Turkey faces new realities in the Middle East

Turkey faces new realities in the Middle East

The coup in Egypt represented a serious blow to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policy calculus for the Middle East, which has been predicated on promoting political Islam in the region in line with the no-longer-hidden agenda of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, the victory by Ennahda in Tunisia in 2011 and the victory by Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential elections, which followed the victory by the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, were high points for the AKP in this respect.

The assumption was that Muslim Brotherhood-related parties – for whom there is great sympathy in AKP quarters – would easily win elections in the Middle East and push for legislative and social changes that reflect their religiously based worldviews.

This, however, is proving to be a mistaken assumption, not necessarily because of pressures from the West, but because of the Middle East’s own inner dynamics. Turkish Islamists are therefore shocked to see Saudi Arabia head the countries supporting the military coup in Egypt that toppled the Islamist government and president.

This shock is not surprising, of course, because Turks in general, and not just the Islamists, have a superficial knowledge of how the Middle East is really constituted, preferring instead to follow their assumptions, rather than dwelling on the facts.

But these facts now show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s enemies are not just outside the region but also inside it and among Muslims.

So the simplistic assumption that being Islamic is enough to unify all Muslims in one “ummah” is shattered. This assumption actually started to crumble with Syria first, where Islam was seen not to be enough to unify people under a single umbrella. One could argue, of course, that the reasons for the sectarianism in Syria go back centuries and the outbreak of a civil war along the Alevi-Sunni line in that country should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

But Ankara misjudged the situation by hardly paying any attention to historical tensions that exist between rival communities in Syria based on sectarian and religious affinities.

It chose instead to demonize Bashar al-Assad – which is of course not hard to do given his brutal and ruthless nature – while overlooking the fact that large number of non-Sunni Syrians actually support al-Assad and his regime.

Turkey’s Syria policy also drove a wedge between Ankara and Tehran, because the two countries are backing opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, and worsened the already-tense relations between Ankara and Baghdad following Iraqi accusations of Turkish meddling in that country to promote Sunni interests. Ankara’s Syria policy has also resulted in gaining a new Islamic enemy for Turkey in the form of the region’s Shiites, and most notably Lebanese Hezbollah.

Now we see a new crisis looming for Turkey’s policy toward the region, with Saudi Arabia leading those standing on the opposite side of the fence from Ankara on Egypt. While Islam was seen, as a result of Syria, not to be the unifying religion that AKP circles assumed, Sunni Islam is also proving to be insufficient in doing this, given the radically different positions that Ankara and Riyadh have taken on the Egyptian coup.

Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will, of course, still try to influence the events in Egypt in line with their own political expectations. It is very unlikely, however, that they will make much headway now that major Arab powers have stepped in to shape the Middle East in line with their own expectations, and not those of a country like Turkey that is ultimately an outsider for Arabs, and one that has not endeared itself to everyone in the region, Shiite, Sunni or otherwise.