Turkey, Egypt and Israel

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Cairo on Tuesday morning, being greeted at the airport by thousands of cheering Egyptians.

Even though two dramatic moments envisaged by Erdogan’s staff– a side trip to Gaza and a speech in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo– have been cancelled, the visit is nevertheless an important one. Erdogan will explore trade deals and military cooperation with Egypt.

Since it came to power at the polls in Turkey in 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has innovated in much expanding Turkish trade. In 2002 only about 12 percent of Turkey’s external trade was with the Middle East. Now the percentage is about a quarter. By making peace with the Arab world, the Turkish government opened it to commerce on an unprecedented scale.

Justice and Development was able to accomplish this opening to the Arabs because it is more oriented to Turkey’s (Sunni) Muslim latent identity than to the strident Turkish nationalism of the officer corps, followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. If Turkey is primarily about about being Turkish, then it will likely have ethno-nationalist conflicts with Arab neighbors such as Syria, as were common with the Turkish army dominated Turkish politics. But if Turkish identity is about being a moderate, modern kind of Muslim that values multi-culturalism and aspires to be European, then there is no real reason for conflict with Arab neighbors.

Ethnic nationalism can make for bad relations with neighbors if it is taken too far. But a Christian Democrat or Justice & Development kind of party can sidestep thorny issues of ethnicity and racial discrimination.

Not only has Turkey moved away from a wounded Turkish secular nationalism, but Egypt has moved away from a naive Arab nationalism. With the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Egypt is groping toward a new, multi-cultural politics that makes a place for Muslim religious parties and for secularists alike. Many young Muslim Brothers speak favorably of a “Turkish model.”

Turkey and Egypt do about $2.7 bn in trade with one another annually (roughly the same as Turkey and Israel). Some 250 Turkish companies have invested $1.5 bn. in Egypt. In the first half of 2011, Turkey was the world’s fastest-growing economy.

The combination of trade expansion, “harmonious relations with neighbors,” and emphasis on a moderate Muslim identity instead of a strident Turkish nationalism have allowed Turkey to reestablish strong ties with the Arab world. Most of the Arab world had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul. Arabs and Ottoman Turks most often went their own ways during World War I, and at the end of the war the Ottoman Empire collapsed altogether. There were bad feelings between Turks and Arabs. As a result, Israel sought out Turkey as part of its policy of allying with non-Arab countries in the region.

Now that the Turkish government does not define itself primarily in ethnic terms, Turkey is no longer behaving like an outsider in the Middle East. Like the Arabs, it cares about the fate of the displaced, stateless Palestinians. But Turkey likewise is committed to parliamentary democracy, giving it a great deal in common with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

All Turkey would have to do is to double its trade with Egypt, and it will have replaced its trade with Israel, more or less. Israel refuses to apologize for killing 9 Turks, one of them an American citizen, during a raid in May 2010 on an aid ship aiming to relieve the blockaded civilian population of Gaza.

Israel is by its intransigence driving Turkey into the arms of the Arabs, and the only victim visible on the horizon is the Israelis themselves.

21 Responses

  1. Excellent summary Juan

    Israel’s refusal to apologise has only served to accelerate the inevitable. The AK party’s conservative Muslim identity reflects the core values of the vast majority of Turkish people. The people of any country can only be seduced by nationalism for so long, eventually their “natural” values prevail. Like the people of Egypt, the people of Turkey, don’t want a war with Israel, but nor do they want a “special relationship”.

    Turkey is increasing its trade & partnerships everywhere; both regionally, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Russia etc and further afield with Brazil, China and Indonesia. But unlike you Juan, I think EU membership could be a disaster for Turkey, as well as the EU, it could be the straw that breaks the back of the EU’s democracy deficit. Best thing would be for Turkey to have an EU Free Trade Agreement, similar to Switzerland & Norway. There are tentative feelers towards a Turkey-India FTA (I doubt it will happen); but it couldn’t even be canvassed if they were in the EU, and I don’t see the EU having an FTA with India any time soon.

    Look for strengthening ties between Turkey & Lebanon. I think its inevitable, the people have some common characteristics – wheelers & dealers. Israel has been trying to prevent it happening. They carpeted the Turkish ambassador last year when Turkish TV broadcast a light entertainment Lebanese TV show that cast Israel in a bad light. I think that was before the incident with the Gaza blockade breakers. Sometimes Israel is its own worst enemy, which is what they say about the Palestinians – pot meet kettle.

    I hope Erdogan isn’t overplaying his hand by threatening speeches at Tahrir & visits to Gaza. Turkey & Egypt together could act as a foil to both the GCC & Iran. But there’s a danger that they’ll end up as competitors. As always the behaviour of the elephant could be decisive, if the elephant decides to drive Turkey into the EU and drags Egypt into the arms of the GCC then perhaps the elephant would think itself to be better positioned to take unilateral action against Iran.

