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Nov 26, 2012 | 15:51 GMT

5 mins read

Turkey, Egypt: A Historical Rivalry for Regional Influence


Despite recent overtures of cooperation between Turkey and Egypt, fundamental geopolitical realities limit the two countries' capacity for partnership. Though Turkey is a much larger power, it is unlikely to persuade Egypt to accept Turkish regional hegemony. This resistance has implications for the balance of power in the Middle East and for the many crises raging in the region. The short-term factors leading to cooperation between Turkey and Egypt will not supersede the two countries' competition for influence in the Middle East.

A recent example of this competition to gain regional influence is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Egypt on Nov. 17-18. During his trip, Erdogan spent a great deal of time trying to end the fighting between Hamas and Israel, but Egypt was the key mediator in brokering the cease-fire. The countries' attempts to mitigate the conflict can be seen as part of the broader competition between Turkey and Egypt for influence in the Arab world.

Ever since Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi became Egypt's president, there has been considerable talk of how Turkey and Egypt could become close allies due to their shared moderate Islamist ideology. However, such a view discounts the ideological differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, commonly known as AKP. More important, this view ignores the underlying geopolitical realities of the two countries that ultimately ensure a rivalry. 

Under AKP rule, Turkey has been attempting to reclaim its regional status after a period of some eight decades in which Turkey was content to be a pro-Western state. In this effort, Ankara has set its eyes specifically on the Middle East, with which it shares a common Islamic heritage. The Erdogan government has not had much success in expanding its influence because of the two Arab states on its borders — Iraq and Syria — where it has been struggling to push into the Iranian sphere of influence.

The Arab Spring has provided Turkey with an opening for expanding its influence. While Ankara is focusing on regime change in Syria, which would remove a major hurdle in its path, it is also paying attention to North Africa, where new regimes are emerging in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. 

An Ideological Affinity

In a general sense, the rise of Islamists to power in these countries helps Turkey make inroads, especially since the new governments need external assistance to move beyond the upheaval that brought down the old order. On a basic level, the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood share some ideological similarities. But beyond the basics, there are many differences in the Islamism of the AKP and that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those differences stem from the fact that Egypt and Turkey have had different pre-modern Islamic histories and different secularist and Islamist experiences in the modern era.

As far back as the Ottoman period, Turkish Islam has been very liberal. In the 18th century, the empire instituted a series of reforms that were inspired by Western European political thought. These reforms went a long way in creating the conditions that helped the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, steer the country toward French-style secularism, in which religion had almost no role in public affairs. Turkish Islamism (manifesting itself largely in the various predecessor movements of the AKP) developed under these conditions. It is therefore no surprise that the AKP is not an Islamist party, even though it has Islamist roots. Turkish Islamism has been greatly shaped by the country's secular and democratic culture, rendering it quite liberal. In contrast, the more autocratic Egyptian state prevented the establishment of secular traditions, and Egypt's versions of Islamism vary accordingly.

A more conservative form of Islam has been practiced in Egypt since at least the late 12th century, when the Ayyubid dynasty wrested control of Egypt from the Ismaili Fatimid Caliphate and brought the country back under Sunni control. In the modern era, the intellectual forerunners of the Muslim Brotherhood put more emphasis on reinterpreting Islam to compete with Western political ideals. A key outcome was the founding of the world's first Islamist movement — the Muslim Brotherhood — which embraced some forms of modern Western notions, such as the nation-state and democracy, while seeking an Islamic state. 

Egypt is also home to a vibrant Salafist movement whose roots precede the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by two years. The country was also the birthplace of jihadism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Secularism was a project of the state and imposed from the top down, especially under Gamal Abdel Nasser's left-leaning nationalist government. Therefore, unlike the Turkish experience, Egyptian society did not undergo a genuine secularization. 

Leaders in the Region

Turkey's AKP is far more liberal and more comfortable with the idea of a secular state than the Muslim Brotherhood. During his September 2011 trip to Egypt after the fall of the Mubarak government, Erdogan called on Egyptian Islamists to embrace the notion of secularism.

The remark elicited a sharp rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, which said that Erdogan's statement amounted to interference in internal Egyptian affairs. Essam el-Erian, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said the party welcomed Erdogan as a prominent leader but did not think Turkey alone should lead the region or shape its future.

The Egyptian sentiment toward Turkey corresponds with the history of Turkish-Egyptian relations dating back to the Ottoman age. Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, but in the early 19th century after the Ottoman Sultanate appointed Muhammad Ali Pasha (an Albanian) governor of Egypt, this key Arab province began to assert its independence. Within a few decades, Pasha had laid the foundations of an independent Egypt under the rule of his dynasty. 

Monarchical Egypt eventually came under British control when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, and the issue of Turkish hegemony remained irrelevant until the revival of Turkish regional ambitions within the past decade. As Turkey seeks greater influence in the region, Egypt is also asserting itself under Muslim Brotherhood rule. The Muslim Brotherhood would like to revive Cairo's influence, especially now that the Brotherhood's counterparts in other Middle Eastern countries are rising.

The trajectories of Turkey and Egypt are bringing the two countries into competition for influence over the same region. The civil war in Syria is important: The country will become the main battleground for Egyptian-Turkish competition, largely due to the fact that the country's strong Muslim Brotherhood branch has ties to both Ankara and Cairo.

This is not to say that Egypt and Turkey will be entirely at odds. Indeed, there are many areas where they have common interests, such as Iran and the current crisis in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Eventually, however, their competition will shape the region more than their cooperation.

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