A new phase in Turkey’s policy toward the Arab uprisings

A new phase in Turkey’s policy toward the Arab uprisings

Turkey’s policy toward the Arab uprisings has clearly evolved since the start of the uprising in Tunisia at the beginning of the year. The current three-country visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is just a clear reflection of that evolution.

Initially, taken by surprise by the extent, intensity and the persistence of the uprisings, Turkey had difficulty in responding. Especially in countries like Libya and Syria where Turkey had clear interests, a process of transition that would result in instability was considered challenging. Thus, in response to the developments in these countries, Turkish policy was not clear and at times perceived as supportive of the existing regimes.

Gradually, however, Turkish policy became clearer. Both in Libya and Syria, government officials came out openly in support of the opposition forces and called on the regimes to listen to the people and step down. At the same time, the government began to establish contact with the opposition forces. This shift was clearly a response to the perception that these regimes had become, to a large extent, unsustainable. On the other hand, there was a lot at stake for Turkey. In the last decade, but especially in the last few years, Turkey has invested immensely in its Middle East policy, but the uprisings challenged that investment. Thus, the shift in policy can be explained as an attempt to prevent a loss in Turkey’s influence in the region. This led to a clearer policy and continued activism; in the case of Syria, the lessons learned from the Iraqi experiences were also important.

The current tour of Erdoğan aims to underline the claim that despite the changes on the ground, Turkey is still one of the most important actors in the region. In fact, the changes may have increased Turkey’s importance when compared to other actors like Iran. Clearly, Turkey is in a better position to benefit from the Arab uprisings. The prime minister and the government are quite popular, and Turkey has a say in the processes of transformation in these countries as a nation that has gone through similar experiences.

The visit to Egypt has been focusing on two tracks: First, in classical state-to-state relations, there has been an emphasis on bilateral relations and their meanings at the regional level. There has also been talk of advancing cooperation in economic and energy fields, as well as the signing of a security agreement. On the other hand, there is also a regional dimension to this visit, as evidenced by Erdoğan’s messages to Israel through his speech to the Arab League. A rapprochement on regional issues between Turkey and Egypt would introduce a relatively new element to regional balances.

The second track in the visit has been the domestic dimension of Egypt’s transformation. It is clear that the government wants to be present in that process. Despite the fact Turkey has been reluctant to be seen as imposing anything on these countries, Erdoğan’s speech and interviews showed that the Turkish government has been following the debates in Egypt and thinks that Turkey has experiences to offer.

As the discussion of Erdoğan’s visit in the Egyptian press implicitly shows, there is a tight rope for Turkey to walk on in regards to both of these tracks. The current leadership in Egypt is still careful when it comes to relations with Israel and probably fears that it may lose control. Erdoğan’s vocal criticism of Israel may thus not be welcomed. Similarly, the prime minister’s ideas on Egypt’s transition may not be liked by some Egyptian political actors. Thus, despite Erdoğan’s popularity at the public level, these concerns will ultimately have a real bearing on the bilateral relationship with Egypt.