Turkey and Egypt: Misconceptions & Missed Opportunities

Published by The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 05 May 2014

The relationship between Turkey and Egypt has rarely been an easy one. During the British Mandate, the Turkish government found itself clashing with Egyptian authorities over the rights and entitlements of Turks living in Egypt. Then, of course, there was the infamous 1932 incident in which Ataturk humiliated the Egyptian ambassador at an official Turkish state reception by requiring that he remove his fez; the traditional hat had been banned in Turkey as part of Ataturk’s efforts to make Turkey become a “civilized, Western” country.

The 1952 revolution in Egypt brought no positive change to this state of affairs. In one incident, the Turkish ambassador—whose wife was an Egyptian with royal blood who had lost family assets after the Free Officers took control—refused to shake Nasser’s hand at a reception and insulted him publicly. Shortly thereafter, the ambassador was sent back to Turkey, and Turkish – Egyptian relations remained in a poor state for years afterwards. Turkish foreign policy, particularly its engagement with Iraq and its Western orientation, regularly brought both countries into collision as Nasser pursued his ambitious regional projects: Turkey’s support for the British in the Suez Crisis attracted Nasser’s anger, for example, while Nasser’s stances on Cyprus and Syria caused serious concern in Ankara.

Interestingly, it was the Democratic Party government of Adnan Menderes—a religious-conservative Prime Minister who was hanged following a military coup and who serves as a frequent reference point for Erdoğan—that pushed for more Turkish engagement with the countries of the Middle East following decades of Turkish disengagement. Turkey’s feeble attempts to unite and lead the Middle East clashed with the foreign policy efforts of Nasser’s Egypt, and it was only after the 1960 military coup that ousted the Menderes government that Egypt and Turkey began a normalization process.

As both countries went through turbulent times in the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship between them remained weak both economically and diplomatically. Both countries suffered from limited knowledge of, and exposure to, the other. Egypt and Turkey also suffered from being sidelined actors in a region dominated and shaped by others even as they both maintained perceptions of power, influence, and grandeur as the gateway to the Middle East. The number of people with deep knowledge of Egypt in Turkey shrank considerably, and many of those left were conservatives who had studied at Islamic institutions in Egypt or were engaging directly with Islamist thought emerging from Egypt.

Following the arrival of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power, Turkey once again turned towards a region it had tended to ignore. However, with relatively few academics, policy experts, or diplomats who could speak Arabic or who maintained deep roots in regional matters aside from Islamic theology and related disciplines, Turkey once again set out on an overly ambitious course to become a major player in a hotly contested region without the institutional strength needed to sustain it.

At the same time, things were changing in Egypt, too. The foundations of Egypt’s rentier economy was truly crumbling by the early 2000s, posing serious challenges to the Mubarak regime. Turkey’s economy, meanwhile, showed growing strength, and Turkish firms, which were increasingly turning toward the Middle East, discovered Egypt as a potential venue for investment. Mubarak, who had shared his predecessors’ dislike of Turkish ambitions, nevertheless took steps to open Egypt’s economy for closer engagement with Turkey. According to the Turkish Embassy in Cairo, there were 64 official visits by Turkish delegations to Egypt and 29 Egyptian visits to Turkey between 2003 and the first quarter of 2009. These included reciprocal visits by President Gül and President Mubarak.

The outcome of these interactions can be seen in the free trade agreement signed in 2005 (which came into force in 2007), the extent of visa liberalization between the two countries, and ultimately, the rapid increase in trade volume between two countries. In 2001, Egyptian exports to Turkey stood at a minuscule $91 million, and Turkish exports to Egypt amounted to $421 million; in 2004, Egyptian exports had increased to $255 million, with Turkish exports growing to $473 million (indicating a total trade volume of $728 million).

