International relations contains many ironies. It will be recalled that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
had exhorted Egyptians, just prior to visiting post-Hosni Mubarak Cairo in September 2011, to adopt a secular Constitution. Pointing out that “secularism does not mean atheism,” he had told Egypt’s private Dream TV that under the Turkish Constitution the state is equidistant to all faiths, or lack thereof.
“I, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
am a Muslim, but I am not secular. I am, however, the prime minister of a secular country. In a secular country people are free to be religious or not,” Erdoğan had said, expressing his hope that the way Egyptians saw secularism would change after these remarks of his. But they didn’t.
The Islamic Brotherhood, for whom secularism amounts to atheism, wasted no time in responding to Erdoğan. Dr Mahmoud Ghuzlan, its spokesman, rejected Erdoğan’s exhortation and accused him of meddling in Egypt’s affairs. Erdoğan, in turn, let the matter rest.
The Brotherhood went on to force a new Islam-based Constitution on the country and made sure it did not carry even a hint of secularism. Liberal and Christian Egyptians were, as was to be expected, offended and angered. Some might argue that the writing on the wall for President Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood became clear at that point.
Today, the same Erdoğan who was accused of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs by the Muslim Brotherhood is being accused of doing the same by the military-installed interim government in Cairo. Badr Abdelatty, the spokesman for the government, was quoted by AFP on Tuesday (July 16) expressing “strong resentment” over comments by Erdoğan after the military coup. He said these “represent a clear intervention in internal Egyptian affairs.”
Both the Brotherhood and the enemies of the Brotherhood have thus accused Erdoğan, albeit at different times and different circumstances, of meddling with Egypt’s affairs. Looking at this one can’t help but wonder if he can ever get it right. He did get it right in his Dream TV interview, though, when he called on Egyptians to adopt a secular Constitution. This idea was later seconded by President Abdullah Gül, too.
But Erdoğan did not push the point, going on instead to implement policies and utter remarks in Turkey that undermined his own exhortation to the Egyptians. If he had stayed the course, however, and used his influence in the region that was at its peak at the time, to put friendly pressure on the Brotherhood to heed his Dream TV remarks, things might have been different for that country today.
Erdoğan is, after all, the only one who could be convincing in this respect, given the allergy Islamists have to the concept of secularism, ensuring that any exhortations from the West for this form of government would automatically be seen as an anti-Islamic ploy. Erdoğan however is the leader of an Islamist party that he took to victory in three successive elections, and his remarks could hardly have been taken as a ploy against Islam.
But a golden opportunity was wasted by Erdoğan and the Brotherhood, no doubt because both sides were blinded by what they considered to be the unstoppable rise of political Islam from Turkey to Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. Thus the Brotherhood went full force in imposing its brand of Islamic government on Egypt as a whole, and that was its downfall. Although the dissimilarities between Turkey and Egypt are glaring, many are still arguing that there is a vital lesson in all this for Erdoğan too.
Had the Brotherhood heeded Erdoğan’s remarks on secularism, however, it would not just be in power today, but would also have contributed to efforts to show that Islam and true democracy – which of necessity entails secularism for the sake of pluralistic inclusivity – are compatible under an administration lead by the Brotherhood. Given its political DNA, however, this was clearly not to be.