Turkey Defers to Egypt

Turkey's grander regional ambitions have been thwarted by its alienation of important regional players. Now a more inward looking Turkey has adopted a supporting role as Erdogan positions himself for a run at the Turkish presidency.

by Aaron Stein, in Istanbul

With a tenuous cease-fire in place between Israel and Palestine, and Turkey turning back to domestic issues, what should we make of Ankara's handling of the latest Israeli-Palestinian crisis? The timing and tone of Ankara's strong condemnations of the Israeli attacks, while predictable, suggested that the country has ceded control of the Palestinian issue to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Cognisant of Ankara's minimal influence, and the political ramifications of engaging with Israel, the Turkish Prime Minister used the crisis to stoke popular domestic sentiments by condemning Israeli actions in Gaza. This appears to be aimed at strengthening his domestic political base for an expected run for the presidency in 2014.

Pax-Turkana: Talking to All Sides

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has invested tremendous amounts of diplomatic capital in deepening Turkey's relationships with all of the countries in its periphery. Despite being labelled a 'mildly Islamist' political party, the AKP's original intent was to further integrate the region's infrastructure, lower barriers to trade and to have cordial relations with all of the countries in the region. Turkey's ambitious foreign policy necessitated regional stability, which Ankara believed provided the Foreign Ministry with the opportunity to deepen Turkey's regional influence. Thus, the AKP made a concerted effort to offer its diplomatic services to help resolve - or at least manage - the regions' numerous conflicts. Despite having irked some in Washington D.C. and Brussels, there was a time when Ankara could credibly claim that its top regional leadership was welcome in every Middle Eastern country.  

Turkey Oversteps in Egypt

Ankara's diplomatic efforts have included making a concerted effort to get involved in the Palestinian issue. Turkey's efforts to mediate between Hamas and Fatah in 2009, however, were not well received in Cairo. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believed that Ankara was naïve in its dealings with Hamas[1] and that it was encroaching on Egypt's political turf. The Palestinian issue, along with its Peace Treaty with Israel, is critical for Cairo's relationship with the United States. Turkey's efforts, therefore, were seen as encroaching on Egypt's political interests, rather than a benign effort to help bring about political stability in the Palestinian territories.

This diplomatic spat contributed to Turkey's decision to support the anti-Mubarak protestors. Erdogan was the first international leader to back the protestors and to call for Mubarak's resignation. While Ankara certainly felt that it was 'on the right side of history', historically tense ties with Mubarak led Turkey to intensify its efforts to secure friendly ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in the future. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, Erdogan visited Cairo and was welcomed by thousands of supporters singing the praises of his leadership. During his visit, Erdogan encouraged Egypt to embrace secularism, aware that some important Turkish domestic constituencies were wary of closer ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, not surprisingly, rejected Erdogan's comments, and chastised the Prime Minister for meddling in Egyptian internal affairs. Shortly thereafter, Turkey's efforts to give recently elected President Mohammed Morsi a white paper outlining the path to democracy were politely refused.[2] While Cairo was, and remains, interested in having cordial relations with Ankara, it is clear that Egypt is intent on preserving its independence.

Resolving Gaza 2012: Erdogan lets Egypt Take the Lead

Turkey, after being dubbed the 'winner' of the Arab revolts, now finds itself trying to devise a new approach to the Middle East. After credibly branding itself as the only country in the region welcome in every capital city, tensions with Israel, Iran, Iraq, and the war in Syria have derailed Turkey's 'zero problems' foreign policy. Ankara, despite its previous foreign policy mis-steps, remains intent on deepening ties with Cairo. The Turkish leadership's reaction to the latest Hamas-Israel conflict suggests that the foreign ministry is intent on showing deference to Egyptian leadership.

Rather than try to lead the regional response, Prime Minister Erdogan waited two days before condemning the attacks. Throughout the conflict, Egypt seemed to be pro-active in its handling of the crisis. Within the first 24 hours Morsi had sent his Prime Minister to Gaza and expelled the Israeli ambassador. Turkey, on the other hand, seemed to be reacting to international events and always two steps behind the Egyptian government. Erdogan's only public contribution to the cease-fire was his assertion that all parties should lay down their arms and that he was prepared to use his country's influence with Hamas to help implement a deal. Moreover, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit took place six days after the start of the conflict and was done in conjunction with a larger Arab League delegation.

