Relations between Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have become strained as geopolitical realities have shifted in the Middle East, according to a new report by Senem Aydın-Düzgit of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The two Islamists groups warmed to each other between 2007 and 2013. But the AKP cooled its ties with the Brotherhood after the July 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi for fear that links to the now banned movement would “lead to retaliation from both the new Egyptian government and the Gulf States (with the exception of Qatar),” according to the report. The following are excerpts with a link to the full text.
REACTING TO DEFEAT
Given its pro-Morsi line, it was not surprising that the Turkish government reacted very negatively to the 2013 military coup in Egypt. The ouster of President Morsi signified a loss of a major ally and a foreign policy failure on the part of Turkey, particularly painful at a time when Turkey’s Syria policy was already faltering. Erdoğan harshly criticized the members of the UN Security Council for not strongly reacting to the coup. The AKP even organized domestic demonstrations in support of Morsi and the MB, started a campaign for the release of Morsi, and promoted the Rabaa sign as a symbol of Turkish support.
As with the Gaza conflict, this issue also gained domestic significance as a tool for discrediting the opposition and polarizing Turkish society (through parallels drawn to the AKP’s own past struggle with the Turkish military). Those who criticized Morsi and the MB were quickly branded as undemocratic coup supporters or supporters of Israel, which was suspected of engineering the coup. Despite its strongly critical line, however, Turkey did not take any concrete measures against Egypt, and its opposition thus remained largely rhetorical. Turkey initially withdrew its ambassador to Egypt but later sent him back, presumably to keep some lines of communication open.
The AKP’s public and vocal outrage at the Egyptian coup lasted until November 2013. Since then, the government has been notably silent with regard to developments in Egypt, for two main reasons. First, the new Egyptian government retaliated against the Turkish government for its support of the previous regime by declaring the Turkish ambassador to Egypt persona non grata and expelling him in November 2013. Second, Turkey has feared economic retaliation from the Gulf states, in particular from Saudi Arabia. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia declared the MB a terrorist organization and, in response to Qatar’s active support for the MB, removed its ambassador from Doha in the same month. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed suit immediately. Recently leaked tapes of Erdoğan’s conversations have revealed the government’s fear of Saudi pressure, particularly in view of the fact that the Turkish economy, with its large current account deficit, is highly dependent on Gulf money.
These two developments signified that Turkey’s strong support for the MB would no longer go unpunished by the Egyptian military leadership and its allies in the wider region, prompting the AKP to perceive its close relationship with the MB as unsustainable. The Turkish government has therefore toned down its rhetoric on Egypt and the MB, even refraining from loudly condemning the Egyptian courts’ April 2014 decision to sentence over 500 MB members to death.
The subdued reaction of the Turkish government to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s landslide victory in the May 2014 presidential elections further indicated that the Turkish government has decided to follow a more cautious discourse on the developments in Egypt, even if it has not explicitly renounced its earlier support for the Brotherhood. The tension in this approach can be seen in recent comments by government officials. For instance, Davutoğlu, in a recent interview, stated, “there is a perception that Turkey is supporting a certain political movement in Egypt. No. Turkey would stand by whoever was elected as a result of legitimate elections,” and in June, Gül congratulated Sisi on his election victory. Following Gül’s statement, however, Erdoğan was quoted as saying to a group of EU ambassadors, “I must be honest, this congratulations to me holds no meaning, because it is not possible to offer congratulations to a coup leader.” Erdoğan’s criticism was largely interpreted as a message to his domestic constituency that his views on this matter had not radically changed.
With the exception of such occasional mild, pragmatic comments, though, the government continues its relative silence in the aftermath of the Egyptian presidential elections. In fact, a chargé d’affaires from the Turkish embassy, the currently highest ranked representative of the Turkish government in Cairo, was reported to have attended Sisi’s inauguration ceremony held in June.
These developments suggest that geopolitical realities have trumped ideological kinship in the AKP leadership’s approach to the party’s relationship with the MB, despite occasional contrary messages to its conservative domestic constituency. The seesaw has tipped yet again, and the AKP has significantly detached itself from the MB in Egypt.
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