Initially published in Islamist Gate
Ottoman Sultan Selim I, the conquerer of Egypt
“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” This famous quote by Mark Twain is highly relevant to the relationship between Egypt and Turkey. Egypt’s decision to expel the Turkish ambassador from Cairo has a historical precedent. In 1954, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the Turkish ambassador in the presence of relatively similar events, but under dissimilar circumstances.
Undoubtedly, the tense relationship between Turkey and Egypt reflects the current policy of the leadership in both Egypt and Turkey. The two countries are now acting like rivals. Even their two powerful men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt’s military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, were locked in a popularity competition for the Time 2013’s Person of the Year poll . However, this tension is also indicative of a widespread messiness in the region that has its roots deep in history.
Bab Zuweila, the medieval southern gate of old Cairo where the Ottomans hanged Egypt’s ruler Toman Bey in 1517, testifies to a long, turbulent past that both countries are struggling to shake off and move beyond. This history had its good times, but also its times of upheaval, riddled by conflict and death.
In the middle of the twentieth century, following the upheaval of World War II, the prospect of communist expansion prompted the United States and other Western nations to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union and its affiliated communist nations in Eastern Europe founded a rival alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
NATO had extended its alliance in the Middle East by what was known as the the Baghdad pact, which Egypt’s Nasserite regime and its supporters around the Arab world rejected.
Following the accession of Turkey to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1952, and the Turkish election in 1954, the newly elected Turkish leader, Adnan Menderes, expressed his desire for his government to be the “backbone” of NATO. Menderes was deeply involved in Middle Eastern affairs.
Simon Smith, in his book “reassessing Suez 1956,” wrote that Menderes’s government did not regard the Suez Canal dispute as a bilateral problem between the UK and Egypt, but one that concerned NATO’s entire strategy. Menderes argued: “The Egyptians could not properly maintain today that the nature of the British position in the Canal Zone is one of imperialism. Turkey is convinced that the UK is acting as a guardian of one of the key positions of the free world.”
Following the ousting of Egypt’s President Morsi, the Turkish premier Erdogan called on the United Nation Security Council to meet urgently to discuss the situation in Egypt.
“If Western countries do not act sincerely on this issue … I believe that democracy will start to be questioned throughout the world,” he said. Erdogan has clearly viewed the removal of Morsi as an International crisis that threatens the free world, rather than an internal domestic Egyptian matter.
The similarities between 1954 and 2013 in Turkish-Egyptian relations lie in the Turkish support of the old order against the new one in Egypt; however, there are also dissimilarities.
For starters, the Kemalist Turkey that backed the UK in 1954 is different in ideology and outlook to Neo-Ottoman Erdogan’s Turkey. The actions of Menderes were harmonious with his strategic alliances, but despite that, Turkey refrained from playing a direct role in the Suez crisis.
Erdogan, however, has allowed his ideological beliefs in political Islam to override his strategic interests and rational thoughts. Under the pretence of a higher moral ground, the Erdogan administration has refused to mediate between the new leadership, and the Muslim Brotherhood, a strategic mistake that has harmed the Brotherhood rather than benefited them.
On the ground, many pro-Erdogan Turkish Islamist groups were openly sponsoring the sit-in at Rabaa with money and even food parcels, giving Morsi’s supporters a false sense of international protection. This pseudo security has indirectly contributed to the defiant mood in Rabaa.
Add to that, the Turkish interference in Egypt’s domestic politics reached an unprecedented level following Morsi’s takeover of power, and is incomparable with 1954.
In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu admitted that the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Hakan Fidan, met with Egypt’s toppled President Morsi about shortly before the military takeover.
Both Erdogan and his chief spy Hakan have failed to appreciate the rising popularity of Sisi following his ousting of Morsi, a strategic mistake that discredited Erdogan’s claim that he is siding by the Egyptian “people.”
More and more, the upheaval in the Middle East following the Arab uprising has redrawn the map of alliances. The new emerging, informal pacts in the region are different to those of the fifties. In 1954, Turkey stood by its Western allies, including Israel.
In 2013, Turkey has openly accused the European Union for not doing enough against Egypt’s new leadership. It went even further and accused Israel of supporting the coup. Now Turkey stands alone with Qatar in support of an increasingly isolated Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast to the 1955 Baghdad Pact that was relatively wider and included Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, and had moral support from Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Still the Baghdad pact failed to stop Nasserism from spreading in the Arab world.
The Middle East today, of course, is different; nonetheless, the events of 1954 should be studied in order to understand the historical lessons to be learned. In both cases, Turkey fiddled in the Arab world without a proper understanding of the unfolding contemporary dynamics.
The Baghdad Pact failed to counter rising Nasserism in the Arab world; similarly, Erdogan’s government has failed to stop, or reverse the coup in Egypt. Moreover, Menderes’s exaggerated fears of the spread of communism were similar to Erdogan’s irrational fears sparked by a replication of the Egyptian coup in Ankara.
It took years for the Turkish-Egyptian relationship to recover after 1954, despite many similarities between the social structures of both countries. On the other hand, the damage after the 2013 standoff may take a lot of effort to repair.
This is not just a conflict between two leaderships, but a conflict between two divided nations that see each other’s divisions as threats to their own stability. The echoes of the past resonate with the present fears of two nations with stubborn egos and hidden vulnerabilities.