From 2005 onwards, official records at the Turkish Statistical Institute show generally positive growth in total trade volume between the two countries:

This was welcome progress: both countries had recognized the underdeveloped state of their relationship and the costs of the many opportunities lost because of it. This was also why many observers, myself included, were taken back when Erdoğan became one of the first foreign leaders to publically ask Mubarak to step down in 2011. There seemed to be both too much at stake for Turkish investments and no reason to further increase the already-high foreign policy risks that Turkey faced as its diplomatic hyperactivity ran headlong into complex regional politics. Paradoxically, Turkey’s geo-economic interests grew even as its geo-political maneuvering space shrank, and the idealism that had animated Turkish foreign policy under Foreign Minister Davutoğlu was being tested and forced to modify its ambitions.

Even so, the Turkish gamble paid off (at the time, at least). Mubarak’s resignation and the first wave of changes in the region opened new diplomatic opportunities for Turkey. In Egypt, one could feel the breadth of positive feelings toward Turkey. The Turkish research group TESEV’s survey of public attitudes towards Turkey across the Middle East-North Africa region found that 86% of Egyptians had favorable views of Turkey in 2011, and 84% in 2012. Thus, it was not surprising that when Erdoğan visited Egypt in 2011, many thousands of people showed up to greet him. It was indeed a remarkable moment, as a wide range of Egyptians, not just Islamists, expressed interest in Turkey and the relationship between the two countries. Often, when I tried to learn from Egyptian activists what was happening in Egypt in 2011, questions about Turkey, its politics, economy and social changes shifted the direction of the conversation. This stood in contrast to other visits I have undertaken to Egypt since 2006, in which conversations about Turkey were limited to football or light-hearted chats about culture and food.

In the interim period between Mubarak and Morsi, the Turkish stance on Egypt was clear: whoever comes into power should listen to democratic concerns, and Turkey would support any freely elected Egyptian government. It was impossible for Turkey to predict what might happen in Egypt or even to invest in particular political candidates. Meanwhile, Turkey sought to protect its economic interests amid worries from Turkish firms over the treatment of businessmen from the Mubarak era and growing instability and other investment risks in Egypt. One could sense the anxiety of those operating Turkish businesses in Egypt, but the Turkish government was actively encouraging them to stay in the country. Certainly, Turkish investments had a long-term vision and direct engagement with Egyptian public. In Alexandria alone, there were some 15 Turkish factories at the time employing anywhere from 600 to 4,000 Egyptians apiece. In fact, Turkish textile investors were shutting down operations in Turkey in favor of opening facilities in Egypt, taking advantage of lower labor costs and bringing to Egypt modern manufacturing and technology.

With the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, however, Turkey found a government with which it could engage much more closely. This, combined with developments in other countries in the region, led Turkey to see a new range of opportunities open up region-wide after it had increasingly found itself being limited by prior developments in the region. Consequently, this is where the first phase of Turkish engagement with Arab Spring, one based on worthy principles, gave way to the second phase, which consisted of new pursuits with potential political allies who had shared some elements of AKP’s Islamist roots.

However rosy this new era might have appeared at the time, it was about to turn truly difficult and highly costly for Turkey. While the AKP government might have seen the emerging Muslim Brotherhood presence in the region as a friendly development, the Brotherhood was never that keen on the AKP and its “Islamist” credentials. In fact, sources in Ankara have told of how they had warned Morsi on his policies and urged him to focus on the economy and reform in order to preclude any possible coup, advice that Morsi shrugged off regularly. In various conversations that I had in Egypt, it was clear that while Turkey was seen as a friendly ally, there were quite a number of voices in the Muslim Brotherhood that also saw Turkey as too ambitious and not closely aligned with their ideals and visions.

If Erdoğan’s risky choice to ask Mubarak to stand down was a surprise, his strong stance against the widely supported military coup that ousted Morsi was not. He personally knew Morsi and his government members, and religious conservatives in Turkish politics had suffered tremendously from similar military interventions; discussions of the coup that resulted in the execution of conservative Prime Minister Menderes were frequently encountered around this time. Indeed, not just Erdoğan but his entire constituency saw a worrying reflection of their own past in the suffering of Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt; this struck a deep chord in AKP supporters which was only amplified as widespread protests against Erdoğan broke out in Turkey. Once again, fears grew among Turkish conservatives of attempts to topple an elected government that they favored, a development that would have taken back all of the openings they had enjoyed since the AKP came to power.