  2. All this love and caring for people falls apart when we look at what Erdogan is doing to his own Kurdish population! Since the beginning of the year he has declared a war of annihilation against the Kurdish Freedom Movement that have been struggling since the 30’s Turkish policy of forced assimilation of the Kurds!
    No, brotherly, Muslim love for the Kurds! There no rages a low intensity conflict that threatens to spill out to the Turkish cities when it will then become clear to all that although Erdogan likes to travel the MENA spreading love and solutions he has none for his own population! In short and hypocrite and murderer that is not the model that the newly aspiring states to seek to copy!

  3. Professor: A few points. First, to say that “the Turkish government does not define itself primarily in ethnic terms” ignores its failure to deal with the past murders of 1,000,000 Armenians as well as its intensifying wars against the Kurds, including incursions into Iraq. The body count is up and increasing.

    Second, while your piece correctly–and this is an aspect of Turkish policy since ’03 that has not been sufficiently emphasized–makes the case that Turkey’s eastern turn has produced great economic benefits–you ignore the “dark side” of this reorientation by simplistically blaming Israeli intransigence.

    The argument gets nuanced here because of Israel’s very stupid response to the first Gaza flotilla, which, in the absence of context, might appear as an anti-Turkish act. But here, the context may be more important than the act, because it involves the whole arc of Turkish foreign policy since AK’s ascension: the turn east has required Turkey to get “street cred” with fellow Sunnis “the old fashioned way”–rattling sabers at the Jews. Thus, Israel’s principal value to Turkey is as a foil. (And it’s not just Netanyahu: remember when Erdogan stormed off the stage at Davos, his target was Shimon Peres, no Likudnik.)

    Professor, at present, Turkey is very much in motion: it retains its democratic voting system but has turned its back on civil rights: Erdogan, wisely, or coincidentally, saw the future years ago: there would be no EU to join (which didn’t want Turkey in any event), there would be a western withdrawal from the ME, and a gutting of the old Sunni-state power system, leaving a weakened Iraq and Egypt and a Saudi Arabia searching for new patrons to replace an increasingly unreliable US.

    It was time for a new Sunni sheriff in town.

    As you know, whether this portends some form of “Neo-Ottomanism” (whatever that means) is hotly debated among area specialists right now. But it will mean Turkish swagger, and I would submit that Turkey will not be friends with Israel no matter the government in Jerusalem. However, it behooves area watchers not to be fooled by the headline de jour. Turkey has real enemies (“Kurdistan”) and real rivals (ultimately, Tehran.) Here, the Turks have a role to play as area hegemon on behalf of Sunni interests against Iranian ambitions.

  4. very interesting analysis.
    It maybe true that Turkey Like the Arabs,”cares about the fate of the displaced, stateless Palestinians.”
    However, at the same time that Turkey is asking for an apology for the unjustified killing of eight Turks and an American-Turk from Israel, it acts like a bully towards the Kurds of Iraq and its Kurdish population in south east of the country.

    Turkish war planes recently killed a family of Seven in Iraqi Kurdistan who had no connection with Kurdish insurgency whatsoever.

    The Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the killing of the seven people including four children under the age of 12, let alone apologising for it as it asks the state of Israel to do.

    Some may describe the position of Turkish government vis-a-vie Kurds and Palestinian “hypocritical”

  5. Erdogan seems very nationalistic. Maybe somewhat less so than Kemalists, yet still a hard-line nationalist.

    He seems to have bigoted (and hostile) views about Armenians and dislikes Greek-Cypriots. He does not want Greek-Cypriots to drill for oil off the coast. Erdogan seems to have decided to shelve his Kurdish opening also. His policies towards the Kurds cannot be deemed to outside of a form of excluvisist Turkish nationalism (though a little bit less severe than his predecessors).

    He is pro-Arab, but not favorable to many other ethnic groups in the neighborhood.

  6. Arabs and Turks did not “go their own way” during WWI–the Arabs, with Anglo-French support, revolted against Turkey, which was allied with Germany and Austria (remember TE Lawrence and Gallipoli).

    A surprising misstatement from a scholar of the region.

    • ‘The Arabs’ did not revolt. Those in the Hijaz did. Mustafa Kamil in Egypt had campaigned to rejoin the Ottoman empire. Anyway, going their own way encompasses many things that happened, including the Hijaz revolt. Why would you assume otherwise?.

  7. Re: “But if Turkish identity is about being a moderate, modern kind of Muslim that values multi-culturalism and aspires to be European, then there is no real reason for conflict with Arab neighbors.”

    Rather than aspiring to “be” European, it seems that Turkey is reshaping the Middle East using the good things about the European idea.

    Europe fell short of its own good idea by turning away from Turkey. Instead of turning inward over the snub, Turkey responded dynamically by expanding its trade and influence to the East. This remarkable Eastern energy contrasts with Western Europe’s condition of economic arthritis and political paralysis.

    Who is the “Sick Man Of Europe” now?

  8. With the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Egypt is groping toward a new, multi-cultural politics that makes a place for Muslim religious parties and for secularists alike. Many young Muslim Brothers speak favorably of a “Turkish model.”

