Turkey and Egypt’s strategic roles are likely to become crucial in the development of future scenarios in the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring world. The relations between these two countries, which at the moment are juggling with the idea of creating an alliance, could actually develop in the other direction, into staunch competition in light of rapidly unfolding events in the region.
The “Arab Spring,” which began almost a year ago, is far from over, as the situation on the ground continues to develop. Yemen and Syria are still either at the mercy of popular protests or engaged in what may become protracted civil wars.
Even in countries apparently unharmed by this period of profound change and turmoil, such as the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco, there are signs that social tensions could easily reach the boiling point. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, whose dictators were tossed out earlier this year, the transition will last for a long time. The eyes of the world are particularly focused on Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, as the political developments in that country have frequently acted as a bellwether for players of the wider region – and with far-reaching consequences on the international level.
For most of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, the Western world, especially the United States and Europe, was for all practical purposes the absolute arbiters of the political balance of the Arab world. However, it is now struggling with what is considered by many to be the greatest economic crisis in contemporary history or at least the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The West, many believe, is gradually losing much of the power it for so long enjoyed internationally. For decades the West has never had serious problems in controlling the dynamics of Middle East politics, but the relative decline in Western influence has opened up space for other aspiring world powers, such as Russia and China, to gain a foothold in the region. Turkey, the up and coming regional power that border the Arab world, is theoretically better placed than any other to do so.
Erdogan’s Turkey: between Europe and the Middle East
“Turkey is sexy now,” said Serdar Sualp, sales manager of Arçelik, Turkey’s largest household appliance company, when commenting on the reaction to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent tour of the Arab world. Recent events have not only highlighted the attractiveness of Turkey’s economic position but also demonstrated the prowess and pragmatism of its proactive diplomacy. In following Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “strategic depth,” Turkey has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to gradually alter its historic role as a Muslim country and an ally of the West. Turkey is using its dual position of a democratic and Muslim country and EU candidate to prove that it can play an independent leadership role in the Middle East.
Results have been significant to date, and due to its strong cultural and historical ties with the Arab and Islamic world, Turkey will remain in a prime position to influence regional political evolution. The Turkish government has already been the subject of a chain of impressive media stories in the Arab world, which reflects its diplomatic initiatives and successes on various fronts.
Turkey’s influence, reputation and prestige have soared in the last ten months, especially among regional governments. One of the main reasons for its current high standing is its current diplomatic row with Israel over the armed and deadly Israeli assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, during which Turkish citizens were injured and killed. A combination of effective use of the mass media and clever diplomacy gave Turkey political leverage and great popularity in the Arab-Islamic world.
While the world’s leading powers and the dominant players in the region took increasingly ambiguous and disappointing positions during many uprisings in the Arab world, seeking to protect their strategic alliances (as in the cases of the United States and Iran’s attitudes towards Syria and Saudi Arabia’s towards Bahrain) or prompted by fear of being hit by similar movements (as with Algeria, Saudi Arabia again, the Gulf monarchies, Morocco), Turkey conducted a much more coherent and purposeful diplomacy and skillfully took advantage of swings in public opinion throughout the region. Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent visit to North African states showcased the consolidation of Turkish influence in the Arab world, and particularly on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
In his most recent interviews, Foreign Minister Davotoglu has been candid as to Turkey’s diplomatic activism with regard to relations with Europe: it wants to redefine the parameters of its relations with the EU and the West, putting them on a much more equal basis, as it is unwilling to suffer the diktats of Brussels concerning its candidacy for membership and seeks to impose its own conditions.
As Europe struggles with a debt crisis so severe that it even calls into question the sustainability of its single currency, Turkey’s goals, as described by the Foreign Minister Davotoglu, do not seem unrealistic. However, many aspects are involved, and for that reason an analysis of the most important of them is welcome.
Turkey’s policy is full of inherent risks; it may become overextended on too many fronts, and this could reduce its effectiveness if its resolve and focus are not maintained.
For example, on September 2 Turkey threw further fuel on the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic fire by expelling Israel’s ambassador and suspending all military agreements until Tel Aviv apologizes for the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31, 2010. Previously the Turkish Prime Minister walked off the stage in protest during a panel discussion on Gaza at the Davos World Economic Forum (WEF) on Jan. 29, 2009. Such actions are not timely when a battle for diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian State is taking place at the United Nations. The irritation with yet another of Ankara’s historic strategic ally, provoked by these actions, is making things rather complicated on the diplomatic front.
Meanwhile, Turkey maintains a common position with the U.S. on Syria and is at the forefront of providing support for the Syrian opposition. It has even recently opened another difficult diplomatic front with Europe and Israel over Cyprus, rekindling the emotional issue of the exploitation of the rich gas fields off the coast of the Greek section of the disputed island. Initially opposing Western intervention in Libya, a move which even alienated its NATO allies, Turkey eventually agreed to cooperate with other NATO members by making its contribution to the toppling of the Gaddafi regime. In mid-September it also officially agreed to install a sophisticated American radar system on its territory which will serve as part of NATO’s missile defense system.
Opening up these new political and diplomatic fronts has added other thorny issues to the “traditional” mix of foreign policy questions that Ankara has never really been able to resolve, including the Kurdish problem (an ominous problem which could easily be exacerbated by current events in Northern Syria), the long standing dispute with Armenia over the alleged genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks during WWI, and the worrying economic and social disparities between Eastern and Western Turkey.
