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Opinion

Tumultuous Times for Egypt and Turkey

February 23, 2012

by EVREN TOK and HANY BESADA, NSI

Business Today Egypt

Turkey–Egypt relations are central to the political and economic stability of the geographies of the Arab Spring. As such, a number of imminent diplomatic, political and economic challenges and potentials await these relations. The unfolding of three pressing policy areas may in fact determine whether the future is one laden with challenges or potential. These policy areas include Turkey’s portrayal as a model to the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular, the foreign policy orientations of both countries towards their neighbors and increasing rising Turkish investment in Egypt as symptomatic of a deepening strategic alliance between the two.

The Turkish model
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ranked third in Foreign Policy magazine’s recent poll of leading global thinkers in 2011 after Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Erdogan has been nurturing his country’s ambitions of becoming a prominent political power in the Arab–Muslim world.

A survey of successful Arab spring revolutionary countries as well as their crisis-stricken African neighbors has led Arab and Western scholars, as well as policy makers, to champion the idea of Turkey as a model for aspiring young Arab democracies.

Although Ankara has become an inspiration to those in the region who seek to build modern, secular and pluralistic states and although it is possible to argue that Egypt and other Arab Spring countries can still learn from the Turkish experience, replicating the Turkish model at this point does not seem to be a realistic alternative.

Presenting the Turkish experience as a model for emulation is fraught with two challenges. First, Egypt’s influence on the Arab world is still strong and in the post-Mubarak era, Egypt is expected to reclaim its historical and cultural role as a regional leader and power.

Post-Mubarak Egypt may be increasingly attractive to other Arab countries in the region, and Egypt’s foreign policy and regional role could easily overshadow Turkey’s rising foreign policy activism. Certain key actors, such as Saudi Arabia, seem to have already aligned with Egypt, in terms of its financial power and Egypt’s need for financial resources.

The second challenge derives from the uniqueness of the Turkish model in the sense that Turkey’s transformation, as Sebnem Gumuscu from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace aptly pointed out, stems from the acceptance of a secular–democratic framework for the Turkish state by the elites of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The AKP dates back to the institutionalization of a neoliberal economy in the 1980s, which led to an emergence of a conservative middle class and the proliferation of devout businessmen especially in the form of small- and medium-size enterprises. These new socioeconomic entities, by reaping the benefits of economic liberalization and globalization, formed the basis of AKP’s electoral success since 2002. In the case of Egypt, however, neoliberalism under the Mubarak regime did not generate a trickle-down impact for society.

While the private sector in Turkey gained leverage against the state under neoliberalism, Egypt’s neoliberal reforms retained a crucial role for the state and prevented the emergence of a new middle class as the basis of an Islamist democracy like the one that underpinned the Turkish model.

Foreign policy convergence?
Turkey’s prime minister received a rock star welcome on his trip to Egypt in September 2011 as Turkey is undoubtedly emerging as a key Arab ally given its valuable economic opportunities as well as improved Turkish–Egyptian relations. More importantly, Turkey is rebalancing the region geopolitically, throwing its weight behind the issue of Palestinian statehood, against what most see as Israeli intransigence.

The prime minister’s strong criticism of Israeli policies on Gaza and his outburst against Israeli president Shimon Peres were instrumental to building Erdogan’s charisma in Egypt and Arab Spring countries.

Developments in post-Mubarak Egypt point to a distancing of Egypt from its past strategic alliance with Israel. As former University of British Columbia Alma Mater Society President Bijan Ahmadian has noted, reactivation of Palestinian reconciliation, the partial opening of the Rafah border in the Gaza Strip and a recent attack on Israel’s embassy point to a convergence of Turkey and Egypt’s foreign policies.

This convergence prompted Turkey and Egypt to organize a joint naval exercise in late December 2011, code-named “Sea of Friendship 2011.” This exercise took place in the Turkish waters of the eastern Mediterranean, with Egypt contributing ships and personnel. Many commentators suggested that this new strategic military alliance reasserted the military presence of both countries against the challenges posed by Iran and Israel. This alliance is expected to gain strength as Egypt is preparing to purchase six Turkish-built MRTP 20 interceptor boats.