Turkey’s Middle East policy has been upset by Morsi’s ouster — will Erdogan and his deputies risk further isolation or adjust accordingly?
By Egemen B. Bezci
The day after Egypt’s military removed President Mohammed Morsi from power, Turkey’s top decision makers – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and others – sat down together in Erdogan’s office at the Dolmabahce Palace to discuss the events in Egypt. A lot of questions remain unsolved for Ankara, but at least one thing is clear: Turkey’s grand vision towards the Arab Spring has suffered a strategic setback.
In short, Turkey’s existing Middle East strategy could be summarized in the following terms:
(1) Increase the sphere of influence
(2) Support Hamas’ Palestinian cause, in part to win over Arab public opinion
(3) Favor Sunni Islamists movements in the region over their rivals
These three pillars of Turkey’s Middle East strategy were established on the assumption that the Arab Spring would bring Islamist parties to power throughout the region. Moreover, as a final stage, Turkish decision-makers assumed that, after Islamists governments come into power in the MENA countries, Turkey would lead all these countries into an European Union-esque organization that would seed the future of a new “Islamic Golden Age.” This vision was developed by Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s inner circle, and later materialized into a foundation called “The Foundation for Sciences and Arts” for almost the last three decades. Nevertheless, recent developments in the Middle East suggest that this vision has met its end; moreover, Turkey ‘s own actions have helped bring about an early demise.
It should be noted that Turkey initially provided monetary and technical aid to the Morsi government; even during Morsi’s election campaign, Erdogan sent his campaign staff to aid Morsi’s staff. This “special relationship” between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP), aside from regional concerns, also arises from ideological kinship between two parties. Both parties are ideologically influenced by the writings of Islamist scholars such as Hasan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Davutoglu’s vision was to develop the ties stemming from the ideological kinship into a strategic partnership, and gradually pave the path to lead a new “civilization” in the region. This vision was broken with Morsi’s fall. The US and EU remained largely indifferent to the military coup, while the Gulf countries made statements in favor of it. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued financial aid and soft loans to the new regime in Egypt. However, the Erdogan government condemned the military’s actions in Egypt and criticized the US, the EU and Gulf countries for not condemning the military intervention. The Erdogan government was thus the sole NATO member in the region to take a negative stance against the new regime in Egypt. Erdogan still harshly condemns the new government in Egypt, even though the new government in Egypt warns Erdogan not to take a side in Egyptian domestic affairs.
Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party and Hamas were the only two political bodies that Turkey developed close ties with as a part of the country’s MENA policy. The new Egyptian government does not favor Turkey’s regional foreign policy. Most of the Egyptians are also critical of Turkey on account of Erdogan’s support of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. it could be argued, therefore, that Erdogan lost the momentum necessary to increase Turkey’s influence and has failed to win over Arab public opinion. The new government in Egypt, as opposed to Morsi, will likely support Fatah in the West Bank instead of Hamas in Gaza. Such a change will have two effects on the Middle East. First, Erdogan will be increasingly isolated as a supporter of Hamas, and Erdogan’s planned visit to Gaza to show solidarity with Hamas will be critically endangered. Second, the new government in Egypt will likely tacitly support Israel’s Gaza policy, which could mean a threat to Turkish-Israeli reconciliation attempts, since Turkey refuses to reconcile until the blockade on the Hamas-administrated Gaza Strip is lifted. The most crucial aspect of this new development is the indication that Turkey’s most important ally, the United States, does not favor Turkey’s Egypt policy. These conflicting visions over the future of Arab democracy, in combination with the Erdogan’s recent anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, could impact the approach both countries take towards Syria, especially, on the issue of arming Syrian rebels.
Thus far, Turkey’s “zero problem with neighbors” foreign policy agenda towards the Middle East region has only brought forth more problems for the country and created new enemies. Perhaps even more importantly, Turkey has alienated itself from its long-standing ally the United States. Under these circumstances, it will be increasingly difficult for Turkey to achieve its goals in the Middle East. The best way for Turkey to reverse this negative trend would be directing its path towards EU membership and democratic consolidation within the country. Otherwise, as it drifts further and further from its traditional Western allies, Turkey risks drowning amidst the rising tide of conflict and quagmire in the new Middle East, a region that is evolving far differently than Davutoglu and Erdogan had hoped.
Egemen B. Bezci is a research fellow at the Sakarya University, Turkey. He is also a senior editor at the Jerusalem Review for Near East Affairs. You may reach him on Twitter: @ebbezci
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