How Turkey misread the Egyptian Political Map

Louis Fishman

Following the recent Egyptian army’s military coup that ousted its democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the Turkish government immediately announced its disappointment, and unsuccessfully campaigned internationally to have it reversed.

Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stated that “No matter where they are … coups are bad…. Coups are clearly enemies of democracy,” and went on to describe the negative effects coups had had on Turkish history. Reiterating his thoughts, his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutolgu, called on the military to integrate Morsi back into politics, and claimed that the military coup was a counter revolution masterminded by “internal and external actors who wanted the continuation of the [Hosni Mubarak] era paradigms.” He also compared the military coup in Egypt with those in Turkey’s past.

There is no doubt that with Turkey’s past history with military coups, and the Turkish government’s strengthening of the state’s institution to prevent further ones, many in Turkey affiliated with the government saw their state as a model for the Egyptian case; further, following Morsi’s winning of the presidency, Erdogan took Morsi under his wing, acting somewhat of a mentor, guiding him on how a Muslim conservative government could defy an anti-democratic secular elite. In fact, Morsi was even showcased at last year’s AK party convention, where he was awarded up to two billion dollars in loans and support from Turkey, which significantly poised the Middle East with a new reality: no longer would countries in the region have to look to the US or Russia for support, or to the Arab Oil states, now Turkey was in the game.

Throughout all of this however, the Turkish government, and many of the Turkish sympathizers of President Morsi, have missed one important point: Egypt is not Turkey. Historically, the two countries could not be farther apart from one another. While many in Turkey are quick to point out the shared past of Turkey and Egypt under the Ottoman Empire, few scrutinize this claim; yes, for Turks longing for a glorious past, the Ottoman years in Egypt seems quite vivid; yet, they miss the fact that since the early 19th century the Ottomans never had any direct rule over the country that eventually fell to British occupation in 1882. While the Albanian Ottoman officer, Mehmet Ali, and his descendants who turned into Egypt’s royal family and were eventually overthrown by the Young Officers in 1952, did speak Turkish, Egypt’s political map developed independently of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, much of what can be envisioned as the “Turkish” past, has just as much to do with Egypt’s Mamluk past than its Ottoman one.

While Erdogan has worked to compare the fate of Mohammed Morsi, to those who suffered coups at the hands of the Turkish military, the comparison stops there. Any scholar of Egypt can attest to the fact that unlike Turkish history, Egyptian history is rich with popular uprisings and challenges to the state: from the Urabi revolt, to the Dinshaway Incidents, the 1919 revolution ignited by the Wafd incidents, the Egyptian revolution lead by the Free Officers Movement (leading to the renowned rule of Gamal Abdul Nassar), to the 1977 bread riots, Egyptians have a long history of hitting the streets to challenge Ottoman, British colonial, and Egyptian led governments. It is in this context that which the January 25 uprising, and the more recent June 30 one, which led to a military coup, need to be placed.

In other words, there is little comparison to the Turkish case, where the military-secular elite took the reins of the government, aiming to keep the state within their parameters of Kemalist ideology, which has developed for almost a century; while parallel to this the AK party emerged in 2002 as the result of a growing civil demand to once and for all remove the military completely from the public sphere. Not to mention the fact that Erdogan himself, by serving as the mayor of Istanbul, was a well-known politician who had built up credibility over years of public service, and importantly integrated elements of Kemalism in his own party’s platform and worldview. In other words, comparing the rise of the AK party to that of Morsi’s FJP party (affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) is also quite far-fetched since it carries few similarities.

In short, Turkish policy makers that treated Morsi and the recent coup, as if this was parallel to the Turkish case, have completely misread the Egyptian political map. I think few would argue with Erdogan’s claim that military coups are enemies of democracy, including many Egyptians in Tahrir Square who called for Morsi’s resignation; however, by discrediting the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets as not having legitimate claims and accusing them of not abiding by the rules of democracy, only blurs the reality that what occurred in Egypt had also a great deal to do with Morsi’s poor leadership and the fears of a large part of the Egyptian people who believed Morsi was set on implementing an authoritarian state similar to the one they had rejected two years ago. In other words, what we recently witnessed in Egypt was a continuation of the revolution that started two years ago; unfortunately, Morsi underestimated the army, and in place of working for a compromise, he opted for all-or-nothing, a price that Egypt is paying for today, with the military working under a similar approach violently cracking down on the Morsi camp.

Certainly, as violence continues to grow in Egypt, with Morsi’s return further away than ever, Turkey will need to stand two-steps back and reassess its relationship with Egypt; however, regardless of which group emerges from the current power struggle, it seems that Egyptians are more skeptical than ever concerning Turkey’s future role. Perhaps, this is the reason for the recent change: after the Turkish government vowed not to recognize Adly Mansour’s presidency, last Wednesday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul sent Mansour a message conveying good tidings on Egypt’s national day. This seems to be the first sign that Turkey is looking for away to safely climb down from the tree in an attempt to cut its losses.

This approach is especially important as Egypt’s witnesses its second massacre of Morsi supporters. If Turkey really wants to secure stability in Egypt then it will have to remove its status as an advocate of Morsi, and start to work under realpolitik, or even “damage control,” to take every possible step that will contribute to a peaceful solution and place Egypt back on a democratic path; since as we have seen the continued stalemate (deterioration of the situation) is only to the detriment of the Egyptian people, not to mention Turkey’s credibility in the region at large.


Luis Fishman is an assistant professor at CUNY Brooklyn College and interested in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and Modern Turkey. Currently on research leave, he is based in Istanbul until September 2013. 

You can follow him on Twitter  at @Istanbultelaviv.

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