Turkey’s Complex Egypt Problem (and Problematic Egypt Complex)
In the early days of the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, a then status quo-oriented Turkey was criticized by some for at first having little to say about the unfolding events in Cairo (it was only once it became fairly clear that Mubarak would fall that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan started vocally calling on the Egyptian leader to step down). Following the recent ouster by the Egyptian military of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s problem seems to be reversed: keeping Erdogan from saying too much about what’s happening in Egypt.
In the wake of the coup in Egypt, Erdogan was without a doubt the most outspoken international critic of the military’s action, issuing a steady stream of denunciations – not just of the Egyptian generals but also of the western countries that refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup – and, at one point, referring to the deposed Egyptian leader as “my president in Egypt” and boasting of having refused to take a call from Mohammed ElBaradei, the liberal former diplomat appointed interim Vice President. Erdogan’s lambasting of the new regime in Egypt reached such a level that Cairo pointedly warned Ankara not to “interfere” in its internal affairs, while the Turkish PM felt obliged to publicly state that he is not “obsessed” with Morsi.
That may be right. Erdogan might have been speaking about Morsi, but the truth is that he is actually obsessed with himself, in the sense of how what happened to the first member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to be elected president of Egypt reflects on his own past and – more importantly – his future. For Erdogan, who became Prime Minister after spending decades in an Islamist political movement that continuously found itself boxed in by the Turkish armed forces and a secularist judiciary and also after spending several months in jail for the “crime” of reciting a religiously-tinged poem, the unraveling of the Morsi presidency at the hands of a seemingly defanged military buoyed by impressive popular support must seem like his worst nightmare come to life. It’s no wonder that Erdogan and several of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) associates referred to what happened in Egypt as part of a plot that also had Turkey in its crosshairs.
But Turkey, needless to say, is not Egypt. Civil society and democratic institutions and traditions, though still challenged in Turkey, are far more established there than in Egypt. The military in Turkey, while still in possession of significant financial concerns like its Egyptian counterpart, has been successfully pushed back into the barracks and poses no danger of staging a coup (nor does the public want it to do any such thing). And while both Turkey and Egypt have both recently experienced bouts of popular unrest, there’s really no comparing the dynamics behind last month’s Gezi Park-related events with those that led to the massive protests that proceeded Morsi’s removal by the military. Turkey may have its own history of military coups, but Erdogan’s over identification with events in Egypt is giving him a false and misguiding sense of ownership of the situation there, the PM last week acting and sounding like one of those disturbing and overeager fans screaming in the stands who believe they are part of the team, if not its coach.
Turkey is certainly allowed to criticize what the Egyptian military did to Morsi and follow a foreign policy that protects, as Erdogan said the other day, “international values and principles.” (For the record, this has not stopped Erdogan from, in the past, hosting Sudanese coup leader and suspected war criminal Omar al-Bashir and, more recently, dramatically toning down his once vocal advocacy on behalf of the oppressed Uighurs in western China after Ankara and Beijing agreed to vastly improve their trade relations.) But following this policy regarding Egypt has its costs, which Ankara must be ready to bear. In terms of relations with Egypt, Turkey for now has lost much of its ability to influence events there and, until the Muslim Brotherhood makes a comeback, will likely continue to find itself marginalized, a development which really benefits no one, Morsi and his movement included.
But there’s a deeper cost for Erdogan and Turkey that goes beyond relations with Egypt. The PM’s emotional reaction to the events in Egypt – combined with his harsh response to the earlier Gezi protests in Turkey – has only raised more questions about whether Erdogan has the political maturity and savvy to be the kind of regional leader he so desperately wants to be perceived as being. Interestingly, Egypt, where the popular image of Erdogan as the politician who could lead the Middle East’s post-“Arab Spring” transformation was born, is the place where that image is now being laid to rest.