from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt and Turkey: Nightmares

November 25, 2013

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) hosts ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (L) in Ankara on September 30, 2012.
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I remember sitting in the lobby of the Kempinski hotel in Cairo on a late afternoon in September 2011 chatting with an Egyptian friend and an American colleague when I became distracted and lost the train of the conversation.  I was hearing familiar sounds, but they were totally out of place.  In a few split desperate seconds, I asked myself, “Who?  What? Where?” until I regained my composure and thought, “Oh, that’s right...The Turks are here.”  In Cairo, where I am programmed to hear only Arabic or English, the out-of-place singsong of Turkish threw me momentarily.  This was the eve of what was billed as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s triumphant visit to Egypt and members of Turkey’s press corps were starting to fill up the capital’s hotels.  Huge posters with Erdogan’s visage and interwoven Egyptian and Turkish flags were placed around Cairo’s thoroughfares declaring “With United Hands for the Future.” It was a nice sentiment, but mutual enmity and strategic competition turned out to be the future of Egypt-Turkey relations.  Prime Minister Erdogan’s ongoing criticism of the July 3 coup d’etat and his continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood are the immediate cause for the Egyptian decision to downgrade relations with Turkey, but this is a spat that has long been in the making.

Critics of Prime Minister Erdogan will no doubt add the deterioration of Egypt-Turkey relations to the growing list of baffling statements, positions, and policies he has pursued recently.  Yet, unlike the prime minister’s demagoguery on coed college dormitories, for example, he is not entirely to blame for the Cairo-Ankara row.  The Turks now have difficult relations with every important country in the Middle East, but there are a series of underlying of political and structural issues that presaged the current dispute with the Egyptians.  My dear friend, the inestimable Bassem Sabry, captured what would be the eventual disconnect between Egypt and Turkey when, right after Erdogan left Cairo in 2011, he quipped, “The Turks don’t understand. When we say ‘Yay Ottomans!’ We mean the furniture.”

Before the January 25th uprising, ties between the two countries were correct, but hardly warm. Hosni Mubarak did not like Erdogan and one got the distinct sense that the feeling was mutual. The two leaders could not have been more different from each other:  Mubarak was old, exceedingly cautious, staid, and an authoritarian, while Erdogan was young, dynamic, charismatic, and a reformer (until his authoritarian streak emerged).  Mubarak, always suspicious of Islamists, did not much care for even the Turkish variety, which the press often described oddly as “mild.”  Needless to say, Erdogan has little love lost for the professional military class from which Mubarak hailed.

Beyond these kinds of personal differences, Erdogan’s active regional foreign policy and willingness to lambaste the Israelis both encroached upon what Mubarak considered to be Egypt’s natural domain and made the Egyptian leader look bad.  Much of the Erdogan mystique in the Middle East rested on the Palestinian issue and the principled stand he took against Israel’s blockade of Gaza—a policy in which Mubarak was, of course, complicit.  The Egyptian intelligence chief, the late Omar Suleiman, also harbored a grudge against the Turks for what he perceived to be Turkish “meddling” in Palestinian affairs, especially the development of relations between Ankara and Hamas.  To Omar Pasha, Turkey-Hamas ties compromised his ability to apply pressure on the organization by giving its leaders a respectable alternative to Syria or Iran.  For Mubarak and Suleiman, the proper place for the Turks in the region was on the sideline.  Whatever befell the Egyptians during the late Mubarak period, their leaders still maintained the pretension of regional influence and prestige.  They were simply not going to submit to Ankara’s effort to supplant Cairo’s traditional place.

Yet Erdogan did not just grate on the Egyptian leadership.  It’s hard to believe now, especially after Mohammed Morsi’s thunderous welcome at the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 2012  convention, but the Muslim Brothers did not much like Turkey’s Islamists even though the AKP’s political success intrigued them.  The Brotherhood, which regards itself as the granddaddy of Islamist movements, saw the AKP as a bunch of upstart Turks who were a little too liberal and a little too nationalist for its tastes.  Still, the Brothers—and many other Egyptians—were deeply appreciative when Erdogan was the first world leader to call on Hosni Mubarak to listen to his people and step down.  It was only after Mubarak’s fall that the Brothers sought to build a relationship with the Turks who could be an important source of diplomatic, political, and economic support for Egypt and themselves.

