Egypt and Turkey are two of the most powerful neighbors in the eastern Mediterranean region. They share a wide range of cultural and historical commonalities, and the economic interdependency between them has grown to an unprecedented threshold, especially in the past three years.
Sada El-Balad English (SEE) managed to undergo this exclusive interview with Ambassador Salih MutluŞen, Turkey’s new diplomatic representative in Cairo, to discuss the future of Egyptian-Turkish affairs, his impressions about life in Egypt, and his vision and strategy to improve the relationship between the two countries on both state and people-to-people levels.
The Way to Egypt
SEE: Your Excellency, it has been five months since you settled in Cairo with your family. How do you find your new diplomatic mission in our country?
Ambassador Şen: When H.E.Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, assigned me to head the Turkish diplomatic mission to Egypt, I felt pleased and honored but, honestly, not surprised. Back in the years, when I was a student of Political Science at the University of Ankara, I grew a personal interest in understanding how Egypt views the world, and I started buying and reading Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper on regular basis. So, when I learned about my assignment to Egypt, I got the feeling that this is what I have always been destined to do – to live and serve in Egypt.
My first impressions of Egypt are actually a mixture of curiosity and familiarity. But the more I interact with the Egyptian people, my love and respect for this country grow bigger. Love stems from our historical and religious resemblance, in addition to family bonds of kinship. At the same time, I respect and appreciate the uniqueness of the Egyptian civilization, its cultural assets, and the institutional wisdom of the Egyptian nation-state.
SEE: Given the loaded political agenda between Turkey and Egypt, have you and your family been able to explore cities outside Cairo, yet? How do your wife and son feel about living in Egypt?
Ambassador Şen: As you said, I have a hectic schedule that is not only limited to the daily routine work at the embassy. In fact, Cairo has a lot to offer and I am still in the process of discovering the hidden historical gems of the capital city, with my family. However, we plan to explore the rest of Egypt. Probably, we will start by discovering the mesmerizing history of Luxor and Aswan along the blessed Nile River.
I served twice in Jeddah and that made my family familiar with the Arab world. However, the social and cultural similarities between Turkey and Egypt made it much easier for my wife and son to adapt to the way of life here.
The Egyptian people look like family relatives to us. For my wife, living in the Palace of Princess Kazima, the daughter of Sultan Hussein Kamil, and caring for her heritage and memory is the most valuable thing. The second most important consideration and consolation for my wife are that she lives in an Islamic country where she can hear the Azan [call for prayer] five times a day. My son joined Lycee Francais du Caire. He tells me that his Egyptian classmates are so open and appreciative of him being a Turk. He loves his school and enjoys Cairo life in general. Mashallah, he is more motivated and successful at school here than he was in Turkey. Actually, when he was younger, most of his classmates in Jeddah were Egyptian kids.
SEE: Your Excellency is one of the most active ambassadors in Egypt. Since you arrived you have been eating at local restaurants and doing prayers in historical mosques. What is your personal impression of Egyptian food and way of life?
Ambassador Şen: In Egypt, as well as in Turkey, the society is known for its welcoming and hospitable attitude towards foreigners. I consider eating in local restaurants and praying in historical mosques as a means to create ties with Egyptian society.
I perform Friday prayers in a different mosque every week. That is not only to fulfill a personal religious duty but also to allow me to immerse in the fine details of the local community. I believe it is important to comprehend the essence of the country and its people. The same goes for my interest in trying local food at local restaurants. Ful Medames [fava beans] and Um Ali pudding are the most delicious dishes, in my opinion. By now, I savor Ful on breakfast on the weekends. I, also, enjoyed a filling plate of Koshari at Abu Tarek restaurant, in downtown Cairo, the other day.
“Common Culture and Identity”
SEE: Last month, Turkey returned some of the Ottoman artifacts that were stolen from Egypt last year (e.g., the Kaaba Key and embroidered bag). What do you say about the rich cultural heritage that the two countries share and has been ignored for so long?
Ambassador Şen: First, let me tell you that I am pleased that the artifacts are back in the place where they belong. The Turkish authorities immediately contacted their Egyptian counterparts, as soon they discovered the key to the Holy Kaaba and the embroidered bag stuffed in a cargo parcel. We doubted that they may have been stolen from Egypt.