Erdogan's reaction is symptomatic of a broader issue with Turkish diplomacy. Turkey's strained relationship with Israel has deprived it of one of the few avenues it had to influence events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its ties with Hamas, while rhetorically strong, pale in comparison to the group's relationship with Egypt. Moreover, Morsi continues to have an overwhelming interest in monopolising the Palestinian issue. The conflict and Morsi's handling of it, indicates that Cairo remains indispensible and is now the only country in the region that can engage with both Israel and Hamas. While Turkish officials were working with their Egyptian counterparts, the press reports, and the effusive praise heaped on Morsi for his leadership, suggest that they were not critical.

Turkish Domestic Politics: Populism, Gaza and the 2014 Presidential Election

The AKP's handling of the issue suggests that the Prime Minister was keen on the idea of using the conflict to stoke populist sentiment at home. Critically, Turkey tasked Hakan Fidan, the Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), to liaise with his Egyptian and Qatari counterparts. Fidan's MIT is used for Turkey's negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), so as to create the impression that the Prime Minister is removed from negotiations with representatives for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Erdogan, who has re-militarised Turkey's response to the Kurdish issue in recent years, has been intent on keeping his distance from the secret talks.

While Fidan may have been appropriate for the Gaza talks, he also allowed Erdogan to maintain that his country has no contact with Israel. Thus, the Prime Minister was faced with a situation that had very few domestic political risks.  Erdogan's outsourcing of the resolution to Morsi shifted the responsibility for resolving the crisis to a third country. In this context, Turkey's frayed relationship with Israel, and Ankara's lack of direct contacts in Tel Aviv, was a political asset. Erdogan's only politically risky move would have been to act upon his deputy's suggestion that Turkey should try and talk to Israel to help solve the issue. Such a move, should it have taken place, would have hurt Erdogan's standing amongst critical constituencies that the Prime Minister needs for his political future. Moreover, it would have undercut Egypt and shifted some responsibility for a resolution to Turkey. Thus, Erdogan, from a domestic standpoint, had more to gain by outsourcing the resolution of this conflict than to actively engage.

The AKP is currently working to change the constitution, in order to transition to a stronger Presidential system. Erdogan is ineligible to run for re-election as Prime Minister, but, if implemented, the new system would allow the popular Prime Minister to run for a strengthened, executive Presidency in 2014. After the Prime Minister addressed the violence in Gaza and Israel in depth, his talking points, which included a number of themes Erdogan uses to deflect criticism of Turkey's Syria policy, suggest that his expected candidacy for the Turkish presidency helped define his rhetoric. The AKP has intertwined foreign policy into its populist political messaging, relying on the image of a strong Turkey to further bolster its standing amongst the country's conservative and nationalist voters. Images of Erdogan being greeted by thousands of Arabs and public opinion polls extolling the virtues of the Turkish model has a certain resonance amongst very important segments of the Turkish electorate. While the AKP's popularity has increased, its base has changed tremendously. Erdogan and the AKP have lost the liberal reformists and replaced them with Turkish nationalists. This has allowed him to grow his party, but has also had a noticeable impact on his country's politics.

Thus, Erdogan tied his condemnation of Israel to his new and aggressive critiques of the United Nations Security Council. These themes, which are littered with references to perceived Muslim inequality in international institutions, are then encapsulated into a broader message about the need for global justice. Thus, drawing a link between the AKP's name, its political successes in bringing 'more democracy', and its promises to continue building on those successes in time for 2023 Turkish Republic centennial. Erdogan's condemnations, for political reasons, are not directed at the international community, but at the AKP's primary voter base. In total, this suggests that Erdogan has settled on nationalism as being the key to securing a majority for his expected run for the presidency in 2014. Thus, the world should continue to expect brash rhetoric and emotional photo-ops, rather than a concerted effort to repair Turkey's troubled regional partnerships.

The trajectory of Turkish politics suggests that, the Prime Minister is likely to be consumed with domestic issues for the foreseeable future. Erdogan, therefore, is unlikely to risk his precious diplomatic capital to make concessions that could harm his chances for his expected run for President. It is likely that he will be more inward looking in his politics and remiss to risk alienating voters in his base. Turkey's troubled relationship with Israel, therefore, is a political asset. While the two countries could re-establish some very quiet defence or intelligence ties, a more inward looking Turkey is unlikely to make any conciliatory steps to mend fences with the leadership in Tel Aviv.  

Aaron Stein is an Istanbul based PhD candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specialising in nonproliferation at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). You can follow him on twitter @aaronstein1. He blogs at turkeywonk.wordpress.com.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

[1] 'Information based on private conversations with officials'

[2] Ibid.


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