Egypt and Turkey: rivals or partners

The far-reaching potential implications for an aid convoy destined for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip where people suffer under an embargo show once more that unresolved problems can’t be deferred for long and that frozen conflicts can’t simply remain stagnant forever.

Parties who bear the responsibility to intervene to bring about a resolution to hardened problems should act in haste out of concern that unpredictable incidents or third-party actors might complicate matters more, making the already tense situation worse for everybody.

At least that is what we saw happen last week when the British-based Viva Palestina group organized an aid convoy passing through various countries including Turkey en route to Gaza to bring much-needed food and medicine to the suffocating Gaza Strip. Like a rolling snowball, the convoy had expanded and grown along the journey with new recruits and volunteers. Many people and groups from Turkey joined the convoy, including a few members of the Turkish Parliament.

When Egypt initially refused to allow part of the aid convoy to pass to Gaza from the Rafah border crossing as agreed in advance, clashes erupted between activists and Egyptian border police, resulting in the death of an Egyptian police officer and scores of wounded. The incident risked a major confrontation between Turkey and Egypt. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, under intense pressure from the Turkish public, which had staged mass rallies and protests across the country, including one organized in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Ankara, had to call his Egyptian counterpart several times to find a compromise to the impasse.

Thankfully the crisis, which might have damaged the excellent relations between Egypt and Turkey, was averted, leading to a mutual understanding. Turkey argued that the human dimension can’t be ignored in Gaza and that aid must be delivered to alleviate the suffering of the residents there.

When I talked last week to Mahmoud Abbas, who paid a visit to the Turkish capital, he appeared very much concerned over the prospect of a weakening of ties between Turkey and Egypt, both of which are heavyweights in the Middle East. “Turkish and Egyptian relations are excellent, and we do not want any harm to come to them,” he underlined, warning that incidents like this might be used by third parties to derail the peace process in the Middle East.

When I heard these comments voiced by the visiting president in the Swiss Hotel conference room in Ankara, I recalled my conversation over lunch with the Egyptian ambassador, who also complained about some negative articles appearing in local and global media portraying both Egypt and Turkey as rivals in the Middle East. The suggestion was that the new activism of Turkish foreign policy is on a collision course with the decades-long Egyptian policy.

“Egypt does not want to enter the European Union as far as I know. And as far as I know, Turkey also does not want to become a member of the Arab League. When Turkey wants to become a member of the Arab League and Egypt wants to become an EU member, maybe, at that time, I’ll start thinking there is competition between Egypt and Turkey,” Egyptian Ambassador to Turkey Dr. Alaa Eldin al-Hadidi said.

He also stressed that the roles of both countries actually complement each other much better than many people think. They share common threats and also face common challenges in the region. In fact, the ambassador shared, on many occasions Egypt had invited Turkey to take part and assume a role in Mideast conflicts, including but not limited to the active participation of Davutoğlu in obtaining a cease-fire during the Gaza offensive by Israel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak initiated a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in January 2009 asking him to send a special envoy to Egypt to join the ongoing cease-fire negotiations between Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials. Upon Mubarak’s request, Erdoğan ordered that a delegation led by Davutoğlu, then his top foreign policy adviser, be dispatched immediately.

The Turkish government has so far been very careful not to step on the toes of Egypt when becoming involved in Middle East issues. That is why during Egypt’s active efforts to resolve differences between Palestinian groups, it recognized that Turkey sincerely and actively supported Egypt’s role, leaving the lead role to Cairo.

However, the recent incident proves again that the growing tension and disarray among Palestinian factions is like a ticking bomb and as such creates opportunities for the exploitation of these very sensitive issues by not-so-well-intentioned third parties. At this juncture, both Egypt and Turkey should put the reconciliation talks into higher gear and press on both sides to reach some sort of compromise. The sooner is certainly the better.

The recent deal floated by Egypt was a good start, and Turkey should step in to help Egypt broker a deal between Hamas and the Abbas-led Fattah group. The help of Syria and Saudi Arabia can be enlisted for that purpose as well. With intense and persistent diplomacy, I believe the reservations raised by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority can be overcome in time. I guess Abbas’s plea for Turkey to talk to Hamas in the Turkish capital is testament to that effect.

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