Sadly, strong outbursts in Turkey condemning the developments in Egypt quickly overwhelmed all of the effort expended to forge closer bonds between Turkey and Egypt since the early 2000s, and these outbursts caused the popular perception of Turkey in Egypt to deteriorate dramatically. Many saw Turkey as simply a foreign supporter of Muslim Brotherhood that desired an Islamist takeover of Egypt. The same TESEV study that had recorded more than 80% popularity ratings for Turkey in Egypt in 2011 and 2012 indicated an approval rating of just 38% in 2013. Ironically, Erdoğan had gotten into trouble with Muslim Brotherhood not two years prior for publicly saying that Egypt should have a secular constitution and state, and he had regularly warned Morsi in person not to prioritize Islamist policies but instead to focus elsewhere.

As Egyptians began reacting to Turkish statements and actions with a similar intensity of feeling, a new interpretation of developments in Egypt, filtered through prior Turkish experiences, emerged in Turkey. The use of this new interpretation by the Turkish opposition to corner the AKP’s foreign policy and redefine its political identity turned Egyptian politics into a Turkish domestic issue—Egyptian developments were adapted as means of expressing Turkish concerns about Turkey.

It was within this environment of intense feelings on both sides and amplified public displays of diplomacy that a fascinating story unfolded. At the time, the Turkish ambassador to Cairo, Avni Botsalı, had already been appointed to his next post and was going through his official departure process. He had been a remarkable ambassador who maintained truly deep and effective relationships all across the Egyptian establishment. He had also, however, attracted a peculiar kind of criticism in some Turkish circles who were asking for the appointment of a more conservative ambassador after Morsi took office. When Morsi was ousted, Botsalı had already been scheduled to leave Egypt. However, Egyptian diplomats and statesmen demanded that he stay in Cairo because they trusted him; ultimately, Ankara took the wise decision to keep him in his post. One Egyptian diplomat told me: “We said to Ankara, we don’t want to talk to any other ambassador.” Botsalı’s skill as a bridge between Cairo and Ankara during these turbulent times has been exemplary. Thus, when he was later declared persona non grata by the Egypt government, it was a loss felt deeply in both cities.

This story, among other events, shows how both countries have gone wrong in understanding and handling each other. It is also clear how misperceptions and overly emotional response patterns have caused public views in both countries to fall under the sway of strong, yet generally unfounded, prejudices. However, beyond the public political clashes, both countries’ diplomatic structures had clearly developed better mutual understanding, revealing how Egypt and Turkey could have better navigated the current storm and how they can yet find a way out of the current downturn in relations.
The hope for re-normalization lies in a simple fact that this brief article has tried to demonstrate: Turkey and Egypt did not discover each other only after the election of President Morsi—positive relations between the two countries did not develop just as part of some putative Sunni Islamist plot to redesign the Middle East, as some might argue. Closer relations began in the Mubarak era for extremely important reasons: both countries’ economies have so much to gain from a friendly relationship, and positive relations between Egypt and Turkey would have significant, mutually beneficial regional implications.

The challenges that are ahead now are to rediscover these truths (even as both countries continue to go through domestic uncertainties) and to help members of both societies to understand the other beyond the level of sharp, emotive responses (which Egyptians and Turks share as a common trait). Turkey and Egypt must learn both how to work with each other on issues of economic and political importance and how to constructively engage each other when disagreements and concerns arise. Achieving this kind of relationship is vital because, in the end, Turkey is more important to Egypt (particularly to its future as a healthy society, economy and regional actor) and Egypt is more important to Turkey (particularly regarding its regional interests) than the current, angry outbursts between the two countries suggest.