Later on, the Turkish Director General of Cultural Heritage and Museums personally handed them to the Egyptian Consul General in Istanbul, Tarik Khalil, who is also a dear friend of mine.
Artifact smuggling is a serious problem in Egypt and more generally in the Middle East region. I highly appreciate the efforts made by the Egyptian authorities to recover historical objects from all over the world. This is crucial to preserve Egypt’s cultural heritage and to promote our common historical heritage.
Personally, I am closely following the ongoing negotiations to retrieve the Rosetta Stone. I saw the replica of the Rosetta Stone at the Egyptian Museum of Civilization, recently. I can understand Egypt’s position as my country is also appealing to UNESCO to recover many of our deported antiquities. We are on the same side on this issue.
SEE: What is your plan for reviving the common history and culture of Turkey and Egypt during the time of your diplomatic service here?
Ambassador Şen: Turkish Egyptian common history should be recalled through the life stories of the key figures who shaped it. For example, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, who wrote Türkiye’s National Anthem spent a considerable portion of his life in Cairo, and his favorite hangout spot was Al-Fishawy Coffee shop, behind Al-Hussein Mosque.
Speaking of our common heritage and identity, I cannot go without mentioning Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt. He is an uncontested figure in our common history and his memory is still very vivid in Egypt. He undertook important reforms that are still visible in today’s Egypt.
In his era, Egypt had its first military corps of highly trained Egyptian soldiers. He also founded the centralized bureaucratic system that has been the core of the Egyptian state institutions, since then. That is in addition to reforming the agriculture system and founding educational facilities and printing houses. Between 1822-1851, the majority of the books published by the Bulak Printing House, which was established in 1821, are in Turkish. Competent scholars say that during the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha, Turkish culture and language greatly influenced Egypt.
I want the younger generations to know that the Mohamed Ali dynasty had always been treated in Istanbul almost like a part of the Ottoman dynasty. For example, Said Halim Pasha, the direct grandson of Mohamed Ali Pasha, had been appointed Sadrazam [Prime Minister] in the Ottoman Empire and is still regarded today as a great Turkish patriot statesman, and intellectual. His legacy is similar to that of Imam Muhammed Abduh in Egypt. His life story testifies to the deepness of our common identity and culture, which I am committed to uncovering and enhancing during the period of my diplomatic service in Egypt.
SEE: The Turnout of Egyptian tourists visiting Turkey has been on the rise, recently. What makes Turkey so attractive to Egyptians compared to other tourist destinations in the region?
Ambassador Şen: Our President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, took big leaps to turn Turkey into one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the region and the world. In the past 20 years of his leadership, huge reforms were made to sectors of transport, infrastructure, housing, health, education, and social security. That improved the quality of life in Turkey and consequently improved the service provided to foreign visitors interested in exploring our beautiful natural assets and rich culture.
Turkey, as a majority-Muslim country, is especially welcoming to Egyptian and Arab families and individuals. Another important factor to explain Turkey’s attractiveness to Egyptian visitors is affordable shopping. The prices of high-quality food and garments made in Turkey are much less than in other countries. Above all, the delicious variety of Turkish cuisine is unbeatable.
On the flip side, I encourage our Turkish citizens to visit Egypt and enjoy the cultural heritage that extends back thousands of years, in addition to beautiful beaches and a welcoming society.
Growing Economic Ties
SEE: As you have noted, social and economic development is one of the strongest enhancements to tourism. Are you following the national development projects that the Egyptian state has been leading for the past seven years? What do you think about them?
Ambassador Şen: We appreciate the impressive progress on the socio-economic development agenda in Egypt, under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Despite the economic pressures of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, the Egyptian government is persistent in its development goals. I am, particularly, impressed by the mega projects on upgrading infrastructure, transportation, and clean energy resources.
I am also fascinated by the new Administrative Capital and the New Alamein City, as an actual embodiment of the New Republic concept and principles. Such projects are the legacy of the current political leadership of President El-Sisi, which will remain standing tall for centuries to come.
