INTERVIEW: Egypt's last ambassador in Turkey Abdel-Rahman Salah discusses Erdogan's probable U-turns

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 26 Sep 2020

Salah argues that sooner or later Erdogan will have to backtrack on the majority of his foreign policy choices – including those on Egypt

 AbdelRahman Salah

This week has been seeing growing signs that the threats of military resolve that Turkey has been projecting around the Eastern Mediterranean are receding in favour of a dialogue-oriented discourse.

In two consecutive statements during the course of the week, high ranking officials from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus spoke of chances for dialogue to resolve problems, essentially between Turkey and Greece over the exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the division of Cyprus.

According to Abdel-Rahman Salah, Egypt’s last ambassador in Ankara, who was dispatched in 2011 and recalled back in the tumultuous summer of 2013 when Turkey openly opposed the political transition in Egypt, there would have to be a way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end the “rough and aggressive foreign policy choices” he has been adopting for over seven years so that he can make a U-turn to the “soft power choices that pursue joint interests and zero problems with the neighbours of Turkey” as has been the case with his foreign policy parameters during his first 10 years at the helm.

The current rough policies, Salah argued in an interview with Ahram Online, are proving not just useless to serve Erdogan’s interests but also counterproductive, having caused “the regional isolation of Turkey” and “put the Turkish economy at a very challenging point.”

“Erdogan’s real claim to fame is with the economic success story that he made. He also managed to give Turkey a considerable regional presence that was expanding upon the pursuit of common interests for Turkey and its neighbours. With the aggressive choices he has been making, Erdogan is simply not just losing regional allies and internal loyalists but he is also losing his own claim to fame,” Salah argued.

“It is only very conspicuous that at the internal level Erdogan is coming under growing criticism, not just from the ultra-secular camp, but also, and a lot more significantly, from politicians who had been his closest advisors,” Salah added.

Like all those with an insight into Turkish affairs, Salah is not at all overlooking the fact that both Ali Babajan and Ahmet Davutoglu have now become firm political adversaries to Erdogan – essentially on the account of the foreign policy choices of the president of Turkey and the impact thereof on the economic situation in the country.

“Of course there are old and established political foes who subscribe to alternative and contrasting political agendas but I am here talking about two leading architects of Erdogan’s political and economic choices during the time his rule was considered by many as a success story: Ali Babajan and Ahmet Davutoglu,” he said.

During the past few weeks, Salah noted, both Babajan and Davutoglu had showered criticism on Erdogan’s political choices.

Erdogan's policy on Egypt, he added, was one of the main things that both Babajan and Davutoglou have “sharply criticised.”

According to Salah, it is becoming “very evident now to all shades of Turkish opposition that Erdogan has decided to compromise his relations with Egypt, a leading regional power in favour of a delusional aspiration to expand Turkish regional presence through association with political Islamic groups that have been losing credit in the region.”

Salah is willing to argue that “Erdogan’s bit on political Islam” is the root of the problem he is now facing.

“In 2012, Erdogan saw that political Islam was finding its way up in Arab Spring countries; he saw it happening, in different ways, in Egypt and Tunisia; he thought it would happen also in Syria, Libya and Yemen,” he said. “Accordingly, he decided to play the Islamist card out of an assumption that he would be leading the entire Middle East through the rise of political Islam to power in several Arab states,” he added.

For Salah, this “Islamism” was not at all something that Erdogan was so overplaying before the phase of the Arab Spring. And, he added, while Erdogan’s Islamist line was clear, the president of Turkey was “always careful not to step over the line of secularism” that Turkey has been embracing for almost a century when he came to power.

“When Erdogan visited Egypt in 2011 he publicly stated he is committed to his country’s secular affiliation, which did not please the Muslim Brotherhood at the time,” Salah recalled.

He added, “Erdogan had been so observing of the requirement of secularism to the extent that back in 2007 when the liberal opposition wanted to sue him for having crossed the lines of secularism it was impossible for a court of law to find anything in his speeches or interviews that indicated any contempt of secularism.”

According to Salah, Erdogan would not agree for his party members to publicly share the fact that he leads them at prayers. “He thought this would conflict with his image as the leader of a secular country,” Salah said.


And, he added, until 2012 Erdogan had openly and publicly declined all appeals made by radical Islamists to turn the museum of Hagia Sofia, which was built in the sixth century as a church before it was converted into a mosque in the 15th century and then into a museum in the 20th century, into a mosque again.

“He used to openly and publicly say that there are so many mosques around Hagia Sofia and they are never full of worshippers and that there is no logic to reconvert the museum into a mosque,” Salah recalled.

It was towards the end of 2012, Salah said, that Erdogan opted for an extra Islamist dose, which inevitably ended into reconverting Hagia Sofia into a mosque earlier this year.

“Erdogan had just found it purposeful to subscribe to Islamism and he has gone the extra mile there, but today or maybe tomorrow he would find a way to climb down – and in both cases he is acting strictly out of political opportunism, for he is really a political pragmatist,” Salah said.

