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Turkey's Egyptian Overtures: Why Does Erdogan Care?

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Judging from Tayyip Erdogan's fiery reactions to the events in Egypt, it's clear that Cairo's troubles have graduated to the status of a 'big-ticket' foreign policy issue for Ankara. For some, it's another opportunity for Erdogan to display his kasimpaşali flavor of 'rough-and-tough' politics, reminiscent of the 'one minute' saga in Davos. For others, Ankara's interest in Egypt smacks of a 'Neo-Ottoman' brand of foreign policy . But, in lieu of the ongoing protests across Turkey, Erdogan's post-June 30th tryst with Egypt should instead be understood as an external manifestation of insecurities that plague him and Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) within their immediate realm of influence.

Military Coup: A Blast from the Past

Most analysts have hit the nail on the head with regards to Erdogan's hypersensitivity to the turn of events in Egypt. Over the years, the AKP leadership has carefully chipped away at the Turkish army's proclivity towards arresting unsavory political tides in the country. But the wounds, of an all-powerful army displaying its political power through coups, remain fresh. In 1960 the Turkish army deposed Demokrat Parti (DP) leadership from office and executed the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and the Foreign Affair Minister. This was followed by two more official coups in 1971 and 1980. It is then only natural that Erdogan and his cohorts aren't convinced by the Egyptian armed forces' claim that it saw its actions as being necessary to protect the revolution "... and put the country back on the track of democracy." Instead, with Turkey's own history dotted with coups carried out in the name of 'democracy' and with Islamists often at their receiving end, the AKP leadership feels a moral obligation to condemn a coup in Egypt. Furthermore, Erdogan would find it particularly troubling that a significant section of the Egyptian 'street' supported the coup. This comes at a time when in Istanbul the former Chief of the General Staff of Turkey, Mehmet Ilker Basbug was being sentenced to life for 'attempting to engineer a coup', as approximately 1,000 people tried to storm the court house. Egypt then reflects Erdogan's own fears of "a lingering 'deep state' [in Turkey of]... a network of army officers, business leaders, secularists and arch-nationalists who seek to undermine and even overthrow elected governments." While the public protests in Turkey (as a response to the Basbug's sentencing) were minuscule compared to those in Egypt, he would nevertheless be immensely keen on arresting any wave of a similar trend (of popular support for military coups) from originating in Egypt and crashing onto the shores of Turkey.

Islamism's Demise is Nigh?

Along with the tumultuous realm of civil-military relations in Turkey, it seems that Islamists in the country have also entered a particularly ominous phase. The Gezi Park protests have not only collated the oppositions' sentiments that have aggregated since Erdogan took office in 2003, but also rendered his status as the unequivocal leader of all of Turkey as an empty shell. Moreover, as fate would have it, his troubles prophetically coincided with the crest of mass opposition to Islamist rule in the post-Spring Arab world. With Morsi's fall, mass protests in Tunisia and Hamas facing its own Tamarod (rebellion) movement in Gaza, Islamism's demise may be nigh. This of course doesn't mean that they would disappear from the regional political spectrum. In relation to 'Morsi's fall' Geneive Abdo asserts, "... the coup has placed the Brotherhood in the uncomfortable but longtime position it had been in for decades -- as the victims of a repressive, dictatorial state." An astute assertion that may be applicable beyond Egypt, if Islamists in government indeed face an unceremonious end to their time in power, a long held position in this case isn't one that is particularly desirable. While Islamists have, over decades, mastered inhabitance on the margins, it is by no means an easy life. Usually faced with the entire infrastructure of state despotism, the benefits of such living would seem pale compared to the power, influence and well-being of life in government. Still, Erdogan and AKP comparatively occupy a fairly comfortable position at the helm in Ankara. But, with Islamists having been repeatedly pushed to the margins of mainstream politics in Turkey, he would be wary of Morsi's fall being indicative of the (non-Islamist) opposition gaining regional momentum, much like the Arab uprisings. By then clearly demonstrating his discomfort with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Erdogan is also sending a message to the discontented within Turkey, while further emphasizing his resolve through Basbug's conviction.

On July 21, Morsi supporters demonstrated outside the Turkish consulate in Alexandria and chanted "thank you, Erdogan" acknowledging the Turkish Prime Minister's support for their fallen leader. But Erdogan's actions may in fact be more of a paranoid nature than of sheer benevolence. Today he speaks with one eye on Egypt and one on Turkey, hoping that Islamists' fates in the Middle East aren't inextricably intertwined. Nonetheless, if a trend of their fall from grace does emerge, Erdogan and AKP would prefer to be the anomaly than the norm.