Uncertainty about the strength and sustainability of economic growth in Turkey also remains constant. The fact that the country’s GDP has increased impressively under Erdogan (in 2010 it was the only country in the world to record double-digit growth, about 10%) does not allay all fears. Many view this apparently dazzling growth figure with a modicum of skepticism, based largely on the validity of Turkish data. Moreover, economic growth is countered by government expenditure accounting for 9% of GDP.
Turkish economic growth is in fact mostly derived from foreign direct investment fanning private consumption. The country’s industrial sector remains rather uncompetitive on international markets. Similar economic circumstances were observed in Greece and Spain, whose fledgling economies, despite several years of sustained economic growth, have recently paid a high price for not addressing deficit spending in the aftermath of global economic crisis.
The real risk is that Turkey, which is now able to dance between “two worlds,” the West and the Middle East, with impressive skills, could end up losing both sides because of its own debatable strategy and policy direction. It is not unlikely that in the coming years the fragile macroeconomic foundations of Turkey’s economic success will take their toll and put the country on the path of development slowdown. Meanwhile, there is a high likelihood that many of the outcomes the country is promoting on the diplomatic level will be derailed by a set of undesirable developments. Syria is the most probable case scenario for things to go wrong. Having offered its support to groups demonstrating against the Bashar al-Assad regime, Turkey could become embroiled in a direct conflict with Syria, which is at the moment on the brink of civil war.
Egypt: in search of its role
One also has to consider possible future developments in the Arab world as a whole. So far Turkey has been able, at least in part, to maintain its influence in the region despite the serious events taking place in the Arab world, although this is due more to the severe, albeit temporary, weakness of the major protagonists in the region than to Turkey’s “soft” and “hard” power per se.
Turkey has found a new position on the regional political stage because the traditional players, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been distracted and preoccupied with their own unexpected problems. Regional dynamics could quickly change, though, when the major Arab countries emerge from this heated, contested and unstable phase of the Arab Spring. Consequently, the future will probably see a repositioning of forces on the diplomatic front.
Once domestic political scenes settle down the main players in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will be better able to acquire a more prestigious role on the international stage. Egypt is now struggling to build internal political stability on the new foundation the Arab Spring has laid. The new political leaders will have to deliver on their promises, especially on social issues, and sway public opinion to regain leadership standing and prestige.
Analysts and diplomats are interested in understanding power dynamics that will fill the void left by the ousting of the thirty-year regime of Hosni Mubarak. The question is whether Egypt, in the post-Mubarak period, will be able to function effectively and maintain its leverage on a regional level. Building up more democratic institutions, while the army still retains its authority and prestige in the Egyptian society, will be prodigious challenge for the new leaders. Consequently, specialists and laymen are now looking to Turkey as a possible model of the future institutional arrangements of the post-revolutionary Egypt – and Arab world more generally.
Much now depends on Arab countries. Only well thought out reform proposals and experimentally tested strategies for democratic transition have a chance of achieving the desired results after decades of dictatorship. In that sense, Turkey appears to offer the best model of democratization in an Islamic socio-economic setting and trying times.
Egypt, one of the first nations (it followed in the footsteps of Tunisia) to take to the street against the authoritarianism of the political system, is a country other Arab nations will watch with keen interest; it is a case study in how to resolve complex issues during a transitional period. Egypt has the potential to become a beacon of relatively peaceful major political changes. For that reason, it will be interesting to observe how far and how well Egypt makes the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic and pluralist system, and how long these changes will be sustainable into the future.
Egypt’s future international role is already feared, and the country is being watched with suspicion by other actors, including Israel, Europe and the United States. The historic reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo last spring, and the deal struck between Hamas, the elected Palestinian Authority and Israel for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were made possible, in large measure, by Cairo’s clever and well-informed diplomacy. With these successful diplomatic maneuvers, global and regional players have been provided the first “taste” of what the new democratic Egypt may be able to accomplish on the international scene in the not-too-distant future.
Erdogan’s government appears to be the most cognizant of Egypt’s potential. In fact, Egypt was the first leg of the Turkish prime minister’s triumphant and well-received tour throughout the Arab world. During bilateral meetings in Cairo Erdogan placed great emphasis on the need for a strong Turkish-Egyptian alliance – one able to determine the balance of power in the Middle East. He assembled a large delegation of Turkish businessmen who signed numerous contracts and agreements to strengthen existing economic ties and increase trade turnover between the two countries.
A Turkish-Egyptian alliance has the potential to bring balance and equilibrium to the entire region. However, in spite of all predications and high hopes, the real issue to be focused on is how the two countries will be able to determine their respective roles within the alliance, and especially how Turkey will be able to adapt its policy agenda, which has been for decades predominately centered on Europe and the West, to the Arab world.
Middle Eastern history shows that the Arab states have always borne the most pain from attempts by the non-Arab regional powers (such as Iran) to reach regional hegemony, as well as attempts by external states, such as the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain or France, to maintain their strategic positions.
Turkey and Erdogan are now regarded with admiration and gratitude by many, and much ink continues to be spilled in recalling that Turkey and the Arab world are closely linked by great cultural and historical ties. However, the Arab world could equally begin to remember the humiliations suffered at the hands the Ottoman Turks, and how it has been dominated by other empires and hegemonic states for centuries.
It is also conceivable that the Turkish influence in the Middle East could be undermined by the unresolved issues related to Turkey’s economic growth and the many international events that the country is now engaged in. In the final analysis, Egypt, at the expense of Turkey, is far more likely than others to be the prime candidates for regional leadership on various political fronts, especially if it can achieve a successful democratic transition, get its own house in order, and act as a role model for others wishing to follow suit.
This article appeared at The Washington Review and is reprinted with permission.