Turkey-Egypt: The unending fight

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Translated by: Gizem Ünsalan 

Hello, good day. Today, I was thinking of discussing the ongoing trial of journalists. Yesterday, when the decision to convict Canan Kaftancıoğlu was upheld—interestingly, right on the anniversary of the June 23 elections—I considered discussing all of this. These were the things on my mind as I left home in the morning. But then I looked at my archive, and this is the type of country we’re in: It makes you discuss these things over and over again. In reality, we’re just circling around the same discourse.

In Turkey, there is such a thing as “the judiciary of the party in power.” The judiciary has its own power, its own strength, and the party in power uses this strength in quite a significant way. That’s why journalists or political opponents are somehow targeted—especially in the case of Canan Kaftancıoğlu, one of the architects of Erdoğan’s biggest defeat in his political career, and how she was convicted by the judiciary, using social media posts from years ago as an excuse. Or why journalists from different ends of the political spectrum are on remand for the same allegation of having exposed members of the National Intelligence Organization. Or why another journalist—a columnist—was put on trial for insulting the President’s wife on account of his comments about her handbag. These are instances that reveal, again and again, how removed Turkey is from a true state of law. But now, it appears there isn’t much left to say here; we’re faced with the reality that we’re just repeating ourselves. Still, these need to be emphasized.

In terms of the journalists, we must once again be persistent in emphasizing that journalism is not a crime. We must assert that it is never acceptable for journalists or politicians to be tried for simply expressing their opinions or reporting news, regardless of their ideology.

Today, I want to discuss another topic. It’s actually been on the news for the past few days, and, interestingly, it hasn’t grown a lot. There’s new tension between Ankara and Cairo—or between Turkey and Egypt—due to Libya. The Libya issue is a whole other issue onto itself, and one whose details I’m not too well-versed in. Yet in terms of the relationship between Egypt and Turkey, I especially want to focus on relations between the two countries following the July 2013 coup, after which General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew elected President Mohamed Morsi, taking over the government and eventually getting himself elected at the polls.  

Egypt has long been a country that’s fascinated me as a journalist. I had many opportunities to visit Egypt for various reasons, but the last visit was at a very critical time. At the time I worked for Vatan newspaper, and my photojournalist colleague Burak Kara and I traveled to Cairo together. Some will remember that the coup happened there. We went right after the coup, about four-five days later. There were hundreds, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members gathered in Rabaa al-Adaweya Square, and they wanted to set free Morsi from under arrest. This was an anti-coup gathering. Together with Burak Kara, we held interviews there for days, putting together a series of articles for the newspaper. I also did live broadcasts with news outlets in Turkey to explain what was going on.

What I witnessed there was that the Muslim Brotherhood—or the Ikhwan in Arabic—would not be toppled over easily. In fact, I went back and looked at my writings, and the people in the square were truly very determined, quite crowded. Yet there was a very important shortcoming there, one that I first stated and wrote about at the time. No one supported the Muslim Brotherhood except themselves. It’s interesting; I remember searching for other groups in the square—other Islamist groups that came for support, or liberals, leftists, etc. I remember specifically asking the Ikhwan officials about this subject. But there were none; it was only the Brotherhood. And that took the whole issue to an interesting place.

The Muslim Brotherhood had come to power via election there—and the movement itself was a deep-rooted one, formally established in 1926 yet having spent a majority of its run as an illegal or illegal-yet-legitimate movement. Following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak—by all of the Egyptian people—the Ikhwan found a way to take control of the government. Once they had control of the government in summer 2012, the movement didn’t share its power with anyone else, which rendered it unable to fully resist the coup and left it without support afterward. And there, el-Sisi established his own authority step by step.

At the time we visited, the coup had occurred, Morsi was arrested, and el-Sisi was on the job, but thousands of people could still gather regularly. They could hold demonstrations all across the country. But shortly after we returned home, these demonstrations were suppressed in a massive massacre. There was a huge wave of arrests—there were those who had already been arrested, but after a certain while, when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood did not accept the coup, it started a period of immense pressure. Many people fled abroad—then there were those arrested, killed, etc. Since then, Egypt has been under el-Sisi’s rule, and the Muslim Brotherhood went from being the country’s most important political and social force to being an underground organization, denounced as a terrorist group.

Some may remember that elected President Morsi died in court last year—it’s been about a year. And we know that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely divided amongst itself, with some becoming radicalized and certain Salafi-jihadist groups gaining greater power, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. Now, this is another facet of the issue.

When we look at the issue from the perspective of Turkish-Egyptian relations, we’re faced with a very interesting situation. At first, international public opinion didn’t object much to the overthrow of Morsi—or, to be precise, to the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power via coup. The Western world, the United States, and a significant portion of the Islamic world remained mostly quiet. At this point, Turkey, as well as Qatar and Tunisia to an extent, were the ones who objected. Just about everyone else, various separate powers, were glad that the coup had occurred, meaning they were glad that the Muslim Brotherhood fell—particularly Gulf countries other than Qatar. That’s because, when the Arab Spring was in full swing and regimes were overthrown in many parts of the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood or similar Islamist organizations rose to prominence too much in a majority of these regions. This greatly bothered the Gulf states in particular.

Another issue, of course, was that, for people around the globe, Islamism was now essentially synonymous with terror-focused groups, particularly Al-Qaeda. Indeed, a short while later—a short while after the Arab Spring—ISIL emerged as the latest incarnation of these groups, first in Iraq then in Syria. Of course, the Arab Spring had quite a direct impact on the emergence of ISIL. So, here, in the Islamic world, the Arab Spring was snubbed out in a short amount of time with the approval, consent, and support of all international and regional powers. 

