|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 December 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Cairo-Ankara draw closer
President Hosni Mubarak will begin a postponed trip to Ankara on Saturday for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Suleiman Demirel. Several businessmen will accompany the president on his two-day visit, which will focus mainly on bilateral issues, although no cooperation agreements are expected to be finalised during the trip.
Consultations between the two leaders will also deal with Middle East peace-making, Turkey's growing ties with Israel and Ankara's ongoing negotiations with neighbouring Damascus.
Mubarak shuttled between Ankara and Damascus in early October to defuse a possible military confrontation over Syria's alleged backing of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Egypt, while aware of Syria's concern over Turkey's antagonistic policies, was nevertheless sympathetic to Turkey's firm stand against terrorism. Mubarak's shuttle diplomacy paid off and the confrontation was defused. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was expelled from Syria and is currently under house arrest in Italy, which has refused to hand him over to Turkey.
Syria and Turkey, furthermore, signed an agreement on 20 October under which Damascus pledged to halt all assistance to Ocalan and his PKK.
Last week, Mubarak said in Paris that "progress between Syria and Turkey is very promising". He expressed hope that the two sides will continue their talks on solving bilateral problems "through peaceful means rather than bloodshed".
Syria, along with most of the Arab world, is suspicious over expanding military ties between Turkey and Israel, which began in 1996. Damascus also feels threatened by Turkey's large-scale dam projects on the Euphrates River, which could hinder water supplies downstream in Syria.
Turkey, for its part, insists that the bilateral military pact with Israel is similar to those signed with 28 other countries, including 18 Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) states, of which half are Arab.
Egypt and Jordan turned down a Turkish offer to join the agreement with Israel, but Jordan took part as an observer in the US-Turkey-Israel military manoeuvres held in November 1997. Analysts saw Ankara's offer as a means of integrating Israel into the region through a military alliance, but Turkish diplomatic sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that, although relations with Israel are good, "this does not in any way influence our relations with the Arab world". Another source noted: "Turkey is not promoting Israel with the Arabs. We would be glad if relations between the two sides improved, but we are not doing anything in that direction."
Mubarak's visit comes at a critical moment in domestic Turkish politics, as Demirel scurries to find a replacement in the wake of Prime Minister Massoud Yilmaz's resignation. Turkey's coalition government, which quit on 25 November after a 17-month tenure, was voted out of office by parliament for alleged corruption.
In preparation for the visit, the Egyptian-Turkish Business Council met in Istanbul on 16 November to discuss economic cooperation. The business community in both countries aims to foster and pursue economic relations independently from political positions and problems in the region.
Egypt is Turkey's largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, with the trade volume soaring to $704 million last year. During the first nine months of 1998, Egyptian exports to Turkey amounted to $305 million, and its imports to $284. Sources say that the two sides are working to increase the trade volume to $1 billion in the near future. The Turkish side is pressing for a free trade agreement with Egypt, similar to that signed by Turkey and Israel, to bolster trade relations further.
Turkish businessmen are encouraged to invest in technology and resources in the New Valley, in south-western Egypt, while their Egyptian counterparts have plenty of opportunities for investment in agriculture in Turkey's colossal South Anatolia Project (GAP).
The two countries, however, still have to iron out differences on the possibility of Egypt exporting natural gas to Turkey, a project which could cost as much as $4 billion. According to Ankara, the price of Egyptian gas is too high compared to other possible suppliers such as Algeria, Qatar and Nigeria. For political reasons, however, Turkey, the largest gas market in the region, prefers Egypt as a partner in such an endeavour.
Both sides have shown interest in cooperation on the production of automotive components and the feeding industry for local and export markets. At the same time, both countries have large consumer markets, significant access to other markets and economic links with the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Middle East and North Africa as well as the Economic Community of Eastern and Southern African states.