    Like the Arabs, it cares about the fate of the displaced, stateless Palestinians. But Turkey likewise is committed to parliamentary democracy, giving it a great deal in common with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

    While I have no doubt that there are many moderate Muslims that are very supportive of multi-cultural politics and representative democracy, those priorities do not yet seem to be the defining qualities of the various revolutions now occurring in the Middle East. Without question, the Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated little practical interest in either of those issues if the result is a government that does not conform to their interpretation of Islam.

    The presence of al-Qaida operatives among the Libyan rebels does little to inspire confidence in specious assertions that freedom and liberty are sweeping that region.

    • The Muslim Brotherhood was a late, insignificant portion of the Egyptian protest movement.

      Just as the handful of former al Qaeda affiliates are a late, insignificant portion of the Libyan resistance movement.

  9. To say that “Israel is by its intransigence driving Turkey into the arms of the Arabs” is ludicrous and suggests that Turkey has allowed the actions of one country (Israel) to be the determining factor in a complete shift in foreign policy. Turkey is not being driven “into the arms of the Arabs,” by Israel or anyone else. Erdogan would have acconmplished this shift away from a Eurocentric policy to a more balanced one vis-avis the Arabs with or without an Israeli apology because, rightly or wrongly, he sees that as being in Turkey’s national interest.

    • excellent comment. Israel is indeed displaying an extremely hard line, but Turkey’s more been moved to embracing their Arab neighbors by a need to find markets for its products, particularly after being shot out from membership in the EU. than by anything from Israel.

  10. Meh. I’m less convinced Turkey under Erdogan is so much more moderate, moderate or committed to multi-culturism, let alone aspiring to be “European.” He didn’t have many scruples about just bombing northern Iraq, slaughtering more than 100 Kurds in the process. Oh right, they were PKK. Thus they found a convenient justification to carry out a massacre. In that sense, I suppose they can aspire to be European, living up to the best Western notions of might makes right. Meanwhile, Turks just today made more threatening noises about Cypriot development of energy reserves, hardly the stuff of normal diplomatic discourse. And then there’s the most damning document in the docket: Erdogan’s callous and amoral support for Assad’s butchers over weeks and months – this despite repeated massacres carried out by Syrian security forces against civilians.

    Yes, Israel’s policy only works against its own interests. But I see little reason to celebrate the spectacle of a strident Turkish nationalist throwing his weight around in a tinderbox region. Nothing good will come from any of this.

      • “You do realize that the US has bombed Iraq. A lot.”

        I thought the subject of this post was Turkey. What the US has done is irrelevant, a non-sequitur.

  11. giving it a great deal in common with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

    In Libya, you got to be kidding right? Turkey and Libya have nothing in common yet and may be never when it comes to govt. Libya will alway be slave to the west and Turkey has moved on to become one with itself.

    • You really don’t know that Turkey is a NATO member, do you? Rather closer to the West than Libya

  12. I would not discount the size of future Turkish trade with Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization states as well. Interestingly, I heard a report before 9/11 that the Israelis were looking to start buying oil from Russia, for the obvious reason that no one else was going to sell it to them. After 9/11, I heard nothing about this, even as oil supplies tightened. The neocon chains binding Washington and Jerusalem might have been the cause; Cheney’s PNAC clearly defined oil states acting independently of Washington as a threat, but his bullying drove Russia into greater hostility and an interest in getting its naval base in Syria back. Israel could hardly buy Russian oil and betray the neocon agenda.

    Presumably the alternative Israel was waiting for was oil sent thru the Neocon Express pipeline from Central Asia to Israel-friendly Turkey. Well, that Turkey doesn’t exist anymore. Not that Turkey won’t sell Israel oil, but Israel would then face the danger of a sudden Turkish embargo the next time it does something spectacularly offensive. Which could be any day now.

  13. The Turkish authorities continue to abuse the penal code, in particular Article 301, in order to punish those who peaceably express their opinions on minorities in the country. [European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance 8 feb 2011]. The peaceful expression of a minority’s identity seems to be perceived as a threat to the Turkish state. Public officials who express themselve in Kurdish risk censure, as does anyone who defends the interests of minorities.

  14. Thank you, Professor Cole!

    Anecdotally, for what it is worth, I lived in Kayseri, Turkey, for six months, and I was shocked at how many of my students were hostile towards Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as well as, the ultra-conservative positions, especially concerning their religious beliefs.

    From what I observed, it seemed as if many Turkish people were more desirous of returning to the Ottoman Empire and conservative Islamic practices than the secular democracy what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had envisioned.

    I was also a bit surprised by the results of their recent election, but I was happy to see that Prime Minister Erdogan did not win all the seats that he needed to completely rewrite their constitution.

    I am very curious to see what will happen in Turkey in the near future, especially their seemingly new-found reconnection in trade with their Arab neighbors. Thank you, again, Professor Cole! Your work is always insightful and illuminating.

    • @Ronald. You may have been shocked because you are a westerner and as such see things through Christian-centric eyes. As a Muslim, I believe ataturk’s policies were anti religion and thus I see them (his policies) as a threat to my freedom of religion. Westerners seem to think that atheism, rampant consumerism and “democracy are the be all and end all and will never understand the ME mentality until they get over themselves and realize there are other valid world views

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