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Turkey and Egypt: Misconceptions & Missed Opportunities

The relationship between Turkey and Egypt has rarely been an easy one. During the British Mandate, the Turkish government found itself clashing with Egyptian authorities over the rights and entitlements of Turks living in Egypt. Then, of course, there was the infamous 1932 incident in which Ataturk humiliated the Egyptian ambassador at an official Turkish state reception by requiring that he remove his fez; the traditional hat had been banned in Turkey as part of Ataturk’s efforts to make Turkey become a “civilized, Western” country.

The 1952 revolution in Egypt brought no positive change to this state of affairs. In one incident, the Turkish ambassador—whose wife was an Egyptian with royal blood who had lost family assets after the Free Officers took control—refused to shake Nasser’s hand at a reception and insulted him publicly. Shortly thereafter, the ambassador was sent back to Turkey, and Turkish – Egyptian relations remained in a poor state for years afterwards. Turkish foreign policy, particularly its engagement with Iraq and its Western orientation, regularly brought both countries into collision as Nasser pursued his ambitious regional projects: Turkey’s support for the British in the Suez Crisis attracted Nasser’s anger, for example, while Nasser’s stances on Cyprus and Syria caused serious concern in Ankara.

Interestingly, it was the Democratic Party government of Adnan Menderes—a religious-conservative Prime Minister who was hanged following a military coup and who serves as a frequent reference point for Erdoğan—that pushed for more Turkish engagement with the countries of the Middle East following decades of Turkish disengagement. Turkey’s feeble attempts to unite and lead the Middle East clashed with the foreign policy efforts of Nasser’s Egypt, and it was only after the 1960 military coup that ousted the Menderes government that Egypt and Turkey began a normalization process.

As both countries went through turbulent times in the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship between them remained weak both economically and diplomatically. Both countries suffered from limited knowledge of, and exposure to, the other. Egypt and Turkey also suffered from being sidelined actors in a region dominated and shaped by others even as they both maintained perceptions of power, influence, and grandeur as the gateway to the Middle East. The number of people with deep knowledge of Egypt in Turkey shrank considerably, and many of those left were conservatives who had studied at Islamic institutions in Egypt or were engaging directly with Islamist thought emerging from Egypt.

Following the arrival of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power, Turkey once again turned towards a region it had tended to ignore. However, with relatively few academics, policy experts, or diplomats who could speak Arabic or who maintained deep roots in regional matters aside from Islamic theology and related disciplines, Turkey once again set out on an overly ambitious course to become a major player in a hotly contested region without the institutional strength needed to sustain it.

At the same time, things were changing in Egypt, too. The foundations of Egypt’s rentier economy was truly crumbling by the early 2000s, posing serious challenges to the Mubarak regime. Turkey’s economy, meanwhile, showed growing strength, and Turkish firms, which were increasingly turning toward the Middle East, discovered Egypt as a potential venue for investment. Mubarak, who had shared his predecessors’ dislike of Turkish ambitions, nevertheless took steps to open Egypt’s economy for closer engagement with Turkey. According to the Turkish Embassy in Cairo, there were 64 official visits by Turkish delegations to Egypt and 29 Egyptian visits to Turkey between 2003 and the first quarter of 2009. These included reciprocal visits by President Gül and President Mubarak.

The outcome of these interactions can be seen in the free trade agreement signed in 2005 (which came into force in 2007), the extent of visa liberalization between the two countries, and ultimately, the rapid increase in trade volume between two countries. In 2001, Egyptian exports to Turkey stood at a minuscule $91 million, and Turkish exports to Egypt amounted to $421 million; in 2004, Egyptian exports had increased to $255 million, with Turkish exports growing to $473 million (indicating a total trade volume of $728 million).

From 2005 onwards, official records at the Turkish Statistical Institute show generally positive growth in total trade volume between the two countries:

This was welcome progress: both countries had recognized the underdeveloped state of their relationship and the costs of the many opportunities lost because of it. This was also why many observers, myself included, were taken back when Erdoğan became one of the first foreign leaders to publically ask Mubarak to step down in 2011. There seemed to be both too much at stake for Turkish investments and no reason to further increase the already-high foreign policy risks that Turkey faced as its diplomatic hyperactivity ran headlong into complex regional politics. Paradoxically, Turkey’s geo-economic interests grew even as its geo-political maneuvering space shrank, and the idealism that had animated Turkish foreign policy under Foreign Minister Davutoğlu was being tested and forced to modify its ambitions.

Even so, the Turkish gamble paid off (at the time, at least). Mubarak’s resignation and the first wave of changes in the region opened new diplomatic opportunities for Turkey. In Egypt, one could feel the breadth of positive feelings toward Turkey. The Turkish research group TESEV’s survey of public attitudes towards Turkey across the Middle East-North Africa region found that 86% of Egyptians had favorable views of Turkey in 2011, and 84% in 2012. Thus, it was not surprising that when Erdoğan visited Egypt in 2011, many thousands of people showed up to greet him. It was indeed a remarkable moment, as a wide range of Egyptians, not just Islamists, expressed interest in Turkey and the relationship between the two countries. Often, when I tried to learn from Egyptian activists what was happening in Egypt in 2011, questions about Turkey, its politics, economy and social changes shifted the direction of the conversation. This stood in contrast to other visits I have undertaken to Egypt since 2006, in which conversations about Turkey were limited to football or light-hearted chats about culture and food.

In the interim period between Mubarak and Morsi, the Turkish stance on Egypt was clear: whoever comes into power should listen to democratic concerns, and Turkey would support any freely elected Egyptian government. It was impossible for Turkey to predict what might happen in Egypt or even to invest in particular political candidates. Meanwhile, Turkey sought to protect its economic interests amid worries from Turkish firms over the treatment of businessmen from the Mubarak era and growing instability and other investment risks in Egypt. One could sense the anxiety of those operating Turkish businesses in Egypt, but the Turkish government was actively encouraging them to stay in the country. Certainly, Turkish investments had a long-term vision and direct engagement with Egyptian public. In Alexandria alone, there were some 15 Turkish factories at the time employing anywhere from 600 to 4,000 Egyptians apiece. In fact, Turkish textile investors were shutting down operations in Turkey in favor of opening facilities in Egypt, taking advantage of lower labor costs and bringing to Egypt modern manufacturing and technology.

With the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, however, Turkey found a government with which it could engage much more closely. This, combined with developments in other countries in the region, led Turkey to see a new range of opportunities open up region-wide after it had increasingly found itself being limited by prior developments in the region. Consequently, this is where the first phase of Turkish engagement with Arab Spring, one based on worthy principles, gave way to the second phase, which consisted of new pursuits with potential political allies who had shared some elements of AKP’s Islamist roots.

However rosy this new era might have appeared at the time, it was about to turn truly difficult and highly costly for Turkey. While the AKP government might have seen the emerging Muslim Brotherhood presence in the region as a friendly development, the Brotherhood was never that keen on the AKP and its “Islamist” credentials. In fact, sources in Ankara have told of how they had warned Morsi on his policies and urged him to focus on the economy and reform in order to preclude any possible coup, advice that Morsi shrugged off regularly. In various conversations that I had in Egypt, it was clear that while Turkey was seen as a friendly ally, there were quite a number of voices in the Muslim Brotherhood that also saw Turkey as too ambitious and not closely aligned with their ideals and visions.

If Erdoğan’s risky choice to ask Mubarak to stand down was a surprise, his strong stance against the widely supported military coup that ousted Morsi was not. He personally knew Morsi and his government members, and religious conservatives in Turkish politics had suffered tremendously from similar military interventions; discussions of the coup that resulted in the execution of conservative Prime Minister Menderes were frequently encountered around this time. Indeed, not just Erdoğan but his entire constituency saw a worrying reflection of their own past in the suffering of Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt; this struck a deep chord in AKP supporters which was only amplified as widespread protests against Erdoğan broke out in Turkey. Once again, fears grew among Turkish conservatives of attempts to topple an elected government that they favored, a development that would have taken back all of the openings they had enjoyed since the AKP came to power.

