Egypt and an evolving region: challenges for Turkey's strategic environment

Momentous developments have been shaking the Middle East since the Arab Awakening started in Tunisia. Initial enthusiasm was replaced by gradual pessimism, especially after the Syrian revolution ran into problems in 2012.

Last week's coup in Egypt has added further complications to the region's already fragile balances. The Turkish policy community has been focusing mostly on the internal aspect of the coup in Egypt. The coup was widely condemned in Turkey as an unacceptable act against the democratically elected government in Cairo. Needless to say, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) enjoyed close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and thus almost viewed the coup as perpetrated against itself. The AK Party has been articulating its support to President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood very forcefully since July 3. The Turkish discourse about the coup is very much conditioned by Turkey's own history with military coups and the problems related with them, especially those suffered by Turkey's conservatives.

Apart from the internal aspect, there is more to the changes in Cairo. Egypt is one of the most important countries in the Middle East. Hence, the changes in Cairo will have an impact on the regional strategic set-up. The Turkey-Qatar-Egypt axis has suffered a significant blow as the new rulers in Cairo are likely to have a very different approach to regional policy. One of the first things expected is a tougher relationship with Hamas and a consequent increase in Egyptian-Israeli cooperation. Egypt will work harder against the lawlessness in the Sinai as well as coordinate closely with Israel on the Rafah border gate and tunnels into Gaza. The new Egypt will also work closer with Saudi Arabia, which is seen as a prime beneficiary of the recent changes. The aid packages offered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are not only sending strong political messages but will also help the new rulers to manage a very fragile Egyptian economy.

Turkey and Qatar are the main losers of the events in Egypt. Turkey's close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and Ankara's strong reaction against the coup will contribute to the ongoing decline of Turkish influence in the region. Turkey's Syria policy and its inability to deter Syrian attacks against Turkish civilians, territory and military had already dented Turkey's image in the region. The reversal of fortunes in Syria is extremely worrying for Ankara. The concomitant tension with Iraq and Iran as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon has limited Turkey's room for maneuvering even more dramatically. The changes in Egypt signify a diminishing of Turkish influence in the region. Ankara would have been better off if it recognized the potential risks in Syria and took a more careful stance. Arguments in the policy community to adopt a more modest and prioritized approach to the region have been ignored. Ankara still sees itself as a primary player when developments clearly point to a more limited role for Turkey. Faced with a huge mess in Syria, Turkey would do better if it refrained from more intervention into Egyptian domestic affairs. Turkey's priority must be its immediate neighborhood space. Here, the most pressing issues are relations with Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Syria. Already pressed and challenged by historic protests domestically, Ankara should have little appetite to get more entangled with intra-Arab affairs.

Turkey could not have predicted the Arab Awakening. It was not responsible for starting this historical process either. However, given Turkey's position in Syria and the associated costs, Ankara must re-prioritize its regional policy objectives. Ankara would be well-advised to take a more modest and focused policy approach that would give its immediate neighbors priority. Ankara would be better off if it completes the normalization process with Israel. The region is changing in most dramatic ways. Regional dynamics are not in favor of Turkey's current positions. Should we fail to adapt to these changes, Turkey will find itself in a secondary position with a limited number of partners to work with.



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