Serious obstacles were placed to prevent Islamists from rising to power. Only in Tunisia did the Ennahda movement rise to power, only to lose most of its authority again at the polls. However, it remains one of the country’s most significant forces. Tunisia is an exception, and we see authoritarian or totalitarian regimes once again emerging in all other countries.

Turkey was left alone here, and this isolation has continued for seven years. Turkey is perhaps the only country—or the most important country—to have supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement in the international arena. There are a great number of Egyptian activists, militants, and politicians living in exile in Turkey—indeed, Egypt constantly brings this up somehow. There are publications made in Turkey. We don’t know them too much, but of course they—the Arab public—know this.

There’s been very serious tension for the past seven years. This is actually a situation that largely goes against the nature of things because these are two of the three or four countries that come to mind when someone says the Middle East. I mean, the Middle Eastern countries that traditionally come to mind are Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Israel—and, in a sense, Saudi Arabia. The other countries have at times played an important role, but these are the countries that mainly form the backbone of the Middle East. And although there’s always been some competition and tension among these countries, there’s always been more or less a balance. If this balance is disrupted, it will significantly disrupt the balance in the Middle East.

So, it’s truly surprising that the relations between Turkey and Egypt have almost been at a complete standstill for the past seven years. I always watch out for it; whenever I look at domestic or international sources, it seems there are news from time to time like “Are there some secret meetings going on?” But these meetings never happen in a serious sense. Turkey’s dispute with Israel, or Erdoğan’s dispute with Israel, Netanyahu’s statements, etc… These become much more popular, yet the tensions between Turkey and Egypt don’t really see the light of day. But, as is the case with the most recent Libya situation—because Libya directly infringed on Egypt’s continental shelf—the advantages Turkey gained there, and the fact that Turkey significantly altered the course of the civil war to the detriment of Egypt… So, we witnessed the validity of the claims made all along about a “playmaker country” in a distant geography like Libya, if not in the region. Yet this tension has existed for a long time.

It’s truly very surprising that Turkey has such bad relations with Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and observers analyzing this have wondered how sustainable the situation is. Yet for the past seven years—although there have been conflicts with Saudi Arabia very recently—there is quite a significant detachment from Israel and Egypt, almost simultaneously. Perhaps the only exception, in terms of a large country, is Iran… But we couldn’t say that our relations with Iran are so great, either. Especially after Trump rose to power in the U.S. and started targeting Iran a lot, we could say that Turkey is also hesitant when it comes to Iran. 

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Erdoğan actually know each other. Some may remember that years ago, when Morsi rose to power, he made el-Sisi the Minister of Defense. This is, of course, a twist of fate. el-Sisi was known as a religious general, and, worried about a coup, the Muslim Brotherhood appointed el-Sisi instead of a Minister of Defense they didn’t trust. During that time, el-Sisi and Erdoğan met during an official visit. There are photographs of them together. And now these two leaders—el-Sisi, of course, now being in civilian attire, as well—have become the two important figures with the most serious conflict in the region. Both have built a sort of one-man regime in their own countries. Both countries hold truly very important places in the region. But there is a very serious conflict between them, and at the core of this conflict is ideology—or at least it seems that way. 

What’s… strange, I’ll say—I was going to call it “interesting,” but “strange” fits better—is that a pragmatic politician like Erdoğan—one who has managed to pave his own way by constantly switching ideologies and allies—would not take a step back regarding Egypt, the Ikhwan, and that famous Rabia sign. To be honest, many people expected Erdoğan to take at least somewhat of a step backward by now. People saw that el-Sisi would not make such a move, and they didn’t want him to, either. Here, Erdoğan was always seen as the one who needed to take a step towards repairing relations between Egypt and Turkey. Yet Erdoğan did not take this step, and it doesn’t appear that he will. This is actually something he could do easily if he wanted to. Yet he continues to surprise us. 

Erdoğan kept the tension going for the past seven years. What did he gain from it? To be honest, I don’t think he gained all that much. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a big power in Egypt itself—it no longer is, as its influence has largely been crushed. The influence of Islamism and movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have largely been crushed within the Islamic world. Islamism is on a serious decline, and it no longer evokes any interest or excitement within Western societies. Islamism conjures images of terrorist groups, primarily ISIL and Al-Qaeda. Yet Erdoğan continues to insist. On the other hand, there isn’t all that much of a reaction in Turkey. I mean, Erdoğan isn’t obligated to uphold his policies on Egypt in order to retain his voter base here. I don’t think the voter base would push him too much on this subject, and I don’t think there is a demand for it. Yet in this situation, Erdoğan continues his insistence, and it doesn’t look like he’ll give it up easily.

Now, what’s been going on and will continue to go on in Libya is something beyond this conflict or competition—I think conflict is a better word; it’s not a war, but there is a conflict, a tension. The events transpiring in Libya will dictate the future of this conflict. Yet we know that el-Sisi has many more supporters when it comes to Libya, both in terms of regional and international support. Turkey and Erdoğan don’t have the same level of support. We know that France in particular has tried to pressure Turkey on the subject of Libya before NATO. Therefore, the events that transpire in Libya will very significantly determine the future of relations between Turkey and Egypt.

Relations between Turkey and Egypt are normally very important, as are those between Turkey and Israel, Turkey and Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—as well as those between each country—every one of these relations is significant on its own. Yet for some reason, it doesn’t generate a lot of interest in Turkey, and it’s not talked about much here. In all likelihood, what I say here won’t find a large audience, either. But I believe these are issues that should be discussed and thought over; that Turkey and Egypt will continue to be two significant forces in the region for many years, regardless of who is in power; and, therefore, that the ups and downs of the relations between the two countries are of genuine interest to the people of both countries. Yes, that is all I have to say. Have a good day.

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