Sadly, strong outbursts in Turkey condemning the developments in Egypt quickly overwhelmed all of the effort expended to forge closer bonds between Turkey and Egypt since the early 2000s, and these outbursts caused the popular perception of Turkey in Egypt to deteriorate dramatically. Many saw Turkey as simply a foreign supporter of Muslim Brotherhood that desired an Islamist takeover of Egypt. The same TESEV study that had recorded more than 80% popularity ratings for Turkey in Egypt in 2011 and 2012 indicated an approval rating of just 38% in 2013. Ironically, Erdoğan had gotten into trouble with Muslim Brotherhood not two years prior for publicly saying that Egypt should have a secular constitution and state, and he had regularly warned Morsi in person not to prioritize Islamist policies but instead to focus elsewhere.

As Egyptians began reacting to Turkish statements and actions with a similar intensity of feeling, a new interpretation of developments in Egypt, filtered through prior Turkish experiences, emerged in Turkey. The use of this new interpretation by the Turkish opposition to corner the AKP’s foreign policy and redefine its political identity turned Egyptian politics into a Turkish domestic issue—Egyptian developments were adapted as means of expressing Turkish concerns about Turkey.

It was within this environment of intense feelings on both sides and amplified public displays of diplomacy that a fascinating story unfolded. At the time, the Turkish ambassador to Cairo, Avni Botsalı, had already been appointed to his next post and was going through his official departure process. He had been a remarkable ambassador who maintained truly deep and effective relationships all across the Egyptian establishment. He had also, however, attracted a peculiar kind of criticism in some Turkish circles who were asking for the appointment of a more conservative ambassador after Morsi took office. When Morsi was ousted, Botsalı had already been scheduled to leave Egypt. However, Egyptian diplomats and statesmen demanded that he stay in Cairo because they trusted him; ultimately, Ankara took the wise decision to keep him in his post. One Egyptian diplomat told me: “We said to Ankara, we don’t want to talk to any other ambassador.” Botsalı’s skill as a bridge between Cairo and Ankara during these turbulent times has been exemplary. Thus, when he was later declared persona non grata by the Egypt government, it was a loss felt deeply in both cities.

This story, among other events, shows how both countries have gone wrong in understanding and handling each other. It is also clear how misperceptions and overly emotional response patterns have caused public views in both countries to fall under the sway of strong, yet generally unfounded, prejudices. However, beyond the public political clashes, both countries’ diplomatic structures had clearly developed better mutual understanding, revealing how Egypt and Turkey could have better navigated the current storm and how they can yet find a way out of the current downturn in relations.

The hope for re-normalization lies in a simple fact that this brief article has tried to demonstrate: Turkey and Egypt did not discover each other only after the election of President Morsi—positive relations between the two countries did not develop just as part of some putative Sunni Islamist plot to redesign the Middle East, as some might argue. Closer relations began in the Mubarak era for extremely important reasons: both countries’ economies have so much to gain from a friendly relationship, and positive relations between Egypt and Turkey would have significant, mutually beneficial regional implications.

The challenges that are ahead now are to rediscover these truths (even as both countries continue to go through domestic uncertainties) and to help members of both societies to understand the other beyond the level of sharp, emotive responses (which Egyptians and Turks share as a common trait). Turkey and Egypt must learn both how to work with each other on issues of economic and political importance and how to constructively engage each other when disagreements and concerns arise. Achieving this kind of relationship is vital because, in the end, Turkey is more important to Egypt (particularly to its future as a healthy society, economy and regional actor) and Egypt is more important to Turkey (particularly regarding its regional interests) than the current, angry outbursts between the two countries suggest.



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