Less is more

Gareth Jenkins , Monday 19 Sep 2011

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first official visit to the new Egypt provides further proof that sometimes it really does pay to wait, but Turkey will gain more by reining in its ambitions

Originally scheduled for February 2011, Erdogan’s visit was delayed by the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution and then by the campaign for the Turkish general election of 12 June, which saw Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) win a third successive term. As a result, Erdogan arrives in Egypt not only with a renewed domestic mandate but to meet with a new Egyptian government; more importantly, it is one with which the AKP believes it can form a much closer relationship that would have been possible with the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

In recent years, and particularly since Ahmet Davutoglu was appointed foreign minister in May 2009, the AKP has devoted considerable time and effort to strengthening Turkey’s ties with the other predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East. Visa requirements for travel between Turkey and many other countries in the region have been eased or abolished completely. There has been a massive increase in the number of reciprocal visits by politicians and official delegations. Economic ties have boomed, driven by a rapid growth in bilateral trade and investment. The cross-fertilisation has even extended to popular culture, as Turkish soap operas dubbed into Arabic have achieved huge ratings across the region.

For the AKP, whose foreign and domestic policies are steeped in Ottoman nostalgia, Turkey’s recent re-engagement with the Middle East represents not a new departure but a return to its roots; a coming home after decades of trying to emulate the West. Since it first came to power in 2002, the AKP has gradually relaxed Turkey’s previously draconian interpretation of secularism and loosened the country’s once close ties with Europe and the US. Although the AKP still pays lip service to its official goal of eventual EU membership, in practice it is years since it made any concerted attempt to pass the reforms necessary for accession, and opinion polls suggest that less than half of the Turkish population now want to join the EU. Instead, as Davutoglu has repeatedly made clear, the AKP’s overriding priority is not to join an existing bloc of nations but to make Turkey a power in its own right; with closer ties with the other countries in the Middle East forming the core of its regional powerbase. But, until recently at least, the most striking anomaly in the AKP’s policy of engagement with the region was the relative lack of attention that it paid to Egypt.

Of course, the AKP could not afford to ignore Egypt completely. A small number of Turkish firms invested in Egypt, buying businesses and building factories. In 2010, annual bilateral trade stood at $3.2 billion, approximately the same level as in 2009; a figure which was neither negligible nor — particularly when compared with the rapid increase in Turkey’s economic ties with other countries in the region — spectacular. Political relations were cordial rather than close; although there were plans for future cooperation, such as Egypt supplying Turkey with natural gas. But there was no doubt that relations between the two most powerful and most populous countries in the region were not as strong as they could have been.

One of the reasons was that the Islamist past of the majority of the AKP leadership meant that they felt emotionally much closer to the Egyptian opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, than they did to the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Relations became further strained by the AKP’s increasingly vigorous support for the Palestinian Hamas, which was itself closely aligned with elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. Starting in January 2009, Erdogan tried to establish Turkey as the most outspoken international advocate of Palestinian rights, including fiercely criticising the blockade of Gaza, which was being jointly enforced by Israel and the Mubarak government.

As a result, if Erdogan had visited Egypt while Mubarak was still in power, there would probably have been limited scope for increased cooperation. However, from the Turkish perspective, the ousting of Mubarak and the new Egyptian government’s easing of the Gaza blockade have removed two of the main perceived obstacles to closer ties. The two governments have already announced that a bilateral Strategic Cooperation Council, similar to those Turkey already has with other countries in the region, will be inaugurated during Erdogan’s visit. The track record of the councils Turkey has established with other countries, such as Iraq, suggests that they tend to serve more as forums for the discussion of issues of mutual concern rather than platforms for joint action. Nevertheless, by increasing the frequency of bilateral contacts, they strengthen political relations and facilitate increased economic ties.

However, the longer term prospects for the rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt are likely to depend more on the AKP understanding the limits to its ambitions. Turkey’s recent re-engagement with the Middle East came at a time when domestic considerations had made the Mubarak regime increasingly introverted; more focussed on maintaining its grip on domestic power than assuming its traditional role as the cultural leader and a political heavyweight of the Arab world. There is little doubt that one of the reasons that Turkey has emerged as a major player in the Middle East in recent years has been that it has occupied some of the space that in previous decades had been filled by Egypt. As a result, if Egypt resumes a more active role in the politics of the region, then there is a possibility of new rapprochement turning into rivalry.

However, in theory, at least, both Turkey and Egypt would stand to gain more from cooperation than competition, both politically and economically. Much will depend on whether the AKP can learn to lower its sights. AKP officials frequently cite the Ottoman Empire as a paradigm of tolerance and social harmony. More disturbingly, they appear unaware that their nostalgia for Ottoman rule is not shared by the other peoples in the region. Davutoglu himself frequently refers to Turkey’s re-engagement with the region as history resuming its “natural course”. His speeches and writings are suffused with the erroneous, if sincere, belief that the creation of a neo-Ottoman sphere of Turkish dominance in the Middle East would be welcomed as warmly by Arabs as by Turks.

Such a perception is untrue, of course. After decades in which Turkey looked West and largely ignored the Middle East, many in the region have warmly welcomed the AKP’s policy of re-engagement. But they want to cooperate with Turks, not be dominated by them. Erdogan’s visit to Egypt will doubtless include numerous effusive expressions of friendship and pledges of future cooperation. But, in the longer term, the ability of the rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt to fulfil its potential is likely to depend on the AKP’s willingness to rein in its neo-Ottoman ambitions and build a relationship based on equality and partnership. Whether or not it will be able to do so remains to be seen.

The writer is an analyst based in Istanbul.This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly

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