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Tension heightens between Cairo, Ankara over Egypt unrest

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News | 2/8/2011 12:00:00 AM | FULYA ÖZERKAN

Questions of an Egypt-Turkey rivalry have come to the fore as the embattled Egyptian regime has called Ankara on the carpet for its statements on the protests.

Questions of an Egypt-Turkey rivalry have come to the fore as the embattled Egyptian regime, regaining its confidence after two weeks of fierce demonstrations, has called Ankara on the carpet for its statements on the protests.

Angered by the Turkish prime minister’s calls for 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak to meet his people’s desire for change and step down, the Egyptian government has dispatched its top diplomat in Ankara to convey a letter to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

In a television appearance, Egyptian Ambassador to Ankara Abderahman Salaheldin said his administration had officially contacted the Turkish ambassador in Cairo following the Turkish prime minister’s statements. “We understand well the interest shown in our affairs. This is reasonable but there must be no interference. It is for Egyptians to decide when and what will be done,” he told the private television channel NTV.

More on Arab world unrest
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Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hussam Zeki had earlier urged the West and Turkey not to interfere in what has been happening in his country. Diplomatic sources said Salaheldin visited the Turkish Foreign Ministry late Monday to convey a letter from his foreign minister to Davutoğlu.

“I understand that diplomatically this is a sensitive issue for any government to call on President Mubarak to step down. I understand Egypt’s diplomatic reaction but at the same time, Turkey is not the only country, and Turkish officials are not the only officials, urging the president to step down,” Amira Howeidy, the assistant editor in chief of Egypt’s Al-Ahram weekly, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Tuesday.

Diplomats tried to downplay the tension, however, saying they welcomed Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmet Aboul Gheit’s letter as a positive one informing Ankara about the latest developments.

“This is a letter written in a positive tone. We had the chance to get first-hand information about the developments in Egypt,” a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry diplomat who wished to remain anonymous told the Daily News, adding that there was nothing in the letter advising Ankara not to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs.

“The letter was about the situation in the country and [Egypt’s] efforts to establish public order,” the diplomat said, declining to elaborate further. “There were neither demands from Turkey nor criticism targeting Turkey in the letter.”

[HH] Support from Egyptian people

Though the Egyptian administration has displayed uneasiness with Turkey’s comments, sparking debate over whether a hidden rivalry has surfaced between Turkey and Egypt for regional leadership, analysts said Turkey is enjoying popularity among the Arab public, if not with Arab decision-makers.  

“The position Turkey has adopted, especially about relations with Israel, has been very well-received by Arab populations and helped the Turkish government gain popularity in the Arab street. But we need to ask the question of whether Turkey can exert any influence on Arab decision-makers,” Professor İlter Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University told the Daily News.

“That is not easy for Turkey. Yes, Turkey receives attention in the Arab public opinion, but Turkey cannot become an actor that can change regional politics,” he said.

Egyptian journalist Howeidy said Egyptians have been looking up to Turkey for a long time because of its support for Palestinians and its tough stance against Israel on a number of occasions.

“Turkey has a special situation and the popularity of the Turkish government is very unique among Egyptians and Egyptian activists,” she said. Unlike Washington’s calls, which were perceived provocatively among Egyptians, she added, Turkey’s support for Egyptian people in their struggle was well received by the populace.

“However, I can understand the diplomatic reaction to Turkey because the regime is still in control in a way. Egyptian officials, diplomats have to say what they have to say. If I were in their shoes, I’d say the same things,” she said.

[HH] Turkey’s response to Egypt’s uprising

Turkey’s first official comments regarding the unrest in Egypt came from Davutoğlu, who urged governments in the Arab world to focus on their peoples’ demands for democracy and freedoms. Following pressure from local media for not giving a strong backing to Egyptians’ demand for more democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that Mubarak’s pledge to stand down in September was not enough and called for the president to leave office immediately.

Speaking Tuesday to his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, deputies in Parliament, Erdoğan said: “We are looking at this from the perspective of humanity, brotherhood and rights. We do not want to interfere with anyone’s affairs, or assign ourselves a task from the situation.”

Calling for a donors’ conference for Egypt to tackle imminent problems such as hunger, Erdoğan reiterated that no government can remain in power without support from its people and that the task of governments is to listen to their citizens.

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