Eight months after popular uprising that led to the overthrow of (former Egyptian President) Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the future of Egypt is still in the balance. Political leaders and scholars who are trying to find the best solution for the country present Turkey as a model for Egypt, especially in the aspect of transformation from autocracy to democracy.
The last visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Cairo proved the great popularity of the Turkish leader among Egyptians. In the international pres, there were comments that “he was greeted like a rock star”.(1) Such an enormous inclination towards Turkey was not only caused by Erdoğan’s tough stance against Israel, but is also a result of Turkish soft power. The fact is that Turkey is not the only actor interested in tightening its relations with Egypt. How will these tripartite relations between Turkey, Egypt and Iran develop? Which country will influence the future of Egypt more? Apart from the Turkish-Iranian rivalry, it needs to be taken into consideration if it is possible for Turkey to develop political and economic cooperation with Egypt, knowing its longstanding aspiration to take a leadership in the Arab World.
From Coolness to Indifference
Until the 1990s, Turkey and Egypt were neither partners nor friends. On the grounds of this basis lay principles of Turkey’s policy towards Middle East and the Turkey’s Middle East policy itself. One of the basic principles espoused by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, was that Turkey should limit its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, and except for a brief period in the 1950s, Ankara largely stuck to it. (2) Turkish-Egyptian relations did not improve even despite the U-turn that was made in Egyptian foreign policy during the Cold War. Firstly, Cairo’s policy was pro-communist, what could be seen especially in the period of (Egypt’s second president) Gamal Abdel Nassers’ rule. At that time, Turkey was perceived, in the Arab World, as an agent of West due to its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its pro-Western policy. The qualitative change of Egypt’s foreign policy as an effect of Camp David accords (framework agreements between Egypt and Israel signed in 1979) and its turn towards the United States had not brought a new opening in relations between Turkey and Egypt. It has to be underlined that Cairo was consistently wary of Turkish efforts to involve itself in Arab affairs in ways that have might shift the region’s geopolitical balance or overshadow Egypt’s overriding (and foundering) quest to remain the dominant arbiter in Arab affairs. During the Cold War, Egypt spoke out on behalf of any Arab state – including, at various times, Jordan, Syria and Iraq – whenever there was any potential threat from Turkey.
The Gulf War in 1990-1991 was a critical catalyst for Turkey's comeback to the Middle East. Having disagreed with the Turkish military establishment, then Turkish President Turgut Özal threw Turkey's full support behind the U.S. military campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.(3) Despite the fact that many Arab countries (amongst them Saudi Arabia and Egypt) joined the UN [United Nations] authorized coalition force, Turkey remained isolated in the Middle East. Even after beginning of Turkish-Israeli cooperation, there was hardly any improvement in Ankara-Cairo relations. Egypt has long been uncomfortable with any Turkish policy that strengthens Israel’s clout in the region, particularly within the military realm. Additionally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was angered at the close personal ties between (former Turkish prime minister) Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.(4) In spite of Turkish efforts to redefine its relations with Egypt, what could be seen through establishing an integration structure “Developing 8” (D-8) that was designed as a counterbalance for G-8 or through negotiations with Egypt over the supplying of Egyptian natural gas to Turkey,(5) the real rapprochement in mutual relations was not possible because of Mubarak’s unwillingness to do so.
New Opening in Turkish-Egyptian Relations
The coming of power by the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) opened a new chapter in Turkey’s Middle East policy. The “new opening” has roots in the Strategic Depth (Stratejik Derinlik) Doctrine designed by Ahmet Davutoğlu, the current Foreign Minister of Turkey. The new Turkish foreign policy has also influenced relations between Ankara and Cairo, but not as much as in case of the other Middle Eastern countries. However, the truth is that from the beginning of AKP’s rule, Turkey's ties to Egypt have been enhanced. During a visit to Ankara in March 2007, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Turkish leaders decided to establish a new strategic dialogue and partnership focused on energy cooperation and regional security.
