Skip to content

Erdogan’s Visit to Egypt Good Political Theater

September 16, 2011

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted by cheering crowds waving posters and chanting slogans. There were banners throughout the city showing Erdogan, in a blue shirt, with his right hand above his heart, and the phrase “Together, one hand for the future…”

Erdogan gave two talks, one at the Arab League, which was televised and carried word for word on Twitter, and another one at the Opera House before an audience of 2,000 public and political figures, activists and journalists. His visit, and comments on it, filled the airwaves and dominated the blogosphere for two days.

Many people compared the visit as equal in importance to that of President Obama in 2009.

Aside from his very real authority as the political leader of one of the most prosperous and stable countries in the Middle East, Erdogan is the leader of an Islamic party in a secular democratic state, so he is symbolically important for bridging the gap between Islamic politics and liberal democratic values–a division that has become increasingly polarizing in Egypt.

As with any piece of political theater, however, the event is open to multiple interpretations.

From the ruling military council’s viewpoint, Erdogan’s visit is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, in Egypt’s current astate of economic chaos and political uncertainty, ties to a strong political leader whose country is enjoying economic prosperity can only be a good thing.

On the other hand, Erdogan’s decision to eject the Israeli ambassador from Ankara over the deaths of six Egyptian soldiers on the Gaza-Egypt border is an embarrassment, since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did nothing so dramatic–or as popular with Egyptian people.

Islamists, too, gave the visit mixed reviews. The Muslim Brotherhood had been a big supporter of the visit, but grew frosty during Erdogan’s speech, which linked democracy with secularism–a connection some of them strongly dispute.

Erdogan said:

As Egypt is now going through this interim period, I have faith that the Egyptians will evaluate the issue of democracy very well and they will see that the secular countries are not necessarily non-religious ones but they are rather countries that respect all religions and that allow every individual to freely practice his own religion.

An article in the Egyptian daily Al Masry al-Youm quotes Issam al-Aryan, vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as saying

We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future

And a Sep 15 article in the Saudi-owned London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily quoted Dr. al-Aryan  as saying:

No one has the right to interfere in our internal affairs, neither Erdogan nor anyone else as a matter of fact. He has no right at all to try to impose on us any kind of political system… We consider that democracy represents a set of beliefs and principles that can be implemented without the need for secularism the way Erdogan perceives it. The Egyptian people will not accept or support the adoption of a secular system even if it is similar to the Turkish one. True, our people greatly admire and respect the Turkish democratic system and its important economic successes, but we believe that this has nothing to do with secularism…

The same article quoted Abdul Meneem al-Shahat, the official spokesman for the Salafist Dawa Party as saying:

We do not welcome at all the invitation made to us by Erdogan to implement the Turkish secular system in Egypt and any such attempt will be completely rejected on our part. In the past, the Turkish secular system fiercely fought religion and now they are claiming that they have changed and that their secular beliefs are not opposed to Islam. But in reality, we believe that the Islamic principles perceive secularism as being their enemy since the only judge on all matters should be Allah.

While we would expect Salafists to react in this way, since they oppose the separation of religion and state, such vehemence by a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “non-sectarian” political party seems revealing.

But what does it reveal? Perhaps the inner tension within the Brotherhood between the old guard, of which he is definitely a part, and the youth leadership, who have reportedly been much more open to messages like Erdogan.

From the Turkish perspective, Erdogan’s visit continues the shift in Turkish politics from seeking EU membership to becoming a regional Middle Eastern leader. Egypt was the first stop in a tour of Arab nations, following Egypt with visits to Tunisia Sep 14, and Tripoli Sep. 15.

Erdogan is a significant figure in the region. A former football player and mayor of Istanbul, his Islamic-rooted Freedom and Develoment Party has been in power since 2003 and enjoys strong support.

Erdogan diminished Turkey’s longstanding and lucrative commercial and military alliance with Israel after last year’s deadly raid by Israeli commandos on a flotilla attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists were killed. When Israel expressed “regret” but refused to apologize (saying it had done nothing wrong), Erdogan said the incident could have been a “cause for war” if not for Turkey’s “patience.”

This month, Ankara suspended military ties with Israel, expelled Israel’s top diplomats and pledged to campaign in support of the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the United Nations next week. Saying “Israel cannot do as it likes in the Mediterranean” during a recent visit to Tunisia, Erdogan threatened to send warships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean to deter potential aggression against any Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.

But Turkey remains a US ally. On Sep. 14 Ankara announced that early warning radar stations will be built in Turkey’s southeast as part of NATO’s missile defense system capable of countering ballistic missile threats from neighboring Iran. A Pentagon spokesman said the US hopes to have the radar deployed there by the end of this year.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: