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.