Erdoğan’s stance on Egypt backfires

Erdoğan’s stance on Egypt backfires

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enjoys the admiration of his Islamist grassroots followers because of his unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and his harsh remarks about the coup that ousted democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi. It was his latest remarks which prompted the military installed government in Cairo to expel the Turkish ambassador, and downgrade diplomatic ties with Ankara.

Fine as Erdoğan’s remarks may appear to some, it is hard to argue that allowing ties with a key regional country to decline, especially at a time of important developments in the Middle East, is a diplomatic success.

Clearly recognizing this President Abdullah Gül, the first to comment on the matter, declared the situation that has arisen with Egypt to be “temporary.” Maintaining that Turkey and Egypt are “halves of the same apple in the eastern Mediterranean,” Gül expressed his hope that ties between the two countries will be on track again soon.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for his part told reporters in Bahrain during a visit that Turkey’s intention was never to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs – the accusation leveled at Ankara by Cairo.

“We do not support any party in Egypt” he said, adding that Turkey’s position “merely indicated Turkey’s respect for the choice of the Egyptian people.”

Erdoğan however, as someone who has little love for diplomatic subtleties, was less contrite and said, when asked about Cairo’s decision, that he said he would maintain his position on Egypt throughout his political career. This is the kind of remark his supporters love to hear because they appear to represent a principled stance.

But is that the case? For it to be so Erdoğan has to be consistent. In August Turkey recalled its ambassador to Cairo to protest the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. This appeared principled at the time. Egypt responded in kind and recalled its ambassador.

Three weeks later Ankara sent its ambassador back even though nothing had changed on the ground. Cairo however did not and its message was clear. While Turkey was forced to send back its ambassador due its interests in the region, Egypt did not have such qualms and would stand firm.

If Erdoğan was sincere about the situation in Egypt, Turkey should not have sent its ambassador back. It should also have been the side to downgrade ties, the way it did with Israel. But it did not do so and therefore Egypt today appears a step ahead in the diplomatic chess game.

Cairo also has concrete reasons for feeling confidant against Turkey, which is ostensibly an important country in the region. Egypt’s military rulers know that they have the support of all the Sunni powers in the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile the U.S. and Russia have shown that they are prepared to work with the present Egyptian government. Both countries sent their foreign ministers to Cairo recently. In the end Turkey turned out to be the only regional country that condemned the Egyptian military in the way it did.

All of this is happening at a time when Turkey is trying to break out of its regional isolation due to a series of miscalculations by the Erdoğan government concerning the Middle East. Its fresh approach to ties with Iraq and Iran show this.

The latest deal with Iran, on the other hand, shows the region is ripe for extraordinary developments. How much headway Ankara can make as an important player in the Middle East with its ties with Egypt – not to mention its ties with Israel - in the doldrums is however questionable.

Erdoğan should stop trying to promote his Islamist agenda internationally, and try instead, in the same cold-blooded manner of most countries, to promote the interests of Turkey. He would be doing more service to his country in the long run if he does this, whatever short term political gains his firebrand position on a host of international issues may be bringing him.