Erdoğan and Turkey’s tradition of pluralism

Erdoğan and Turkey’s tradition of pluralism

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was touring the Gulf last week. During the trip, he spoke to a number of Arab media outlets, including the Qatari newspaper Al-Arab. Most remarkable during this interview were his comments on Egypt. What he said wasn’t so interesting, it is what he didn’t say that made this interview so fascinating to me. The journalist asked him specifically about Egyptian President Sisi, but Erdoğan refrained from talking about the former general, instead simply choosing to say a few nice things about his country. This was a significant break from his usual pattern. 

Since the failed coup last July, Turkey has been coming to terms with its tumultuous region. We now have an ambassador in Tel Aviv again. Erdoğan personally went to Moscow to meet Putin after the jet incident on the Syria border. And now all the signs point towards a much-needed Egyptian opening. All this means that Turkish pragmatism is still alive and well. There may be no Turkish ambassador in Cairo just yet, but I would wager that things are on the right track. 

In the Al-Arab interview, Erdoğan was asked whether his problem with Cairo is “only Sisi,” and the interviewer probably knew about Erdoğan’s fiery rants against the Egyptian president. The question was thus likely hoping to provoke some kind of reaction, which is after all what journalists do. But the answer he got was very calm and diplomatic. 

“Egypt is among the influential states in the region. Egyptians are among our oldest friends. We don’t have a problem with our Egyptian brothers. We cannot have one. Our diplomatic representation is at the level of chargé d’affaires. But economic and trade relations are ongoing,” Erdoğan said.

“The Egyptian side recently invited Turkish businessmen to Cairo through the TOBB [Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey]. This is an important and necessary step,” he added, referring to the Jan. 29-30 visit of TOBB President Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu to Cairo. Hisarcıklıoğlu did indeed head a Turkish business delegation to Egypt, the first to enter the country since the Turkish ambassador was expelled from Cairo in late 2013. This was an important and necessary step after more than three years of frosty relations. 

Egypt is important to Turkey. It’s not only about bilateral trade reaching a total of $5 billion. Egypt is a suitable investment hub and an important transit country for Turkish commercial interests. As Syria blew up in civil war and ISIS took hold across parts of Iraq, Turkey’s direct container route to the south was disrupted.

 The Alexandretta–Alexandria sea route became an important substitute, thanks to a RO-RO agreement between Egypt and Turkey. Ships also stopped in Haifa on the way. But after our ambassador in Cairo was expelled, Egypt cancelled the RO-RO agreement along with the bilateral free trade agreement. 
Too much politics is always bad for business, and in this neighborhood all politics is very local and unashamedly personal. Yet Turkey is a trading power. As such, it is now learning a very important lesson: Refrain from defining other people’s terrorists and they will refrain from defining yours. President Erdoğan will never go full-pragmatist on this score, but he is edging closer to that side of the spectrum.

This has been a trend over the past few months, but it is nothing new. Think of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Cairo speech back in 2011, which is remembered for his emphasis on secularism. That was just as confident and pragmatic. On his latest visit to the Gulf, another reporter asked about those remarks. “Many Arabs find it difficult to combine Islam with secularism, as you do in Turkey. How do you manage to do so?” he questioned. In response, Erdoğan said the following: “I find it hard to understand why such a confusion exists in the Islamic world. Secularism is about the state standing at an equal distance from all beliefs. This means secularism provides a base to practice all beliefs, even for atheists.”  

Such remarks are why, at a time when a wave of radicalism is raging through the Middle East, Turkey remains so important. Shiites across the region today look to Tehran. Turkey cannot offer a similar kind of theocratic leadership, as Sunnis are far more dispersed and have no unifying political identity. If they did, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, set up in 957 AD - about 500 years before the establishment of All Souls College at Oxford – would probably be most important. No matter how significant the Ottoman Empire was, Arabs today will not look towards Turkey for religious leadership. The Erdoğan government may now probably be able to see that.

What Turkey can offer the region is nothing but its own special brand of secularism. This should not be reduced simply to the early republican reforms – pluralistic living has been embedded in the Turkish political project for many centuries. When Erdoğan interacts with the West, this pluralistic side of Turkey doesn’t come out very strongly. However, when he turns East that quality of pluralistic living becomes more emphasized, as it did during his interview in Qatar.

Whoever rules Turkey is bound to channel some form of secularism. It is part of who we are as a people. That is why the stability of Turkey is so important in this age of radicalization.