(President Erdogan addressing the U.N. General assembly. Photo via Reuters)
This year, the UN General Assembly became the new boxing arena for two Middle-Eastern rivals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Both threw punches. The UN encounter highlighted the still acrimonious relationship between Turkey and Egypt. Despite Sisi’s oppressive policies toward opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian President emerged after his trip to New York less damaged and less isolated than his Turkish nemesis Erdogan.
In his UN General Assembly address, Turkish President Erdogan spoke of the ‘murder of democracy” in Egypt. He added, “The United Nations as well as the democratic countries have done nothing but watch events, such as the overthrow of an elected president in Egypt, and the killings of thousands of innocent people who want to defend their choice. And the person who carried out this coup is being legitimized.” Later, the Turkish President refused to attend a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the General Assembly in New York when he learned he would be seated at the same table as the Egyptian leader. Erdogan continued with harsh remarks in his keynote address to the World Economic Forum in Istanbul on Sunday, and questioned the legitimacy of the Egyptian government.
Although it is understandable that the Turkish President’s default position is primarily anti-coup, his approach is problematic to say the least. His criticism was not directed only toward Egyptian leadership, but also toward the rest of the world that has not joined in his hostile policy toward Egypt. This moralistic, rigid approach is counter-productive and unlikely to win Erdogan empathy or sympathy from other world leaders. Turkish leadership has consistently ignored the fact that other countries may judge its foreign policies based on their own strategic interests, and they do not need a Turkish parent to teach them what they should or should not do. Furthermore, world leaders are expected to have a minimum level of maturity when handling trivial issues such as lunch seating in a public gathering as with the luncheon at the UN.
Unlike Erdogan, other world leaders have opted for a less confrontational policy with Egyptian President Sisi. They met with him, but equally raised concerns about freedom and human rights in Egypt ___ a balanced approach between interests and principles that the Turkish leader has, unfortunately, failed to mimic.
In contrast, Egypt has played its cards well. Before the UN meeting, it invited Turkey to the Gaza reconstruction conference due to be held in October. This move positioned Egypt as pragmatic and willing to put aside its differences with Turkey for a greater cause. It then leaked news that Turkey requested a meeting between its FM and the Egyptian FM, which created the perception that Turkey was the one reaching out to Egypt and not the other way round. Later, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry responded harshly to Erdogan’s speech: “There is no doubt that the fabrication of such lies and fabrications is not something strange that comes from the Turkish president, who is keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through support for groups and terrorist organizations.” It responded on Monday to Erdogan’s Istanbul comments, saying that the Turkish president is “not in a position to give lessons to others about democracy and respect for human rights and appoint himself the guardian of them.”
Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry cancelled a bilateral meeting requested by Turkey in response to Erdogan’s speech. Again, that gave the impression that Egypt was the one calling the shots; not Turkey.
The smartest move, however, came from Egyptian President Sisi who declined to snap back at Turkey. Instead, he opted for a more subtle counterpunch: “When I was young and was hit by those older than me, I used to say “I’ll grow bigger and hit you[back]’.” Sisi’s remarks did not just appeal to his Egyptian domestic audience; it gave the outside world the impression of a calm, composed leader, not willing to dignify angry emotions with a heated response.
Although Erdogan is proud of his Ottoman heritage, he forgets how the Ottoman Sultan AbdulMecid I in 1854 put aside his differences with Egypt’s Mohamed Ali family when he faced Russia in in the Crimean war. Egyptian leadership at the time responded positively and sent 40,000 soldiers to fight beside the Ottoman army. Those soldiers were neither loyal servants to the Ottoman Sultan, nor believers of the Ottoman Caliphate; however, they fought as a professional disciplined army that served the interests of both Egypt and Turkey.
Currently, both countries, Egypt and Turkey, face a common threat of extremism from radical groups such as the Islamic State (ISIL), and others. This is a good reason to put ideologies and differences aside and focus a common enemy. Erdogan, however, is still ambiguous about handling the radicals and is unwilling to put aside his patronage of political Islam. He is grudgingly holding onto his differences with other Arab states such as Egypt. These actions make it difficult to develop a coherent policy to fight radicalism in the Middle East.
Semih Idiz is right to predict that it is unlikely in the coming period that Erdogan will change tactics on Egypt, and Turkish-Egyptian ties will remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely that the Lebanese Prime Minister’s offer to mediate between the two leaders will yield positive results. Nonetheless, the big loser will not be Egypt, but Turkey. The difference between Erdogan and Sisi is more than just how they came to power, but how each conducts himself after gaining power. While Erdogan allows his ideological dogma to dominate his actions, Sisi is willing to paint a pragmatic image, at least on foreign policy, to conceal his own dogmatic zeal.
Every day, the Egyptian President seems to solidify his grip on power. His opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, does not seem to gain much from Erdogan’s moralistic stance. Istanbul host its cadres after their dismissal from Qatar, nonetheless, they need more than a new base and moral support to regain their popularity inside Egypt. Sadly, part of the Brotherhood tragedy is the inability of their patron, Turkish President Erdogan, to understand that his preaching style will lead to his isolation, which will do them more harm than good.