Turkey: Whose Side Are You On?

NOTE: Unpublished Post, it can be used in full by notifying the author.

Last 12 months have been truly draining for all who research and write on Turkey. We not only saw dramatic events and ups and downs that were difficult to decipher and make sense, we saw a toxic and suffocating climate descending on the Turkish public space and conversations on Turkey anywhere in the world.

Often, it felt like tidal waves of strong and clear views carrying masses and with it those whose day time jobs are covering and analysing those events. Polarization has been fierce, and there has been no option for anyone but to fit into a clear camp in clash with others.

In Turkey, one either had to sing praises of PM Erdogan and see him as the Messiah, or had to see him as the new Hitler committing mass crimes. One either had to be supporting a 'revolution' symbolised by urban and self-assuredly 'modern' Turks or 'protection' of the nation and 'national will' of similarly self-assured bearers of 'authentic' Turkishness.

Then came the further fragmentation as AKP-Gulen Movement clash unfolded, now, we had to take one side or the other, either enjoy the tremendously worrying damage caused to the state structures since it was the 'Islamists' clashing with each other, or take the side of AKP or its challengers from within the state.

Chronic troubles of Turkish public space only amplified these clashes; our incapacity to engage in a conversation with different views without intense emotions outbursting and the ultimate result of that being attacks, slurs, relativisation of whoever simply does not agree with us 100%.

Within fierce emotive public space that only fosters emotive political partisanship, any chance of an analysis or view outside of the unfolding social and political clashes became impossible. Any comment you made were made to show 'your true colors', thus essentialising an ultimately crooked ontology and sudden loss of any personal worth or value. Friendships broke down on the basis of a single tweet or view expressed, with the most intense personal judgements passed. Any attempt to analyse Turkey outside of 'are you pro or against Pm Erdogan?' horizon became impossible.

Within the last 12 months, I have been named the following among my fellow Turks;  AKPist, Gulenist, Pro-Zionist, Americanist, Pro-Armenian, Free Mason, Religious Muslim, a Muslim selling out. These are made all the more ironic by the fact that I am a Turkish Christian with no affiliation or interests in/with/from any of these groups. Sadly, it seems it was impossible to be perceived as a person just expressing personal views, I must have had a side I belonged to.

So thus, any conversation on Turkish foreign policy outside of two-options (it is a major failure of Islamist government vs it is a great success ) became impossible. Foreign policy conversations became grandeur metaphors, only scoring a pro or anti government goal in an imagined match. The world outside melted into the world inside, melting reality that remained outside of Turkey into Turkish discourse olympics.

Say, you fully agreed that media was being coerced and facing intense government pressure, and raised this as a concern, but if you did not stop there and also raised the low standards of Turkish press and how columnist culture also contributed to current polarization and toxic air in Turkey and how not every journalist is a bearer of non-biased and free media, and how we are seeing an accumulation of decades long unhealthy state and business interests in management of truth, you were seen as simply supporting Erdogan.

Say, you fully agreed that the police used out of proportion force and committed abuses during Gezi protests in Istanbul and courts are failing to bring these to light, and say that you saw a lot of good and promising signs of an invisible and yet important group of people who are not represented by mainstream politics and who demand rights for all, but if you did not stop there and said in later stages of those protests in Istanbul we saw a come back of all the old ghosts in Turkey that suffocated the initial promise and that any analysis that does not fit Gezi into how all other protests across the country differed and the long term reasons behind that social eruption, and you doubted the poetic framing of a 'Turkish spring' you found yourself with once again supporting brutality of Erdogan.

Say, you too remained worried for decades now of the patriarchal nature of Turkish politics and society, and serious issues with rights of women in the country, violence against women and gross problems with child brides and sexual abuse. But, when PM Erdogan started speaking in his own own way on the need for Turks to have more children, you did not see this as an Islamist call, but actually a valid point on the demographic trends in Turkey and serious future awaiting us with an aging population, then you found yourself back to supporting all the ills faced by women in the country.

