Egypt and Turkey: future horizons

Mustafa El-Labbad , Monday 19 Sep 2011

The visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Egypt is an opportunity to put relations between the two countries on new foundations

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current visit to Egypt stands out from its predecessors by virtue of its symbolic value. This is his first trip outside Turkey since his victory in the parliamentary elections that were held last month and his first visit to Egypt since 25 January and the beginning of the “Arab Spring”.

The Arab Spring triggered a tsunami in the political map of the Middle East and in Egypt in particular. One of its immediate consequences has been to catapult Turkey from the ranks of neighbouring nations to the country closest to the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. Turkey is linked to Egypt by close religious, historical and cultural bonds, and Egyptians admire it for its democratic and peaceful rotation of power between competing political trends and for its status as the strongest and most sophisticated open economy in the Middle East.

The Turkish star glowed even more brightly for the Egyptian people when Ankara declared its support for the Egyptian demonstrations, further calling attention to the overlap between the Egyptian and Turkish value systems.

The foregoing factors add that extra dimension that makes the Turkish prime minister’s current visit an unprecedented event in Egyptian-Turkish relations. Ankara is naturally aware of this backdrop and of Turkey’s steadily improving image in Egyptian eyes. Undoubtedly, therefore, Erdogan’s central aim during the visit will be to translate this positive evolution into concrete political realities that will advance his country’s national interests and its regional profile. One can already envision talks over a bundle of most-favoured-nation partnerships, a concluding strategic dialogue on bilateral relations and a common vision with respect to the developments that are sweeping the Middle East.

In the years since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Turkey has re-oriented its foreign policy to reflect a new strategic vision. The shift has been manifested in a diplomatic thrust aiming at enhancing its influence in the region and elevating Ankara’s position from being a member on one side or the other of strategic alliances or axes, to being a regional strategic centre determined to maintain an equal distance from all, so as to be in a position to remain on good terms with all.

This policy shift has been instrumental to the marked enhancement of Turkey’s position in the region. As part of its shift, Turkey has sought to become more involved in the region over recent years and has, indeed, succeeded in entering regional equations by becoming a major player in Iraq and a fundamental partner in Syria and by establishing strong economic relations with many Arab countries. However, in view of this improvement, Turkey had no choice but to take a stance with respect to the Arab Spring, and in so doing it effectively shelved its successful “zero-problem” policy, devised by the current architect of Turkey’s foreign policy, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Contrary to its unequivocal support for the Egyptian revolution from the outset, it has been somewhat ambiguous with respect to the popular uprisings in Libya (where it has some $15 billion worth of investments) and in Syria (Turkey’s geographical and political gateway into the Levant and the fulcrum of its regional rivalry with Iran). This is not to suggest, of course, that Turkey is looking for difficulties. It merely means that the general framework in which Turkish foreign policy had been operating in the region has imploded, throwing regional power balances off kilter and compelling Ankara to act more rapidly, more vigorously and more overtly.

Here, precisely, is where Cairo comes in. Cairo is the historical leader of blocs and alliances in the Arab world, and it is the capital best able to open the doors for Turkey to the new regional order.

For its part, Cairo has always been acutely aware of fluctuations in regional indicators, and it has undoubtedly watched Turkey acquire growing influence in this region by assuming the role of peacemaker. It seems that the best approach to this situation for Egypt, in the light of current balances, would be to discuss with Turkey the details of the various focal issues in the region, with a view to becoming its peacemaking partner. Certainly, Cairo has not been comfortable with the backseat role it has taken in peace-making diplomacy in recent years. But what most favours this approach, from the Egyptian perspective, is that objectively speaking the familiar policies and alliances of recent years are no longer viable.

It is unlikely that Iraq will now once again resume the function it had before the US occupation as a barrier against the expansion of Iranian influence. And the popular uprising in Syria has altered the domestic balances in that country, and these in turn have changed the entire geopolitical map of the Levant. In view of the increasingly intense Turkish-Iranian rivalry over Syria, Cairo cannot forsake the role it has historically played and should continue to play in the politics of the Levant. This is why it is important not to ignore the notion of an Egyptian-Turkish partnership and its potential influence in that part of the region.

Naturally, such a partnership offers other unique advantages to Egypt. As a favoured economic partner, Egypt could benefit from Turkish expertise and technological transfers, and politically, it could draw inspiration from the Turkish model in many respects. At another level, a strategic partnership with Turkey could serve to stabilise the balances of power in the Middle East and hence act as the key to sustainable security in the region.

Until now, Egyptian-Turkish relations have been maintained at an acceptable level, perhaps in large part because of the fact that both countries in one way or another are party to the international camp led by the US. Yet, one cannot escape the fact that during the past three decades this bilateral relationship has never been as close as existing bonds and potential benefits suggest it should be. The chief reason for this was the fact that the former Egyptian president was reluctant to facilitate the economically and politically more advanced Turkey to enter into the power equations of the region, while at the same time lacking the political imagination to contemplate ways of cooperating and competing with Turkey.

In addition, Egypt at that time was not sufficiently poised to hold its own against the model that Turkey offered. From 2007 to the beginning of 2011, Cairo inaugurated two rounds of strategic dialogue with Ankara, but these produced nothing tangible due to Cairo’s lack of a clear vision as to what it hoped to gain from Turkey and a framework for this bilateral relationship.

Today, as the Egyptian people and officials greet Turkey and its prime minister, Egypt stands as an inspiration to all the Arab peoples. Yet, understandably, Egypt has yet to reorder its domestic affairs since the revolution, and it will need some time before it can draw up a new foreign policy that takes into account the latest regional developments. But this by no means indicates that Egypt should contemplate rejecting cooperation with Turkey, at least on principle for the moment, for it is in the country’s national interests to improve this bilateral relationship.

Perhaps, the new and confident Egypt will require some time before it can formulate the right framework for a strategic dialogue with Turkey of such crucial importance, so that talks do not get bogged down in red tape and formalities at this critical juncture in the history of the Middle East.

The writer is director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly


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