The disagreements between the interim Egyptian government and its Turkish counterpart have escalated to downgrading the mutual diplomatic representation. The Egyptian government took the first step by expelling the Turkish ambassador after Prime Minister Erdogan’s strong criticisms of the military intervention on July 3 that ousted the former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi.
The Turkish stand on the military intervention was the most rigid among all critics. While the US and Europe has lowered their critical tone and even adopted a cooperative attitude towards the new regime, Turkey insisted on its rejection of the new Egyptian government without showing any intentions for further cooperation. But the Turkish approach to the Egyptian situation might be very costly, both strategically and economically. So what makes Erdogan’s government unwilling to accept post-Morsi Egypt?
One easy answer to this question would be the similarity between the Muslim Brotherhood’s and AKP’s political agendas. Despite differences in the nature and level of their political experience, both entities represent political Islam in their countries. They both have been opposed by relatively secular ruling elites, mostly led by the military. Consequently, the success of Morsi will enhance the strength of the Islamic project in the politics of the Middle East serving the AKP’s future political role.
"Erdogan and his government have no choice, but to reject the new Egyptian government for the time being"
As the military intervention has put the future of political Islam in Egypt into question, one would expect AKP to oppose the move. Indeed, Erdogan has been criticizing the move since the first day, which led to withdrawal of ambassadors and threatening the strong economic ties between the two countries. However, as Morsi’s return to power is far from reality, why is Erdogan still considering him the Egyptian president? Why does the AKP refuse to deal with the new facts in the Egyptian situation and continue to support a failing cause and endangering Turkey’s regional interests? Simply, there is no other choice.
Unlike other countries, Turkey has high sensitivity to military interventions. It has faced four coup d’états in its modern republican history; in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1993. The Turkish military has been an effective player in politics since the founding of the republic. However, its influence was strongly curbed through the changes introduced by the AKP to the Turkish political landscape.
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The AKP was keen on drawing clear lines between civil and military authorities as part of its efforts to align Turkey to the EU democratic standards. The AKP’s civilian victory over the military is a historical achievement in the highly unstable Turkish democracy. Accordingly, it will be illogical for the AKP to support a military intervention and sacrifice one of their most celebrated achievements. Such a move might undermine the credibility of the government and give a chance to the opposition to highlight the contradiction.
Timing is another constraint that explains the rigidity of the Turkish official stance. Turkey is having three upcoming elections in the next year and half. Erdogan is planning on running for presidency and his party is competing on the other two elections as well. The fact that the Egyptian military intervention happened while the Turkish electoral cycle is approaching, partially explains the different approaches to the Egyptian military before and after ousting Morsi.
Although the military played an important role after the resignation of Mubarak in 2011, the Turkish government showed significant willingness to cooperate with the new Egyptian government. Erdogan visited Egypt in September 2011 while the military was in charge of the country and drawing the rules of the Egyptian political future. The Turkish government did not take any firm opposing stance against the human rights violations during the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ rule of the country that continued for a year and half and got more intense during the first year of Erdogan’s new presidency term, starting July 2011.
In contrast, the military intervention against Morsi took place during the preparations for the Turkish upcoming elections. Erdogan, at first, chose to go with the global flow and criticize the intervention, but he couldn’t back down on his position like everyone else did. There are two reasons behind this. First, he described the intervention as a coup, which alarmed the public to the sensitivity of the issue. If he chose to change his approach, his credibility would be threatened before elections. Second, the opposition chose to support the intervention gaining a first mover advantage on the issue.
Opposition leaders, mostly from the CHP, visited Egypt in September 2013 and supported the new Egyptian interim government. Although the opposition approach to the Egyptian file contradicts the sensitivity to the military intervention argument, it is an opportunity to differentiate their stand on international relations from the government. Also, as the opposition and the army are both of secular tendencies, they tend to be less sensitive to military intervention than the conservative audience of the AKP. So, if the AKP shifted to accept the new Egyptian government, it will be a second mover, and rather than fixing the situation, it will send the message that the opposition got it right earlier. It will not be in their best interest to follow the steps of the opposition before elections.
In a nutshell, Erdogan and his government have no choice, but to reject the new Egyptian government for the time being. The timing of the events and the sensitivity of their audience to the issue of military intervention leaves little room for them to shift to a different approach as elections are getting sooner. This does not exclude other possible explanations for the Turkish approach to the Egyptian developments, but rather highlights the motives for the Turkish government’s rigidity on the issue.
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