Mr Erdogan himself too followed the same course, anyone who challenged his policies were publicly blamed to be foreign agents, or immoral people against the 'will of the people' who are out for drinks, porn and simply want to pursue a coup. In fact, his public tone of voice have only amplified the intense social dynamics and he has played a serious part in undermining a lot of his good work and a lot of the current mess we are in.

Last few months' clash between conservative Turks also showed they too share the same instinct for suffocating any other conversation than they want or any other view than they promote. If the 'secular' Turks had used more of a 'western' vocabulary to silence others, now, conservative Muslims use a full a range of Islamic terminology to silence, undermine, slur and relativise their opponents.

Use of hashtags in Twitter, and non-stop repetition of the same intense personal attacks with just another way of saying it fades any beauty there was in public space opened by the social media. This really makes us understand more and more why God asked us not to use his name in vain in the Ten Commandments. When you survey what is being written and said by conservatives, it is almost as though the Lord Almighty will be voting in 2014 elections.

Amidst all claims of piety and a spirituality that make the holder of those values feel superior to those who do not share them, conservative voices too demonstrated that they are no better or saintly than any other 'sinner' they see themselves in comparison with. In fact, such an appeal to a cosmic support for very mundane personal interests and weaknesses caused them to be more closed to interaction than those secular nationalists who also saw a cosmic legitimacy given by Turkish race for their own power monopoly.  

Within this picture, of course, any chance for a genuine attempt to converse in order to understand and arrive at a better picture disappears. Articles, conversations, media interviews and social media interactions are all zero-sum assertions that far from seeking to convince others by persuasion, merely seeks to demonstrate how immoral, how fascist, how idiot the others' voice is.

And sadly, academics, journalists and policy wonks too share the guilt of all of this. The thin line between being an activist academic or a journalist and simply riding a particular wave as an academic and journalist got crossed continually. It was horribly sad to see academics, journalists and policy researchers to copying the same emotive slurs and ad hominem attacks to views of their own colleagues, only giving themselves and their own wavelength the aura of intellect, 'objectivity' and integrity. When such voices who automatically find a hearing by virtue of their titles behave that way too, there is not much hope left for the larger society to assume a respectful engagement and a civic public space.

So where does this leave us? For some, this is all Erdogan's fault, if not these 'Islamists' who are out there to turn us into Iran, interfere with our bedrooms and drinks. For others, this is all fault of foreign powers, enemies of 'will of people', secular anti-God sinners. First, the 'other' has to behave, then it will all work out.

For sure, the way a country is being governed has a lot to answer for where things are. And yet, those who govern, those who are in politics, those who write, those who tweet, those who protest and clash against them, are all us. These are our problems, making each one of us responsible.

That is where vision of a Turkish democracy shows its biggest fundamental flaw: a disassociation of personal responsibility in the public space. The Turkish nation state vision gave no room to us, and promised to do it all on our behalf, including democracy and management of public space. Now that such strong state monopoly has been fragmented, we are left with the haunting task of owning Turkey individually and what we are demonstrating is only the residue of 80 years of social engineering, politics of forceful silencing and dominance.

Whatever it is that we long for as a 'democratic Turkey' starts within me, within you. From the way I tweet, I speak, I write, I engage with you, with others. Only in such a personalised vision of democratic responsibility our attempts and desire for a better Turkey can start to take deep roots. Only by practicing personal calm and openness and willingness to engage, can we achieve a public space where each one of us is heard without fear of being lynched.

Only in a public space like that can our politicians learn to behave as their attempts to polarise and cause intense emotions would no longer work for them. Only in a personalised vision of a Turkey that is for all, where all is heard, treated equally and respected, can we hope that next generation of Turkish politicians, academics, journalists, policy researchers and civil servants will not see themselves as the ultimate and exclusive owners of this beautiful country or think that if they are the loudest and the most witty in slurring someone, then, they are on the right track.