Egypt and Turkey need each other more than ever

To some extent, Turkey's strong condemnation for the forceful ouster of the first democratically elected president in Egypt by the military can be understood through a prism of its own domestic political experience, which had been interrupted by a military coup on five occasions.
None of the coups proved to have brought any sense of relief to the deeply polarized Turkish political sphere and, in fact, they made it worse by sowing seeds of discontent and divisions in Turkish society. The coups turned the liberal economic principles upside down, creating major irregularities in the economy with strong military-controlled businesses operating under privileged rules without any accountability and transparency.

Most of these abnormal practices were removed with the trimming of military powers in the last decade or so, thanks to the prolonged and painful learning curve Turks had to endure and thanks partially to the European Union membership process. But there are still pockets of military-controlled funds and businesses that continue to exist and control multi-billion-dollar conglomerates in Turkey. In a sense, the strong Turkish reaction against the coup in Egypt was directed at its own bitter experiences rather than at what had happened in Cairo. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the desire to get involved in Egyptian affairs, but rather it has to do with a genuine feeling in Turkey to see its Egyptian friends not go through the same painstaking ordeal that happened here.

That was exactly what the Egyptian Ambassador to Turkey, Abderahman Salaheldin, was implying during an interview with Today's Zaman on Wednesday when he said: “I know that Turkey is genuinely interested in Egypt's stability, democracy and welfare. I believe that Turks across the board are genuinely interested in that. They are not interested in intervening or meddling in Egyptian affairs.” He also said something else that needs to be emphasized more in this difficult time of bilateral relations: “The friendship between Turkish and Egyptian people is the product of centuries of close relationship that is honored by the people of both countries. We should be responsible to our people in this regard.” It is true that the Turkish-Egyptian friendship has survived past coups and different governments on both sides and positive perception in respective public opinions has remained strong.

But one also has to acknowledge that Turkey and Egypt are not the same, although there are lots of striking similarities in many respects. Since some commentators in Turkey focus on coups from the historical Turkish experience, they tend to make mistakes when they draw sharp analogies without actually knowing all the details of the discussion taking place within the colorful Egyptian social fabric. That gives the impression that the government and the bulk of the country are taking sides with one group at the expense of others. The same also applies to some Egyptian analysts who reacted harshly to Turkey's response to the coup. Our Egyptian friends should understand that Turkey -- a functioning democracy with a multi-party parliamentary system, a member of the Council of Europe and a candidate to the European Union -- cannot behave like kingdoms and sheikhdoms in the Gulf.

Some gulf countries hailed the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood by force and rushed to the aid of the ailing Egyptian economy. This is not because they want to see a stable and powerful Egypt but because they are primarily motivated by the desire to maintain the status-quo in their own undemocratic regimes, and they are very much afraid of possible democratic transition. This is a futile attempt on their part and will only delay an unavoidable day of reckoning for them. What is more, Egypt is neither a kingdom nor emirate and it will definitely move towards the democratic system and fall in line with Turkey eventually. It will have a representative government which is responsive to demands of its own people without marginalizing or alienating diverse and rich groups in Egyptian society.

Turks cannot act like other Western powers that pretend nothing happened in Egypt and that it is business as usual as long as their interests remain unharmed. Ankara fears possible blowback from a feeling of victimization among Muslim Brotherhood members who feel marginalized and alienated. Let's not forget the Brotherhood has some associations with Turkish groups here as well. This may in turn put additional pressure on the government in Ankara to act. The specter of continuous disturbance in Egyptian politics, which -- amid agitations and provocations -- may give way to violent clashes and even a civil war, keeps many officials in Ankara on the edge. Egyptian Ambassador Salaheldin's remarks that there will be no witch hunt and that nobody will be excluded from participating in politics should come as a relief to many.

I believe that Egyptian leaders understand how delicate the situation in their own country is and try to navigate the transitional process very carefully. Unlike in the post-revolution era, the military has not stayed in the forefront after ousting President Mohammed Morsi from power and it immediately appointed a civilian technocratic government for the interim period until elections can be held in six month time. Even the Brotherhood realizes the risk the country is facing amid uncertainty and has tried to stick to peaceful protests over Morsi's removal. They will have to re-engage with the political process eventually and try to make their case via legitimate political platforms rather than driving the massive organization underground or opting for violent confrontations. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has some affinity and sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, should encourage them to get involved with the new era of politics in Egypt rather than shying away from politics.

A lot in our neighborhood rides on the positive and healthy cooperation between Turkey and Egypt, the two most populous countries in the Middle East with significant political leverage. The containment of expansionist Iran, which exploits religious sensitivities and abuses Shiite ideology, is very much dependent on the close cooperation between Ankara and Cairo. The Gulf cries out often in regards to the looming Iranian threat, but do little of anything on the ground to stall Iranian excursions and encroachment other than running to Washington to file a series of complaints. The colossal failure in preventing Iraq, an Arab country, to fall into Iranian orbit after the end of the US occupation in 2011, and recent successes in suppressing the mainly Sunni opposition in Syria by an Iran-backed minority regime require Turkey and Egypt to bring their policies closer than ever before.

The radicalization of Sunni populations affected by the Syrian crisis, and the possible threat this poses to Turkey's and Egypt's domestic national security, is another alarming development that needs to push Turkey and Egypt into the same camp. Some of the money flowing from the Gulf to extremist Sunni organizations in our neighborhood, as well as in Southeast Asia and the Balkans, is a source of major concern for Turkey as well as for Egypt. The hotbed conflict areas usually tend to attract misguided fighters in the name of religion, and nationals of both countries may be tapped by extremist groups, creating an embarrassment for the governments of both countries. Both Turkey and Egypt have a sensitive social fabric that may be exposed to agitations and provocations based on religious and ethnic identities. Thus, they need to join their forces together to help resolve issues like the Palestinian reconciliation and the Middle East peace process to prevent issues from being exploited by terrorist groups.

Both Turkey and Egypt have a vested interest in keeping economic stability in the Middle East growing because they are not blessed with vast energy resources. The travel and hospitality industry as well as the manufacturing industry are critical to their state revenues, while chaos and tension easily scare tourists and investors away from these markets. The Gulf powers desire to maintain their status quo with rich energy sources while Israel and Iran invest a lot in sustaining conflicts in neighboring countries. Therefore, it is a necessity rather than a luxury to have both Turkey and Egypt continue to work together to respond to significant challenges in the region, despite their differences and criticisms on some issues.

I'm sure many would like to see Turkey break off with Egypt over recent developments. But stakes are simply too high for that to happen as it would inflict damage to both sides if they were to stop working together closely. I believe there are many, both in Turkey and Egypt, who do not want to let that happen.


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