seek Turkish light armored vehicles, which have utility for police units as well as for the Army.”

Des Roches noted that Turkey has been focused on building up its industrial base and defense exports. Soliman noted that Egypt is eager to invest in its own defense industry, including in the production of UAVs, and could see Turkey as an “ideal” industrial partner.

Likewise, Mevlütoğlu said joint production would be mutually beneficial. He cautioned, however, that a deal would “take time and such a cooperation requires strategic alignment.”

Des Roches said that Turkey may not see much advantage in joint production with Egypt, which would require sharing at least some technical expertise, and Egypt would likely conclude that it’s cheaper and easier just to buy directly from Ankara.

What form defense cooperation takes – if any – remains to be seen, as does the geopolitical long-term implication of the heightened diplomatic ties.

“The future of the relationship between Egypt and Turkey will determine whether a warm or cold normalization unfolds,” Soliman says.

If it’s warm, though, Des Roches said the defense implications “could be extremely significant.”