Egypt and Turkey, Aligned but out of Step

MIN READAug 2, 2016 | 08:08 GMT

Turkey's embrace of Islamism -- and Egypt's rejection of it -- has driven a wedge between them.


When Egypt opened its 2011-12 election season, the first election to be held since the end of the Arab Spring, the country's political atmosphere came alive with promise and debate. At the time, I lived in the coastal city of Alexandria, where "let's give them a try" had become the refrain of my religiously conservative Egyptian friends. They were referring to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidates who were flooding the parliamentary tickets, figures who had never before been able to challenge the military leaders who had ruled Egypt with a tight grip since the 1950s. "But they're not experienced," was the common retort of my more secular friends, many of whom went on to cast their vote for technocrat Hamdeen Sabahi in the presidential race that spring. Yet when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was declared the country's president in June 2012, the noisy celebrations of his jubilant supporters echoed through the streets of my neighborhood.

A decade earlier, in 2002, a similar atmosphere — one of possibility, hope and apprehension — enveloped Turkey as it prepared for general elections, a vote that gave rise to the country's own Islamist-leaning government and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would become prime minister. Turkey's Islamist forces, embodied by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), had taken years to fight their way to the top of Turkish politics, edging out their more secular and liberal rivals along the way. Now president, Erdogan continues to dominate the country's political scene, and in spite of a recent failed coup attempt, both he and his party appear to have a long future ahead of them.

Egypt's experiment in Islamist governance, however, proved to be far more short-lived. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood administration fell just as quickly as it rose, and Egypt's ruling military council is doing everything in its power to ensure that it does not return. Turkey's embrace of Islamism — and Egypt's rejection of it — has driven a wedge between the two countries. But the friction between Ankara and Cairo is as much about the similarities they see in themselves as it is about their ideological differences.

Two Paths Merge

Turkey and Egypt are like-minded rivals moving along the same path, albeit out of step with one another. That path has been determined, in large part, by geography. The territory that makes up both modern Egypt and Turkey occupies the land bridges lining the Mediterranean Sea, swaths of terrain that are as key to trade, commerce and migration today as they were 1,000 years ago. Even now, the two states are the primary gateways for the waves of migrants flowing into Europe.

For millennia, Egypt's people clustered around the Nile River, giving rise to the homogeneity that is still palpable in the country. By contrast, Turkey's diverse population has always been scattered, flung far and wide across its expanse, a mix of ethnicities that has simultaneously strengthened and weakened the state. Centralization of power has always been a much simpler task for Cairo than for Ankara. Yet even if Turkey's past rulers — the Ottomans, and before them the Greek Byzantines and Turkish Seljuks — had a hard time controlling Turkish territory in its entirety, they excelled in capturing it. In 1517, Egypt came under the Ottoman Empire's loose command, and from that point, its course began to align with Turkey's.

After the Ottoman Empire fell in the wake of World War I, the two states continued to tread similar paths through the 20th century. Egyptian and Turkish leaders served as wellsprings of inspiration for one another during the tumultuous decades of state building that swept across the Middle East. For example, Gamal Abdel Nasser — a leader still revered among Egyptians today — drew some of his ideas from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an equally powerful figure in Turkey who carefully constructed his country's secular and militarized model of governance. Both states embraced a secular, nationalistic approach to policymaking while empowering their armed forces, a strategy that made them vulnerable to periodic coups and uprisings. This reality still holds today, as evidenced by Egypt's 2013 coup and Turkey's July 15 coup attempt.

Religious figures in Egypt and Turkey exchanged ideas throughout the 20th century as well. At different times, both countries grappled with the emergence of Islamist groups that threatened to upset the status quo and challenge the ruling power. In the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Cairo by Hassan al-Banna, whose writings on religion underpinning the state went on to inspire Islamist political movements across the Middle East. Decades later, Necmettin Erbakan laid the groundwork for Turkey's own brand of Islamist politics. He went on to become the country's prime minister in the 1990s, only to be forced out of office by the military for attempting to merge religion and state. Ironically, this series of events was not unlike what Morsi would experience decades later as the Egyptian military stepped in to take back the state from its Islamist leader.