Turkish-Egyptian relations during the rule of the Justice and Development Party, and especially in the recent years, have witnessed a number of important milestones. Results of this turn are seen in strengthening cooperation and coordination among two countries. An appreciable mark of that have been the frequent high level visits between the two countries. For example, Egypt’s Mubarak visited Turkey in 2007, reciprocating the visit of (then) Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, which had taken place in 2005. Another sign of the developing relations between the two countries was the signing of the “Memorandum for a Framework for Turkish-Egyptian Strategic Dialogue” on November 3rd, 2007.” (6)
The first round of the Egyptian-Turkish strategic dialogue ended in September 2008. Ankara represented a qualitative leap in relations between the countries in the region. The dual relations in the region stopped being linked to merely seasonal developments or instant desires, but instead to interests, projects and balances, which are all at the core and content of foreign policy for countries seeking to maximize their national interests in the region. So far, the Egyptian-Turkish relations have kept a certain level of accepted relations, for both countries have integrated – one way or another – into the international alliance led by the US (United States). Adding to that, an important fact should be noted: despite many rapprochements, never before in the history of the Turkish Republic (from 1923 until present) have Egyptian-Turkish relations reached the current level of distinguished partnership. (7)
Regarding the economic strength of the two countries, economic cooperation in Turkey-Egypt relations seems to be disappointing. However, recently, there have been some developments in this realm. A free trade agreement, signed in November 2005, came into force in March 2007. As a result, the trade exchange between Turkey and Egypt has increased threefold, from $1.1 billion (US)in 2006 to $3.2 billion (US)in 2010. Turkey’s exports to Egypt reached to $2.6 billion in 2009 by doubling in proportion to the previous year’s figures, and decreased to $2.25 billion in 2010. (8) A remarkable part of this increase resulted from Turkey’s iron and steel product exports. In 2010, imports of Egyptian products to Turkey reached $926 million . However still, trade volume between Egypt and Turkey is still not as high as it could be. Comparing Egypt’s Turkish imports to that of Iran, in 2010, Turkey’s exports to Iran overreached $3 billion and imports numbered over $7 billion. (9)
Revolution in Egypt and Turkey’s Response
During the uprising that broke out in Egypt on January 25th 2011, Turkey was the first country that expressed support for the will of Egyptian people. Explaining his intention to “make a recommendation and a sincere warning to President Mubarak,” Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan called for the adoption of measures necessary for the peace, security and stability of Egypt. “They [the Egyptian government] should hear the cries of the people and their human demands. You have to meet without hesitation the desire for change from people. There are other groups among the anti-government protesters who may have other ideas about Egypt," (10) stated Erdoğan during his weekly address at the Turkish Parliament at his party's group meeting. This explicit statement differed from the cautious responses of Western countries.
After the toppling of Mubarak, discussions have appeared about the future of Egypt. Aside from questions about changes in Egypt’s political and economic system, everybody started to ask about Muslim Brothers and their purpose of breaking with secular state. In this vulnerable atmosphere, Turkey acts deliberately towards Egypt but also makes signs of interests in development of situation in this North African country. Significant in the aspect of Turkey’s role in the Middle East, and particularly of its response to the Arab Spring, were the visits of Turkish President and Prime Minister Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan (respectively) to Egypt. Gül arrived in Cairo in March 2011, less than one month after Mubarak was forced to step down, making Gül the first leader that visited Egypt after Mubarak’s resignation. Although the main aim of the Gül’s visit was to demonstrate solidarity with the Egyptian state and people, he also held talks with the interim government, discussed the transition period and presented Turkish views on Egypt’s transformation to democracy. In his very explicit statement, he stressed significance of peaceful handing over of power through free and fair elections. (11) It has to be mentioned that Gül as a Turkish president is more credible than any Western leader, because he represents a country whose population is predominantly Muslim and yet has managed to show that Islam and democracy are not incompatible. Additionally, Turkey has experience in transition from military to civilian rule, making way for the advice and guidelines of Turkish leaders to be taken seriously.
The above mentioned factors were also significant during Erdoğan’s three-day visit to Egypt, which took place between September 12-14th 2011. The visit attracted the attention of the world because of Erdoğan’s enormous popularity in the region after Arab Spring. I would argue that there are mainly two reasons for the adoration of Erdoğan by the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan people. The first is his recent tough stance towards Israel, which is explained by many Arabs along the mantra of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The second reason is the lack of a real ‘people’s leader’ in these countries in question. The fact is that in times of revolution, people usually seek for an outstanding individual who can not only lead them, but to whom they can also devote themselves. In the case of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, their national leaders were symbolically partly replaced by Erdoğan. He not only has the charisma, but also often refers to problems of average men in the streets, being able to thus win the people’s hearts.
Regarding the future of Turkish-Egyptian relations, the high points of Erdoğan’s visit were primarily Erdoğan’s encouragement to Egyptians to reconcile their Muslim religion with secular state, in addition to also expressing Turkey’s eagerness to invest in Egypt. What is significant is Erdoğan and current Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s discussion of a strategic cooperation agreement, eventually signing a declaration over the establishment of a supreme council for strategic cooperation. Referring to the current developments in the Middle East region and the establishment of strategic cooperation between the two countries, Sharaf asserted the pivotal role that Egypt and Turkey play in order to achieve security and stability in the region, adding that there will be more coordination between the two countries in the future. (12) The very supporter of this idea is Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He predicted a partnership between Turkey and Egypt, two of the region’s strongest (militarily) and most populous and influential countries, mentioning that such an alliance could create a new axis of power at a time when American influence in the Middle East seems to be diminishing. (13)
The official entourage included six ministers and more than 200 businessmen and therefore it was not only an empty declaration of help but also expression of willingness for active participation in boosting the Egyptian economy. Turkey also expressed its interest in cooperation with Egypt in searching for natural gas in the Mediterranean, given the latter’s experience in deep-water drilling. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who accompanied Erdoğan during the above-mentioned state visit, said that he expected the 1,200 kilometer Arab Natural Gas Pipeline to be completed by the end of this year. He added that the pipeline would have two routes, with one pipeline flowing from Azerbaijan through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan via Turkey, while another would flow from Egypt to Turkey. (14)
On the other hand, not every group in Egypt is a zealot of so-called “Turkish model,” which is largely understood as a state with an Islamic-based political party governing a secular democracy. Many are skeptical that Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which often cites Erdoğan's party as a model and is likely to gain significant power in the forthcoming elections, can accept a Turkish-style secularism. A Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, praised Erdoğan as "a respectable leader who preserves the dignity of his country and who shares similar position with Israel." But he insisted that Egyptians wanted an Islamic state. (15) Due to large support for Muslim Brotherhood (16), it can be forecasted that they will win forthcoming elections in Egypt. Hence, a direction towards which Muslim Brotherhood will turn, and towards which they will lead the country, has a crucial significance for the future of Turkish-Egyptian relations. According to this aspect, it will also be revealed which country, Turkey or Iran, will have closer ties with Egypt and a bigger influence on the political development in Cairo.
Regarding economic relations, there are great opportunities for Egypt and Turkey to further enhance them, but only if willingness is expressed on both sides to do so. A free trade agreement is a first step to increase Egyptian-Turkish trade volume and can also be considered as a starting point for energy cooperation. Turkey can also improve its image as a reliable partner through investments in Egyptian economy and simultaneously creating new jobs. New opportunities have appeared together, starting with cooperation in the field of energy. Supplying Turkey with Egyptian gas will strengthen bilateral relations and will allow the diversification of Turkey’s energy sources.
Another prospective area of cooperation is tourism. Both countries are popular destinations among tourists from European countries, and more often recently, also among Arab tourists. Although tourist flows between Egypt and Turkey have recently increased, there should be further encouragement from both sides to develop these trends. In order to fully benefit from the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey, Egypt and Syria on Cooperation in the field of tourism, Turkey should lift visa requirements with Egypt, as it did in the case of Syria.
There is also the area of defense in which two countries are willing to cooperate. Military cooperation between Turkey and Egypt seems likely as Israel furthers its relations with Greece and other Balkan countries. Although it is difficult to label these new steps as emerging rival axes in the region, the two processes might affect each other. Egypt is purchasing newly developed armaments from the Turkish military industry, preferring the Turkish defense systems over the US and Israeli products. Recently, the Egyptian authorities expressed their intention to buy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) ‘Anka’ and multi-role tactical platform fast intervening naval vessels (MRTP-20) from Turkey. It is expected that Turkey and Egypt will go on to cooperate in defense field.
(1) Abouzeid Rania, Why Turkey’s Erdoğan is greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt, The Time, September 13, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2093090,00.html
(2) Larrabee, F. Stephen, Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007, Vol. 86, Issue 4
(3) Larrabee, F. Stephen, Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East, Foreign Affairs, 00157120, Jul/Aug2007, Vol. 86, Issue 4.
(4) Fuller, Graham E., The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a pivotal state in the Muslim World, Washington 2008, p. 124.
(5) The project, which estimated cost is 4 billion dollars, has not been materialized yet (October 19, 2011).
(6) Turkey’s Political Relations with Egypt, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-political-relations-with-egypt.en.mfa
(7) El-Labbad Mustafa, Understanding the New Turkey – Egyptian Perspective, Insight Turkey, Vol. 11, No 1, 2009, p. 59-60.
(8) Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu, www.tuik.gov.tr
(9) Turkey’s Commercial and Economic Relations with Egypt, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-commercial-and-economic-relations-with-egypt.en.mfa
(10) Erdoğan: Mübarek daha farklı adımlar atmalı, Hürriyet, February 2, 2011, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/ShowNew.aspx?id=16913566
(11) President Gül stated as follows: “We hope Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will hand over power to a new administration to be formed through free and fair elections in the shortest possible time and that a transition to a constitutional democracy, shaped by the will of the Egyptian people, will be ensured.”, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=turkey-hopes-egypt-to-emerge-stronger-out-of-transition-process-2011-03-02
(12) Egypt, Turkey Ink agreements on cooperation, September 14, 2011, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-09/14/c_131136774.htm
(13) Shadid Anthony, Turkey Predicts Ally with Egypt as Regional Anchors, The New York Times, September 18, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/world/middleeast/turkey-predicts-partnership-with-egypt-as-regional-anchors.html?pagewanted=all
(15) Read more: Keath Lee, Michael Maggie, Erdoğan presents Turkey as model for Arabs, Times Union, September 13, 2011, http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Erdogan-presents-Turkey-as-model-for-Arabs-2168023.php#ixzz1aTMJd3s0
(16) A survey published by the Middle East News Agency (MENA) revealed that 35 percent of Egyptians support Muslim Brotherhood, http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/10441377-egypt-35-of-egyptians-support-the-muslim-brotherhood-mena