Turkey should tread carefully with Egypt

The Arab Awakening has animated a regional jockeying for power. Turkey has seen it as a window of opportunity to increase its own influence, trying to have the pieces of the Middle East chessboard rearranged in a way favorable to Ankara. Unfortunately, as the sands of the region continue to shift, Ankara is finding itself in a difficult situation with many of its neighbors, and sectarian tendencies are increasingly visible.

Since the moment the coup in Egypt took place, Turkey has had the strongest voice condemning it, criticizing the West and ticking off the Gulf States for the financial aid they subsequently sent to Cairo. Ankara is engaging itself increasingly deeply in Egyptian affairs and perhaps this was not that surprising given the close ties Turkey has with the Muslim Brotherhood. As former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış recently stated: “They have a similar worldview; therefore it is only natural that they stay side-by-side.” Yet as days pass, Turkey seems to sound increasingly like a spokesperson for ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey should not repeat the mistakes it made with Syria, which had a terrible backlash effect and damaged Turkey both externally and internally.

While it is one thing to criticize the actions of the Egyptian army, more so given Turkey’s similar experience with military coups and the “deep state,” adopting a policy of openly supporting and helping the Muslim Brotherhood with their future plans is another. While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismisses claims that Turkey is positioning itself at the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, when he talks about the Egyptian people and the support he is giving to them he is only talking about those that support Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, not the other chunk of society that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood alienated. In fact, Erdoğan has been silent on this side of things.

Moreover, I wonder what Turkey’s leadership is planning to do if efforts to have Morsi reinstated fail. Turkey simply cannot afford to be on bad terms with the most important state in the Arab world, either politically or economically. One only has to look at economic ties between Turkey and Egypt. Some 250 Turkish companies have invested some $2 billion in Egypt, for example in the cotton sector. Moreover, Egypt is one of only a handful of countries with which Turkey has no foreign trade deficit. Turkey’s leadership needs to be pragmatic and protect Turkey’s interests, or risk ending up with an irreparable situation as in Syria, with other regional leaders becoming increasing “deaf” to Turkey’s voice.

I believe that Morsi’s fate should have been decided at the ballot box, yet while he may have been democratically elected, his first year in office seemed to show he was neither a democrat nor a reformer. His vision for Egypt was not one that united the country, but rather divided it. With half of Egypt’s 83 million population under the age of 24, 90 percent of the country’s unemployed under 24 years of age and significant poverty, fixing the economy and taking steps to deal with inequality should have been a priority. Without economic change, democracy does not stand a chance. Therefore, no matter how much cash the Gulf States pour into Egypt, as long as there is no serious economic reform, it will be money into a black hole.

The Arab Awakening released long-simmering frustrations over political repression and economic stagnation, ripping the Middle East apart at the seams. The balance of power has shifted and nobody knows where it may end. Sectarianism is on the rise and I believe that to a large degree it will be where this sectarianism ends that will ultimately define the future of this region. Egypt needs a peaceful and orderly transition to the next chapter. Indeed, Arab democracy will be won or lost in Egypt. Turkey could play a key role in this, remaining a comparative island of stability in this volatile region. Yet to achieve this and strengthen its regional role, Ankara needs to adjust its approach, adopting a more conciliatory and pragmatic one.

(This article originally appeared in Today’s Zaman on 16 July)