Two days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the
situation in Egypt as a “humanitarian drama” and dismissed the legitimacy of the
trial of deposed leader Mohamed Morsi on charges of inciting murder of his
political opponents, the Egyptian government announced its decision to expel
Turkish Ambassador Huseyin Avni Botsali and cut off ambassadorial relations
Turkey reciprocated by downgrading its diplomatic
representation in Cairo to charge d’affaires and declaring the Egyptian
ambassador, who had already left the country in August, a persona non
Following Israel and Syria, Egypt became the third country in the
region to recently downgrade its relations with Turkey. This situation stands in
stark contrast to the stated foreign policy aims of the ruling AKP government.
In 2009, when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared he would implement a
policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” the common assumption was that he
would push for thawing of relations with Cyprus and Armenia – with whom Turkey
has had no diplomatic relations since 1974 and 1994, respectively.
years later, Turkey has not only failed to improve relations with either of its
longstanding adversaries, but has had its diplomatic representation formally
downgraded with more countries in the region, in addition to enjoying rockier
relations with most other countries in the Middle East.
What went wrong?
Dubbed “neo-Ottomanism” by various analysts, the AKP Party’s foreign policy
sought to establish Turkey as a model state for the Arab world, at a time when
the Arab Spring continues to reshape the political landscape. A romantic in
nature, Erdogan envisaged a renaissance of Turkey’s soft power – with him at the
helm – that would push the ideas of democracy, modernism and peaceful
reconciliation in a troubled region.
As a non-Arab actor, however,
Erdogan found religion, rather than national identity, to be the common value to
appeal to the Arab masses. As a selfdeclared “conservative democrat,” he guided
his party members to voice support for free elections in all Arab states, while
allying themselves with the Islamist-leaning and populist political movements,
with whom they share common ideological roots.
Turning his back on
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of building a secular nation, Erdogan endorsed
the idea of pan-Islamic unity as an overarching identity across the newly
emerging regimes of the region.
Recently, at his party’s group meeting,
Erdogan expressed this by saying: “For us, there is one certainty: That within
our national borders, the Turks, Kurds, Laz, Circassians… all Islamic people
share a common interest – that they decided to work together, that there is a
Yet when the strategy to win the hearts of the Middle
Eastern masses meant taking leadership of political Islam at the cost of hurting
Turkey’s time-honored balancing acts on foreign policy, the strategy came
First of all, Erdogan’s Sunni-oriented messages did not
resonate in Shi’ite-majority countries such as Iran and Iraq. Then, the secular
Alawite regime in Syria was not overthrown as hoped by the ongoing civil war.
And most recently, in the summer, the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt lost
its power to the military, despite having won the elections a year
The coup in Egypt became a turning point in AKP’s foreign
policy, as for the first time, Erdogan could not find considerable support from
any of the major Arab states. When the toppled leader Morsi was arrested,
Erdogan provided the harshest condemnation of any country in the
Moreover, after the Egyptian security forces’ deadly raid on
pro-Morsi protesters camps in Rabaa Square in August 2013, Erdogan adopted the
hand gesture used by Morsi supporters for use in his own political rallies in
Turkey, saying he “won’t let [the world] forget the Rabaa.”
most Arab states assumed a neutral position toward Egypt, with Gulf countries
offering significant financial aid to the military-backed government in Cairo.
Even the staunchly Islamist Hamas government did not pick sides, referring to
the events as “an internal matter of Egypt.”
Last Saturday, the Egyptian
Foreign Ministry issued a statement responding to Turkey’s actions, saying the
country “has persisted in its unacceptable and unjustified positions, by trying
to turn the international community against Egyptian interests, supporting
meetings for groups that seek to create instability in the country and making
statements that can only be described as an offense to the popular
Following the statement, the Al-Youm Al-Sabea newspaper published
an article which, citing an unnamed, high-ranking government source, claimed
Egyptian intelligence had intercepted communications containing evidence of
Turkey’s ambassador carrying out a plan to destabilize the new Egyptian
government – by lending support to Muslim Brotherhood, whose activities are now
declared illegal in Egypt. The same source claimed that the Turkish ambassador
sheltered activists inside the embassy, and transferred money to support the
Brotherhood’s armed cells training in Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
officials have categorically denied the claims, but Erdogan defended Turkey’s
Responding to Cairo’s decision to cut off ties, he said: “I
will never respect those who come to power through military coups.”
possible that Erdogan’s unwavering stance stems from his personal identification
with the situation faced by the Brotherhood in Egypt. Having being jailed
previously for “undermining the secular regime” and having survived a number of
alleged coup plots, the Turkish prime minister has always had it rough with the
More importantly, Erdogan, too, has faced massive street
protests in tandem with Morsi in Egypt. As a result of his government’s strong
crackdown on what started out as a peaceful environmentalist protest to save
Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park from demolition, the protests spread rapidly, with
many calling for his resignation.
Indeed, according to a report released
by the Turkish parliament earlier this month, an estimated 3.6 million people
took part in street protests for two months straight, in 80 out of 81 provinces
of the country.
Fearing a military intervention at home, Erdogan probably
wanted to send a message of determination internally, by way of supporting the
Morsi government abroad.
The result is a less influential Turkey. Losing
its leverage with both the Arabs and Israelis, and now with the Iranians on
track to reestablishing ties with the Western world, Turkey finds its ability to
implement its own vision for the Middle East ever more difficult.
situation is not that better on the Western front either. After the violent
crackdown on the Gezi protests, the AKP government has lost some of its charm as
a moderating force in the Islamic world in the eyes of the
Being turned away from the EU and increasingly more isolated
in the Middle East, Turkey has recently turned to Russia. Last week in St.
Petersburg, Erdogan asked Russian President Vladmir Putin whether Turkey could
join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to “save us from the inconvenience”
of the EU accession process. An economic and military alliance, the SCO
comprises Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and
While the SCO could provide Turkey with a sought-after
international alliance, it is unlikely to help fulfill Erdogan’s ambitions for
restoring Turkey’s imperial prestige in the Middle East.
The writer is a
business development entrepreneur and a freelance journalist; view his blog at