“In 2010, Erdogan was getting into a confrontation with Israel over the Gaza flotilla but it did not take him long to drop the confrontation; this is the way he does politics: he would push the line but he would make a U-turn when necessary,” Salah said.

“The same happened a few years later when he quit a panel at the Davos conference with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Perez but he later asked the foreign minister of Turkey to privately pass his apologies to Perez – and it was Ahmed Davutoglou, the former foreign minister of Turkey who revealed this,” he added.

Today, Salah argued, Erdogan needs to rethink his choices on many fronts. One of the things that Erdogan would need to think about sooner rather than later is “his illusion” of sharing the Muslim world with Iran – with him leading the Sunni world and Iran leading the Shias.

“This was a total illusion right from the start; he miscalculated the situation when he saw Egypt being consumed with its internal political developments and Saudi Arabia getting into some internal political debates; he saw a vacuum and he thought he could fill it -- but it was just a big miscalculation,” Salah said.

As an essential part of readdressing his choices on this front, Salah said, Erdogan would have to find a way to make peace with Egypt.

“Egyptian demands [to make peace with Turkey] are perfectly clear and perfectly legitimate: Erdogan needs to pull out the jihadists he is moving around the Middle East, especially those in Libya our next door neighbour that has been so badly influenced by the presence of militias; then he needs to stop the propaganda and political activism designed against Cairo from Turkey; and he needs to stop causing instability around the Mediterranean,” he stated.

If Erdogan was to do this, Salah said, then “it is my assessment that Egypt would reciprocate.”

Egypt, in Salah's opinion, is not at a die-hard quarrel with Turkey. On the contrary, he said, Egypt had been willing to build bridges and work with Turkey as indicated by the 2010 agreements between the two countries. After the January Revolution, he added, there was a moment when Cairo and Ankara got particularly close with the rule of Mohamed Morsi in 2012 and then they got particularly at odds with the ouster of Morsi.

According to Salah, the sooner Erdogan comes to terms with the fact that he stands no chance of helping the Muslim Brotherhood back in power in Egypt, the easiest he would make it for himself to mend fences with Egypt.

Salah admits that this optimism about a U-turn in Erdogan’s foreign policy and about a possible Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement is not something that many informed diplomats and analysts would share with him. However, he still thinks there is a possiblity for improvement out of his own judgement on Erdogan’s political pragmatism.

Moreover, according to Salah, it is totally wrong for anyone to think that if Erdogan was to accommodate Egypt's demands, “in relation to political intervention in Egyptian affairs and military intervention in Libyan and also in Syrian affairs,” that Egypt would hesitate to reciprocate in view of its close alliance with the UAE that is perceived by many political commentators as jockeying to compete with Turkey over Sunni leadership – albeit in a soft style that is inspired by aide, both financial and political.

“This is nonsense; Egypt is no proxy for anyone; Egypt is a leading country in this region and I am sure that Erdogan and all politicians in Turkey, be they his supporters or opponents, know very well that when all is said and done Egypt is ‘the big prize’,” he argued.


On the European front, he added, Erdogan who “projected a wish to join the EU in order to apply the Copenhagen criteria that helped him put the military power under the executive power” turned around to the point that “he openly and repeatedly threatened the European governments with sending waves of Syrian refugees that had found their way in Turkey.”

If Erdogan managed to improve his foreign relations and seize his support of the “militant Islamist groups that he is in direct cooperation with,” then there is a possibility for him to work a way out of the current economic crisis that “cannot be resolved by just depending on Qatar and some mega Islamist businessmen.”

Moreover, Salah added, by U-turning on foreign policy and giving a positive push to the economy, Erdogan could well overcome his internal political dilemma that had forced him to get into an electoral bargain with the ultra-nationalists in the 2018 parliamentary elections and had cost his party in 2019 the seat of the mayor of Istanbul, “despite all the political tricks.”

“I think it was very significant that Erdogan’s party lost Istanbul, not just for Erdogan whose success story started when he was mayor of Istanbul, but also for the Justice and Development Party whose leaders know very well the political significance of the seat of the mayor of Istanbul,” he argued.

Salah is convinced that Erdogan must be aware of the fact that the scope of apprehension over his regional policies is widening to include countries like Algeria and Morocco, who have traditionally had no quarrel with him over his assumed Islamism. He must also be aware that he had to make more compromises than he wished in Libya upon the intervention of Russia and the US, who clearly told him to pull back his forces upon the Egyptian announcement that Cairo would not tolerate the presence of militias in Libya starting the Sirte-Juffra line, some 1,000 kilometres to the west of Egypt. And he must be aware that his military presence in Syria and Iraq is not sustainable.

“So it is clear that he needs to make a U-turn; I think he will, but I am not sure exactly when or how,” Salah concluded.

Last year, Salah released a book on his mission in Turkey. Kont Safiran Lada Al-Sultan (I was an Ambassador to the Sultan) was published by Nahdet Misr, in Cairo.

In around 300 pages, with endless detailed accounts and anecdotes, Salah shared his memories as the ambassador of Egypt in Turkey during the high and low moments of cooperation – with a particular emphasis on the Morsi presidency.

Short link: