BESA Center Perspectives Paper n ° 2,016, May 5, 2021
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policy, a combination of imperialism and Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, was most visible in his actions against Abdel Fattah Sisi’s Egypt. Ankara begins to recognize its madness. Will the new US administration learn from its mistake?
The rise of non-Arab states and the decline of Arabic-speaking states over the past decades has become a common theme in political commentary and academic analysis. This is especially true when it comes to Egypt, the most populous Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East.
Comparisons between the trajectory of Egypt and that of Iran and Turkey put the former in a negative light, and not just in political terms. Economic historians note how after WWII Turkey’s economy grew respectably 2% + per capita per year, compared to 1% in Egypt. They point out that despite the countries’ similar population and geographic size, Turkish exports exceed Egypt’s by almost two to one ($ 168 million in 2018 compared to $ 88 million in Egypt). In addition, most Turkish exports are industrial while Egyptian exports are heavily oriented towards natural resources and agriculture.
Compared to Turkey and Iran, Egypt’s scientific output, measured in terms of articles in leading scientific journals and the number of citations they generate among scientific peers in other countries, was appalling. Turkey far surpassed Egypt in the last decade of the last century, in part thanks to the emergence of large Turkish private universities that enjoyed the patronage of large commercial companies. Over the past decade and a half, it has been the turn of Iranian universities, which have bridged the scientific divide between Turkey and Iran and have far outstripped Egypt.
Egypt’s cultural hegemony in the Arabic-speaking world, so striking in the 1950s and 1960s, faced increasing competition from Iraq and Syria over the next two decades. In the 21st century, this hegemony has been strangled by Turkish television series and films – particularly notable as Turkish entertainment products are dubbed a language not understood by the vast majority of the Arabic-speaking world.
The Panorama website, the main media center for the Arab population of Israel, is a good illustrator of Egypt’s declining cultural fortunes. The site provides links to an abundance of Turkish and Syrian-Lebanese soap operas and only a minority of Egyptian dishes – a far cry from the days when the same audience, as well as much of Israel’s Jewish population that came from ‘Arab. speaking country, was glued to Egyptian films on Friday afternoons.
Turkey’s dominance over Egypt on all these fronts exploded during Erdoğan’s reign. In the first decade of AKP rule, Turkey became the darling of foreign investment, was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and became a tourism heavyweight (fifth in the world) with over 30 million tourists, five times the number. of visitors to Egypt. It has also become a hub of international aviation, Turkish Airlines and Istanbul Airport ranking among the top 20 in the world in their respective categories.
There was not much to prevent Erdoğan, who combines imperialist ambitions with Islamist beliefs, from showing his enmity to Sisi’s Egypt at every turn. He gave refuge to members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the 2013 counter-coup / revolution in which Sisi deposed Muhammad Morsi and decimated the ranks of the MB; harangued against Sisi’s allegedly anarchic coup against a democratically elected president; describes Sisi as a gangster; and more recently intervened with massive military aid to support the government of Tripoli in western Libya. Egypt supports the opposing Benghazi-based government in the east and its military arm, the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, near the 1,000 km border between Egypt and Libya.
However, the tide seems to be turning in Egypt’s favor. Sisi’s more modest policy of focusing on her country’s internal problems rather than adventures abroad is paying off. Erdoğan’s more imperiously ambitious foreign relations, who in his early years in power promised a no-problem foreign policy with neighbors, are now at odds with almost everyone outside Turkey. This despite the considerable lack of resources in favor of Turkey, including its membership in NATO.
The reversal of the tide is best expressed in the steps taken by Ankara to reach a compromise with Egypt. Erdoğan’s first initiative was to send a clear message to the national media to stop denouncing Egypt and its leader. Ankara shut down Arabic-language media sites run by Egyptian MB members who fled to Turkey and threatened to expel those who did not follow these guidelines.
Turkey’s new inclination is clearly based on its realization that to favor MB, or to privilege Qatar and its rabid anti-Egyptian stance, is to support the wrong horse. It is wiser to recognize and live with Egypt, which is firmly ruled by one of the region’s deep, veteran state structures and situated within an important geostrategic framework.
Hamas in Gaza has been a big contributor to Turkey’s learning curve. After Sisi became president, Hamas and Turkey harbored the illusion that Hamas would be able to bypass Egypt by relying on the support of Turkey and Qatar. These illusions were dispelled when Egypt forced Hamas officials to submit to often humiliating treatment, including forcing them to meet their Fatah enemies in Cairo. There is simply no way for Turkey to replace the influence of Egypt in Palestinian affairs.
There is only one question left: what the new US administration will learn from all of this. Will he be trapped in the law against Sisi’s regime versus a Turkish regime with no better human rights record, or will he recognize the importance of Sisi? and his firm hold on the bar of Egypt?
Professor Hillel Frisch is Professor of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.