From the end of 2011 through 2012 and part of 2013, Erdogan was looking like a man in full.  The AKP-friendly press and the prime minister’s supporters were jubilant.  The 21st century was going to be a Turkish century and in the Middle East, newly empowered Islamist movements would look to Ankara for leadership.  Egypt, being the largest Arab country, was central to the way in which the AKP leadership imagined their future.  So caught up in his own mythology as master of both Turkey and the region, the Turkish prime minister grafted his party’s experience onto the Brotherhood and Egypt.  To the extent that Erdogan saw the Muslim Brotherhood as the analogue to his own party, the Turks apparently believed that the Brothers would follow the AKP’s own successful path.  Even after Morsi ran into significant opposition when it became clear that he had no real intention of upholding the principles of the revolution, the Turkish leadership refused to see what was actually happening in Egypt.  Instead, the prime minister and his advisers blamed the United States and the West for the Egyptian president’s troubles because Washington, in particular, could not tolerate the accumulation of Islamist power.  This was, of course, at variance with the vast majority of Morsi’s opponents who accused the United States along with Turkey of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to the detriment of Egyptian society.

Then, of course, came the July 3 coup d’état that ended Egypt’s experiment with Muslim Brotherhood rule.  By now, it should be clear that given Turkey’s history with military interventions and the unhappy experience of Turkish Islamists as a result of the 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 coups, Erdogan would be critical of Major General Abdel Fattah al Sisi.  Yet “the history of coups” argument is too pat and obvious.  There are more complicated and nuanced reasons for Erdogan’s seemingly pathological ire toward the new Egyptian authorities.

The overwhelming Egyptian support for the July 3 coup is a rejection of the “new Turkish model,” which is inextricably linked to Erdogan.  The AKP’s leaders have been careful not to use the word “model” and have from time to time been vocal in their rejection of the term, but privately they believe in it.  They regard Turkey’s experience of political and economic liberalization under the leadership of a popularly elected Islamist party as a template for countries in the Arab world.  When Egyptians came out into the streets en masse on June 30, demanding the end of Mohammed Morsi’s rule and Egypt’s senior command obliged them, it was a significant strategic setback for the AKP’s vision for Turkey’s leadership role.  No wonder then that the Turkish prime minister is angry.  If, after all, the largest Arab country rejects Turkey’s model, Ankara’s prospects for regional leadership are greatly diminished.  And unless Turks can be convinced that the Egyptians have no capacity to determine their future and that al Sisi’s intervention was the result of a Zionist-American manipulation, this setback might have domestic political consequences for Erdogan whose supporters have previously called him “the King of the Arab Street.”

The coup also revealed the widely differing worldviews of Turks and Egyptians, at least at this particular moment.  For the Turks, subordinating the General Staff to civilian leaders and making it virtually impossible for them to intervene in the political system is critical in creating an environment more conducive to democratic development (though it’s not sufficient as the Turkish case demonstrates).  Many Egyptians, in contrast, regard the military as a savior that rescued their country from chaos and almost certain collapse.  According to this view, Morsi clearly squandered his electoral mandate during his disastrous tenure in the presidency and he was overthrown with the expressed will of millions upon millions of Egyptians who took to the streets.  The military’s intervention, the argument goes, has given Egyptians another chance to reset politics and realize the democratic goals of Tahrir Square.  Needless to say, this account has lost all context, but it is what large numbers of Egyptians seem to believe rather fervently.  I suspect the Turks are correct—coups are not good for democracy—but the important point here is the significant gap between the way Turks and Egyptians view the world.

Observers should not expect Egypt-Turkey relations to improve any time soon.  Sure, Erdogan engages in over-heated rhetoric and the Egyptians hold onto a regional status from a by-gone era, but these are manifestations of a deeper problem.  Prime Minister Erdogan’s narrative is deeply unsettling and politically dangerous to Egypt’s current rulers and the return of the Egyptian military and concomitant effort to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood is the AKP’s nightmare.