Egypt, Turkey and Erdogan's Delusional Plans
Egypt, Turkey and Erdogan's Delusional Plans
In 2013, at the height of the Egyptian-Turkish honeymoon during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, I wrote an article predicting that this state of affairs would not continue. Sooner or later this euphoric state of affairs would be brought down to reality with a dose of competition.
A few months later a popular uprising removed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi from office and relations took a turn for the worst. But only now, more than seven years later, the relationship is on the verge of direct military confrontation in Libya.
Egypt and Turkey have a mutual interest in maintaining a strong bilateral relationship. It not only serves the bilateral interests of both countries, but is essential for the stability of the region. Every Turkish diplomat I have come across over the past four decades shares this view.
While Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire until the First World War, it was for all practical purposes independent since 1805. In fact the Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha could have brought the Ottoman Empire to an end in 1827, if it were not for the intervention of France, Britain and Russia at the naval battle at Navarino. In other words, there is no colonial baggage that hangs over establishing a healthy relationship.
The history of Egyptian Turkish relations has been uneven experiencing periods of friendship, animosity and even indifference. In the modern era, during the Cold War, Cairo and Ankara were on different sides of the political divide. Since the early nineties relations, however, gradually improved until they nose-divided when the Moslem Brotherhood rule came to an end.
Since then, Turkey has adopted a policy of encirclement of Egypt. This reminds me of the Soviet Union’s policy in the wake of its departure from Egypt in 1972. Turkey appears to be even more ambitious in its policies. It has established military bases in Qatar and Somalia and attempted to do the same in Sudan, and is now trying to establish both air and naval bases in Libya. It also appears to be interfering in Yemen by supporting the Moslem Brotherhood. Meanwhile, it persists in its military interventions in both Syria and Iraq.
The Soviet Union’s policy of encircling Egypt failed miserably. By the second half of the 1980s, Moscow opted to rebuild on a new basis its friendly relations with Cairo. As an Egyptian diplomat in Moscow at the time, I was a first hand witness to the change.
If Moscow failed in its encirclement policy, I don’t see how Ankara can succeed.
The problem is that the chances of a change of policy on the part of Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan is close to nil. Regretfully the Turkish president’s animosity towards Egypt seems to be more visceral than based on real Turkish interests. Erdogan’s attitude towards Egypt together with the interventions in Syria and Iraq complicates Ankara’s relationship with the vast majority of Arab countries. But Erdogan is known to be a pragmatist, so if he is faced with challenges he cannot surmount he will be forced to change his policies.
What complicates matters further is that a segment of Turkish society exaggerates the role of Turkey in the unfolding international system. They see the US, Russia and the EU as intent on checking Turkey’s rising power. The Arab world is considered the backyard in which Turkey can expand and create a platform from which it can challenge those who want to suppress its ascendency. This is nothing but a colonial attitude of yesteryear.
The challenge is therefore how to do minimum damage to Turkey’s relationship with the Arab countries while preserving the prospect of improved ties down the road.
The purpose is not to isolate Turkey from the region, but rather to integrate it economically on a sound and realistic basis. Turkey is a great nation with considerable economic potential. It is a modernizing society with deep roots in Islam and the orient. It needs to harness these advantages to build a mutually beneficial relationship with the Arab countries
Politically, Turkey needs to once and for all decide on its strategic objective: to eventually join the EU, which appears to be increasingly unlikely, or look eastward towards the Arab region and beyond. Looking eastward means building a relationship with the Arab countries based on mutual respect and interdependence, not domination. Erdogan’s Neo - Ottomanism dream needs to cast aside.
So how to save Turkey from its delusional plans. Turkish intervention in Libya must not be allowed to develop any further, then it must be rolled back.
It is in Libya where Turkey will meet its real and possibly its final test in the Arab region. If it overreaches it will burn all the bridges to a long-term mutually beneficial relationship with the Arab countries. It could also cause irreparable damage to its relationship with the EU. Simply put, Turkey needs to be stopped for its own good. But this needs a collective effort on the part of the Arab countries, the EU and Russia.
But first Ankara must be made to accept the following realities: First, if it is serious about building a long term stable relationship with the Arab World, it needs to normalize its relationship with Egypt. This is possible, and indeed will be welcome in Cairo, if such a relationship is based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs. To begin with Ankara needs take a confidence building measure by ceasing to offer a platform for the anti-Egyptian media campaign.
Second, there must be a ceasefire along present lines of confrontation in Libya, so the UN political process can resume. And that no one will allow it to establish permanent military bases in Libya or dominate the country even indirectly.
Third, the most effective way to ensure the long-term security and stability of its borders with Iraq and Syria is by respecting the sovereignty of both countries on the totality of their respective territories.
Fourth, Ankara’s inflated ambitions in the field of energy will not be accepted by either Europe or the Arab countries. If Ankara’s objective in Libya is to secure a share in the eastern Mediterranean energy resources and future reconstruction contracts in Libya, this is something that can be arranged without it having to take unnecessary risks.
With Ankara’s ambitions checked in Libya, President Erdogan may finally draw the right conclusions and scale down his regional ambitions, leaving the door open for better relations down the road with influential Arab countries. The alternative will be a confrontation that will serve no one’s interest, but more importantly preclude the prospects of a mutually beneficial relationship with the Arab world for the foreseeable future.