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Issue No.1303, 14 July, 2016 12-07-2016 10:28PM ET
Ankara’s normalisation of relations with Moscow and Tel Aviv has put a focus on its intentions towards Cairo, with mixed messages confusing both allies and critics, writesSayed Abdel-Meguid
Turkey’s “normalisation of relations with Israel and Russia bothers some people at home and abroad,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He did not specify what foreign parties he had in mind, though some suggested he was referring to Egypt while others pointed out that Egypt, at least at the official level, has given no indication of its feelings one way or another regarding the latest developments in Ankara’s relations with Moscow and Tel Aviv.
As for the “bothered” people at home, these he identified as the “opposition”. Conveniently, he overlooked a number of reports that would definitely have come his way to the effect that some members of his own ruling party (AKP, even after being purged of troublemakers) did not conceal their reservations. They were not concerned by the latest swing in policy and the revival of harmony between neighbouring Russia or the “Zionist entity”. However, the members of the Islamist oriented party were surprised and disconcerted by Ankara’s extension of bridges to “Christian” Moscow and “Jewish” Tel Aviv while ignoring “Muslim” Cairo. These sentiments were shared by large segments of a bewildered public across Anatolia after their president declared, rather abstrusely, that the framework of the steps taken toward Russia and Israel differed from that of the “Egyptian case”.
It is worth noting, here, that this religiously inspired foreign policy outlook has long been nurtured by Erdogan, since he began his escalatory campaigns against Israel (six years ago) and Russia (seven months ago). His rhetoric routinely plays on the themes of “brother Muslims” against others and championing the rights of people who suffered oppression and ostracism because they were Muslim. In officially secular Turkey, Erdogan has elevated Islamic identity to a cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy.
While Erdogan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, has not echoed the vitriol of his leader (Yildirim is a social as well as political conservative who conforms to certain traditional customs and values of propriety), he deftly circumvented it in an attempt to reconcile Erdogan’s remarks regarding Egypt and the concerns of a significant segment of the Turkish business community and diplomatic corps who would like to see a thaw with Cairo.
Referring to the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, Yildirim said: “We cannot approve of a change made in that way. But this is only one side of the issue. The other side is that life goes on. We live in the same region and we need each other. Therefore, we cannot suddenly sever everything even if we wanted to. Then there are the religious and cultural ties that bind the two countries. These are additional factors that compel us to speak with one another. So, if we set aside the way in which the regime there changed [on 3 July 2013], there is nothing to prevent developing our economic relations.”
Still, unable to avoid the obligatory deference to his boss in the presidential palace, Yildirim stressed that the Turkish position with regard to “the coup” remains unchanged. Some observers believe that this was for popular consumption to spare Erdogan any public awkwardness or extra psychological discomfort. After all, Yildirim knows full well that Erdogan’s insistence on a halt to the prosecution of Morsi and company and his other demands are totally whimsical and unrealistic. More down-to-earth would be the plan, announced by AKP deputy chairman Saban Disli, for a Turkish delegation to visit Egypt after the end of Ramadan holiday in order to settle differences with Egypt.
While Erdogan is the source, he is not the sole author of the inconsistencies and contradictions in Turkish foreign policy. In fact, when Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was called to task for this problem and, indeed, attempted to deny it even existed, opposition voices in parliament observed that he, himself, was guilty of it. They pointed to statements the foreign minister made following his visit to Abu Dhabi in April in which he said that Egypt was in a very “fragile state” under its current leadership. As a rule, it is not wise to make such remarks about a country or a government one plans to mend fences with. It appears that Egyptian officials were on the mark when, in response to Cavusoglu’s comments, they said that they “epitomise the psychological condition that plagues Turkish officials”.
The critics also asked government leaders, “If swinging back-and-forth between demonstrating a desire to develop economic and commercial relations with Egypt and persisting in the refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the current phase after the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule is not vacillating then what word would you use to you describe it?” As proof of the futility of policy of this sort they pointed to Cairo’s response. In response to contradictory attitudes and mixed signals expressed by Ankara, an Egyptian foreign policy spokesman said that Cairo had “reservations about dealing with a Turkish leadership that pursued such confused policies in the region”. The statement stressed that the starting point for improving relations between the two countries was for Turkey to recognise the 30 June 2013 Revolution and its results.
If vacillating, clumsiness and general confusion have become hallmarks of Turkish foreign policy management, they are at their most evident now in the Syrian question. After the absolute and unequivocal refusal of any presence of Bashar Al-Assad in the so-called transitional phase, we suddenly see signs emanating from the corridors of power in Ankara of a major shift in other heretofore unmoveable red lines. It now appears that Ankara is willing to accept the continuation of Erdogan’s hated enemy in Syria in power for a period of six months.
Nor is this the only surprise. A week ago, Erdogan, speaking from the town of Kilis near the border with Syria, announced his intention to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees. Not surprisingly, the ever contentious president triggered an outcry across the entire political spectrum, including within his own party. Many were totally befuddled as to why he popped up with this suggestion all of a sudden. In the past weeks, not a speech went by without some angry remark against the EU for not pumping more money into Turkey in exchange for sheltering three million refugees of which 300,000 are from Iraq, and without reminding all within earshot of the $10 billion Turkey spent on the refugees. In face of the intensity of the reaction he stirred he uncharacteristically backed down a little. Only the clever ones would be eligible for Turkish citizenship, he said. This did little to placate his critics, some of whom asked whether it would not be more appropriate to devote more concern to existing Turkish citizens and the economic straits that are driving them abroad, while others asked if he is going to grant millions of Syrians Turkish citizenship why does he continue to prattle on about EU assistance?
As for Erdogan’s real motives, they are not all that unfathomable, but they are the subject for another article.