SEE: The trade flow between Egypt and Turkey has been steadily growing, in the past three years in particular. We have also seen growth in liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from Egypt to Turkey during the past year. How do you explain that?
Ambassador Şen: Indeed, the trade volume has been growing since 2007, when the Free Trade Agreement between Turkey and Egypt entered into force. Bilateral trade volume jumped from US$1.5 billion in 2007 to a record US$ 8.2 billion in 2021.
I am also glad to say that Turkey is Egypt’s largest world exporter, during the first half of 2022. Moreover, the LNG has, recently, become an important factor in the balance of trade between the two countries. Turkey looks at Egypt as a reliable partner in terms of energy security.
According to the Egyptian Statistic Agency (CAPMAS), Turkey is the largest importer of Egyptian LNG, during the first half of 2022, with US$ 1.1 billion. We are ready to further enhance this energy cooperation, given the geographic proximity and the supply-demand seasons of both countries. We, also, wish to expand our energy cooperation beyond LNG, especially in terms of renewable energy resources, in line with the COP27 Presidency and combating climate change vision of the Egyptian Government.
SEE: In August, a delegation of Turkish businessmen visited Egypt to explore investment opportunities with their Egyptian counterparts. What are their plans? What should we expect to happen in the context of economic cooperation between Egypt and Turkey, keeping in mind that both countries are currently experiencing some economic difficulties?
Ambassador Şen: Let me start with the last part of the question. All the countries in the world are affected, to varying degrees, by the global economic crisis. Turkey and Egypt are not the exceptions to that global situation, unfortunately. However, I sincerely believe that the two countries are perfectly positioned to counter the impact of this global crisis together as two facing pillars of the eastern Mediterranean.
I relentlessly encourage our businessmen to consider Egypt’s geographic location when investing. That is not only about Egypt’s geographic proximity to Turkey, which will make shipping products easier and less costly. But, most importantly, Egypt controls the most strategic shipping routes in the world and is Turkey’s gateway to the regional and global markets.
The giant Turkish household appliances manufacturer, BEKO, is planning to invest in Egypt with US$ 100 million, in the coming period. It did not take much time for my classmate, Fatih, the CEO of BEKO to make such a decision. Before the end of this year, Fatih will be in Cairo with his team to launch the groundbreaking project that is believed to further enhance the economic relationship between the two countries.
SEE: We know that Turkish businessmen have important investments in Egypt and they provide a considerable contribution to the Egyptian economy and employment market. Is it possible to estimate the number of Turkish investors in Egypt?
Ambassador Şen: About 200 Turkish companies operate in Egypt, with a total investment of US$ 2 billion. At least 40 of them are large-scale investors. They employ about 65 thousand Egyptian workers. They mainly work in the fields of textiles, chemicals, and household appliances. I am determined to encourage them to further expand their investments in Egypt in the coming years and to target new businesses, such as construction.
Our construction companies are keen on developing partnerships with their Egyptian counterparts on both national and international projects. Even more, Turkish companies are ready to work with the Egyptian government on national development projects. This was clearly asserted, last week, in the speech of Mr. Rifat Hisarciklioğlu, President of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), at the event celebrating the centenary of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce in Alexandria.
SEE: Which improvements do you consider are necessary to support Turkish businessmen so that they can widen the scope of their investments in the Egyptian market?
Ambassador Şen: Recently, Egypt has shown a willingness to enhance cooperation with the private sector. That requires creating an attractive environment for local and foreign investors. President El-Sisi directed that all obstacles in the way of private investors should be removed. I can see the government is taking tangible steps in that direction.
The Economic Conference is one of these steps because it will narrow the gap between the vision of the government and the vision of the investors, in terms of empowering the private sector and creating a business-friendly environment for local and foreign investors.
As the business environment for local investors inside Egypt improves, more Turkish investors will come to the Egyptian market to work with the Egyptian private sector. The Turkish investors currently working in Egypt are positively talking about how the Egyptian market is already attractive to them, and they are impatiently waiting to seize future opportunities to expand the scope of their businesses in the lucrative Egyptian market.