As Turkey Rises, Egypt Falls

Since the Arab Spring, Turkey and Egypt have struggled to find their footing in an ever-changing region. Egypt, however, has had a considerably more difficult time. Even though it has the largest population and one of the biggest militaries in the Middle East, political uncertainty, driven in part by the quick termination of the country's sole foray into Islamist-tinged democracy, has kept Egypt focused inward. Its political scene has stabilized in the past two years, but Cairo's efforts to appease an exploding populace and prop up a lackluster economy have left it little room to regain its status as a regional heavyweight.

At the same time, empowered by a more diversified economy, Turkey has inserted itself in conflicts and negotiations across the Middle East. Its goal is simple: to mold the turbulent region by espousing its moderate Islamist order. After all, regardless of some popular dissatisfaction with Erdogan's autocratic style, the Turkish government is democratically elected. And as many Turks were quick to point out in the wake of the country's recent coup attempt, the overthrow of a democratically elected government — even one that has since taken the opportunity to purge every corner of society — promises only greater uncertainty. In spreading its reach, though, Turkey has stepped on Egypt's toes on several occasions. For instance, Cairo has long laid claim to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians, talks that have been complicated by Ankara's recent support for Hamas.

The widening gap between the two countries has only been exacerbated by their diverging approaches to governance. Under Erdogan's rule, Turkey has thrown its weight behind Islamist movements in the region — including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — because they often share the ruling AKP's agenda. While Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood peers controlled the government in Cairo, ties between Egypt and Turkey improved. (When, in September 2011, Erdogan made his first official visit to Egypt, many Egyptians welcomed him as the embodiment of the capable, Islamist leader they hoped to see in their own country.) But since Morsi's 2013 ouster, Egypt's secular military leaders have given Turkey the cold shoulder, in no small part because Ankara has offered Egypt's exiled Muslim Brotherhood members haven within its borders.

Deep-Seated Tension Lingers

Turkey's decision to protect the Muslim Brotherhood has strained its ties with Egypt to their breaking point. Now, any significant incident is an opportunity for the states to trade jabs. In the days following Turkey's attempted coup, Egypt made its annoyance at the operation's failure clear. Three Egyptian state newspapers ran premature headlines proclaiming Erdogan's ouster, while Egypt's Foreign Ministry hemmed and hawed over the U.N. Security Council's characterization of the Turkish government as "democratically elected" in a resolution condemning the coup. Turkey, which has also used the United Nations as a platform to throw barbs at Egypt, shot back by saying it was "natural for those who came to power through a coup to refrain from taking a stance against the attempted coup." Cairo responded by offering to consider the asylum request of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric charged with inciting the coup, should he choose to submit one.

The spat is just the latest of the deep, intermittent bouts of tension between Egypt and Turkey that, by all appearances, are bound to continue. Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has been working to mediate talks between the two on the Muslim Brotherhood in an effort to unify the dual cornerstones of its envisioned Sunni alliance. If successful, the normalization of Egypt-Turkey ties would go a long way in strengthening Sunni unity in the region, which has been deeply shaken by conflict and jihadist violence. But though Saudi Arabia has made some headway, it is unlikely that Ankara will agree to feed Riyadh's regional ambitions at the expense of its own.

Egypt, for its part, is more likely to listen to Saudi Arabia's pleas. But Riyadh does not have the power to force Cairo to ignore Ankara's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt considers a terrorist group. The situation is complicated further by the fact that Egypt has recently held meetings with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a group Turkey counts among its terrorist threats and has targeted with numerous military operations.

This is not to say Egypt and Turkey have few goals in common. Both, for instance, would like to see the defeat of the Islamic State and the development of the eastern Mediterranean region. But even if the two could set aside their differences and cooperate temporarily for the sake of mutual gain, tension between them will continue to simmer beneath the surface, constantly at risk of flaring up once more.

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