Middle East

Erdogan in Egypt: Teenage Turkey Tests Her Limits

Erdogan with his image of prominence, popularity

I had the opportunity to witness the keynote address of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 13. Beginning a tour of Arab Spring nations, he met with military, political, and business leaders in Cairo, and then spoke generally to the nation from the historic Opera House, in a session hosted by Cairo University. The following are a few highlights from his speech, concluding with some personal observations:

  • For a lecture scheduled to begin at 4pm, Erdogan began speaking at 6:45pm. Attendees had been asked to arrive no later than 3pm for security.
  • The audience chanted continually during the speech, lauding Erdogan for his regional politics.
  • Erdogan praised Egypt and her revolution, as well as historic Egyptian-Turkish ‘sisterhood’.
  • A devout Muslim, Erdogan laced his speech with Quranic references, though in a different setting he praised the virtues of a ‘secular’ state which values religion.
  • He believed the spirit of liberation in the Arab world was spreading to America and Europe to sensitize the whole world against injustice.
  • Turkey and the Arab world will dismiss orientalist myths that the region cannot support democracy or strong economies.
  • In a nod to protestor concerns and as a prod to military leadership, Erdogan stated the coming elections should be held according to a set schedule.
  • Erdogan highlighted the dramatic increase in trade between Turkey and Egypt, and pledged it would only increase further in the future.
  • He declared that Egypt is Turkey’s key to Africa, just as Turkey is Egypt’s key to Europe.
  • Erdogan spoke of his efforts to get Syrian President Assad to reform, but stated he can no longer trust him in his pledges.
  • Alarmingly and surprisingly, Erdogan predicted that Syria will now face sectarian problems, which are played upon by foreign forces.
  • He stated that the illegitimate policies of Israel are the biggest obstacle to peace in the region, especially in her disregard for international law.
  • Erdogan prompted the greatest applause when he reiterated Turkey’s diplomatic efforts against Israel will continue until an apology is received for Turkish deaths aboard last year’s flotilla.
  • He also condemned as illegitimate the deaths of Egyptian officers in an Israeli raid across the Sinai border; he also offered his condolences to their families.
  • He expressed hope the Israeli people would realize their settlements are illegitimate, and that they are leading the nation into difficulties.
  • Erdogan pledged to hold Israeli leaders accountable while expressing he bore no ill will against the Israeli citizen, who like all must be respected on account of their creator.
  • He promised to always stand side by side with Palestine, hoping for an independent state in the framework of the United Nations.
  • Erdogan counseled the United States to reconsider its stance toward Palestinian statehood, to better accord with traditional concerns of justice in American foreign policy.
  • He believed Fatah and Hamas needed to keep from being divided and to love each other.
  • Erdogan predicted the Egyptian economy would rebound after elections, and promised that Turkey would stand by Egypt’s side forever.
  • Erdogan closed by announcing he cannot forget, and will never forget, what was accomplished in Tahrir Square.
Erdogan addressing the crowd

I have few strong opinions on Turkey. The nation has done well to craft for itself a strong economy and independent foreign policy. All is not perfect, of course: Turkey has major problems with her Kurdish minority, and human rights organizations complain about a lack of journalistic freedom and other issues. The Armenian massacre and the division of Cyprus are long unresolved issues still staining Turkish public image. Yet there is little denying the accomplishments of her democracy as well as her emergence from supervisory military rule.

I wonder, however, if Turkey in recent weeks has become like a teenager in an adult body seeking to assert his newfound power. Sometimes bravado is found right, as in Turkey’s early calls for Mubarak to heed the will of protestors. Sometimes bravado is found empty, as in Turkish impotence to stand up to Syria. Sometimes bravado takes on unwise enemies, as in Turkey’s threat to freeze EU relations if the presidency – assigned by rotation – is awarded to Cyprus. And sometimes bravado can be for its own sake, as in Turkey’s increased tension with Israel.

To be sure, Turkey’s diplomatic row with Israel is a matter of principle. Turkey opposes the Gaza blockade and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, no matter how much provocation may have been directed at the soldiers. Yet the feeling is that Turkey’s response to Israel is measured and calculated. Is Turkey using her Israel policy to enhance her regional power?

Certainly Turkey is placing Israel in a no win situation. An apology conveys guilt, and admission of guilt can precede liability. Israel’s soldiers, though the initiators of overt hostility (as opposed to the symbolic hostility of breaking the blockade), were severely attacked. No nation will sell out its military to appease a demanding neighbor, unless her soldiers were clearly at fault (which remains disputed, of course).

Yet Turkey’s announcement of downgrading diplomatic relations came immediately on the heels of Egyptian outrage at her military leadership for failing to take a hard line with Israel following the death of her officers in a cross-border Israeli military raid. Turkey had already been lauded by many liberals and Islamists alike as a possible model for democratic transition. Shortly thereafter the Arab Spring diplomatic tour begins.

Beyond rhetoric, the main substantial element of this tour is the promotion of business. This seems shrewd. While the West and the IMF offer loans and the Gulf States offer cash influx, Turkey seeks job creation. It remains to be seen how much capital remains in Turkish hands, but this is the appropriate action of a growing economy, and may well serve to buttress Egypt’s economic needs as well. Is there more behind the courtship, however?

Though Egyptian populism celebrated Erdogan’s arrival, political leaders – both liberal and Islamist – were more cautious. Despite claims to historic ‘sisterhood’, Arab-Turk relations have not always been rosy. Is Turkey carpet-bagging on Arab Spring gains?

It remains to be seen if the Turkish teenager is ready for adulthood. Turkey has been an ally to the West, while maintaining relationships with Syrian and Iran. She has been an Islamic model, while maintaining relationships with Israel. Turkey’s efforts to craft a ‘Zero Problems’ foreign policy are coming apart at the seams, but this could simply be the teenager outgrowing his clothes (after significant muscle flexing).

Can Turkey stand as an independent actor on the world’s stage? Can she continue to risk offenses against entrenched Western positions? Is Turkey too big for her britches, or has she reached geopolitical maturity? Perhaps like a teenager, the only way to know is to test her limits.


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