The return of Egypt to its well-deserved regional role after a brief hiatus amid revolutionary changes that have taken place in this most populous Arab country in the Middle East is certainly a welcome development that is now being hailed by Turkey, a country that is under much pressure to respond to significant challenges originating in Syria and Iraq, its southern neighbors, amid increasingly belligerent and hostile Iranian policies targeting Turkish interests.
Turkey scored well with the new administration in Egypt when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly called for an end to Mubarak’s three-decade rule in his address to Parliament on Feb. 2, 2011, and cancelled a scheduled visit to Egypt, which was supposed to happen a week later. “Hear the cry of the people and their extremely humane demands. Meet the people’s desire for change without hesitation. No government can stand against the people,” Erdoğan said as hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The revolution in Egypt brought Mohammed Morsi, former head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), into power in the June presidential elections. He is expected to get along well with Erdoğan, who heads Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has been in power since 2002. As both men come from conservative Muslim backgrounds and share — by and large — a similar worldview, they will be able to work together on a number of issues that are vital for both Turkey and Egypt. Morsi’s quartet proposal involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt to discuss the Syrian crisis last month and his first presidential address to the Arab League in Cairo this week, which have both been welcomed by Ankara, signal that Egypt is ready to resume its work in resolving region-wide issues.
The fact that Turkey and Egypt saw eye-to-eye on many important issues in the region, even before Morsi’s arrival on the political scene, should be a valuable asset in countering threats and seizing opportunities in the Middle East. Both countries are concerned with Iranian expansionist policies using sectarian and other destabilizing cards in the Middle East and North Africa. They want embattled President Bashar al-Assad and his minority authoritarian regime gone and are coordinating with each other to consolidate the opposition in Syria. Turkish officials are telling me how grateful they are for Morsi’s bashing of the Syrian regime during the Non-Aligned Meeting (NAM) in Tehran late last month and calling for a transfer of power that was a clear rebuke to Syria’s key ally Iran.
Another worry in both capitals is the increasing tilt in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government towards Iran. Egyptian diplomats are telling me that their influence in Iraq is on the wane with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejecting Egyptian overtures as innocent as building a hospital or a school. Maliki will find it difficult to resist joint pressure by Egypt and Turkey and eventually will have to find a way to balance his desire to cozy up with the mullah regime in Tehran with his objective of putting Iraq back in Middle East power politics. Egypt’s return to the regional stage will also revitalize the peace process by shoring up Palestinian unity efforts.
The main parameter jointly espoused by Turkish and Egyptian foreign policies in the Middle East is “stability” as opposed to other regional powers like Iran and Israel that bank on conflict and tension to advance their national interests. It is no coincidence that both Turkish and Egyptian societies have been the frequent target of provocations to spark ethnic and religious conflicts. On a wider scale, both countries are strongly opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, fearing that a nuclear-armed Iran will start an arms race in the Middle East. In addition, Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries that have become jittery over Morsi’s ascendancy to power in Egypt fear a blowback from the Egyptian revolution. Turkey, a secular democracy, does not have the same concerns as the Gulf countries regarding Egypt. There is no doubt that that a democratic and stable Egypt, joining hands with Turkey, will create a snowball effect in the region by boosting the democratic aspirations of the people.
There is no need to be naïve about the true nature of the state of affairs between the powers in the Middle East, either. It is true that there has been inherent competition between Turkey and Egypt for decades, but that does not amount to a real rivalry today that could harm to ties in any significant way. There is no negative perception in either society about the other but rather admiration and respect. It is obvious that more needs to be done to better promote Egypt in Turkey and Turkey in Egypt with frequent exchanges of visits from politicians, academics, journalists and others. But I think all this is in the pipeline and gaining traction, albeit slowly. Morsi’s upcoming visit to Turkey, currently being worked out by his aides, will give a huge boost to the developing relations between the two countries.
But I think the most promising prospect between the two countries is in trade and investment, which are the cornerstones of political cooperation. The fact that the trade volume expanded even during the peak mayhem period of the revolution shows that economic cooperation between Turkey and Egypt is very robust. It has increased its pace since the revolution, reaching $4.2 billion in 2011, up from $3.2 billion a year earlier. In the first seven month of 2012, the volume jumped to $3 billion, an increase of 30 percent over the same period last year. Hundreds of Turkish companies are active in Egypt, and they are investing in different industries to benefit from low labor and energy costs while taking advantage of low or zero tariffs in exporting to other countries with which Egypt has partnered.
The start of a Ro-Ro (roll-on/roll-off) line between the Turkish port city of Mersin and the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which made its first shipment in May, might have begun as an interim measure to replace the Syrian route for Turkey that was cut off because of safety concerns, but it can now turn into a strategic trade route carrying European goods to Gulf and African markets and vice versa. Turning Turkey and Egypt into trade hubs for the vast markets on three continents will benefit both countries. There are many other cooperative schemes being worked out between the two, including a joint effort to manage the problems of İstanbul and Cairo, two big cities that resemble each other.
The framework for further close collaboration is already there. Turkey established a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council with Egypt at the end of 2011 to facilitate trade and cultivate closer relations in many areas. We may use that highly valuable tool to advance further cooperation on common goals.