Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and spurned overtures

While building palaces for his own glory at home, Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to flounder in regional relations, to Turkey’s great cost, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s relations with its neighbours may not have always been smooth and easy apart from with Armenia but it had never lost their friendship. Economic and commercial contacts across borders continued to thrive despite obstacles, including international sanctions against Iraq and, later, against Iran, the international isolation of which began just as the Justice and Development Party (JDP) rose to power in Turkey 13 years ago.

When Ahmet Davutoglu was appointed foreign minister in 2005, it looked like a revolution was coming in Anatolia’s foreign relations. His “zero problems” approach seemed to promise lasting stability and harmony in Ankara’s friendships. Some observers even went so far as to foresee peace between Yerevan and Ankara.

Sadly, all such hopes and dreams soon vanished. The ties the heir to the Ottoman Empire had established with the eight countries it borders began to fray. With the onset of the Arab Spring, the strains grew tenser than ever in a century’s history, and those ties began to snap, one after the other.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never took great pains to disguise his ambitions to resurrect a hegemonic past. Arabic speakers harboured little affection for this history, and often regarded it as one of the factors that held their countries back in the march to development and progress.

He did, however, take great pains to promote his “modernist” model of government and society as the potential seed for the “Greater Middle East project” that fascinated Washington and that US think tanks believed could be put into effect on the ground. That opinion was not shared by the ruling regimes and people on the ground, from the borders of southern Anatolia southward along the Mediterranean to the banks of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

True, “Erdogan’s Turkey” never admitted to any decline in its regional role. But such stances were for public consumption. Behind the scenes, ruling elites grew increasingly convinced that their country had become unpopular and unwanted among most Arab and Islamic countries. Foreign relations specialists began to urge a re-evaluation of the policies that had alienated Turkey’s neighbours.

In the world of the Turkish press, Hürriyet was probably the boldest. It urged the government to work to revive Turkey’s place in the region and stressed that “reconciliation with Egypt”, the most important country in the Arab world and Middle East, should top the agenda.

Indeed, some sincere efforts towards this end were set into motion. However, the person of Erdogan soon got in the way. His boundless pride and vanity were the source of confused and contradictory positions that prevented effective steps toward reconciliation. As a result, the pleas by businessmen close to Erdogan to alleviate the strains between Ankara and Cairo went unheeded.

In fact, many in Ankara now realise that Cairo is no longer particularly interested in mending fences, since it believes that such efforts will ultimately prove futile as long as Erdogan remains in the driver’s seat in Turkey.

Curiously, according to opposition newspapers in Istanbul, this has led to a convergence between Turkish opposition parties and Cairo around a single critical point. They are all pinning their hopes on the results of the parliamentary elections slated for 7 June.

If the results bring a tangible shift in the balances of political forces in Turkey, which is to say if votes for the JDP decline and the number of its parliamentary seats shrink, then it will become difficult for Erdogan to realise his dream of transforming the Turkish system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one, with him at the pinnacle of power, of course.

Then, in turn, it could become possible to predict a thaw in Egyptian-Turkish relations. If the opposite happens and the JDP wins a sweeping victory (the chances of which are slight without considerable tampering of the sort that allegedly infected the last municipal and presidential elections), then total rupture and the closure of two embassies would most likely characterise Egyptian-Turkish relations in the next phase of Erdogan’s domination.

Closer to Turkey’s backyard, the situation is, if anything, worse. After a fierce verbal assault against his Iranian neighbour, which he, of all people, attacked for its “ambition to increase its influence in the region by exploiting sectarian tensions” (he was alluding in this case to Yemen), Erdogan found himself in the awkward position of having to go through with a visit to Tehran.

It had been scheduled for 7 April and could not be cancelled. He was therefore forced to swallow the barrage of stinging criticisms that assailed him from all quarters of the Iranian press, all the while aware that such an onslaught would not have occurred without a green light if not explicit instructions from the chief Ayatollah.

In all events, the visit did not produce the tangible results that Erdogan had hoped to carry back with him to Ankara.

He fared no better in Iraq. If he had imagined that the departure of Nouri Al-Maliki would be sufficient to restore tranquillity between Baghdad and Ankara, he was in for a disappointment. There were exchanges of visits and friendly words, but the underlying substance was cold.

The proof came when Ankara offered to help out in the planned campaign to liberate Mosul. The answer from Baghdad could not have been understood as anything but a chilly “No, thank you.”

Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh last month was another case in point. In spite of the customary fanfare that surrounded it, the prominent Turkish political analyst and veteran journalist Sami Kohen believes that the visit was not as positive as portrayed. Erdogan’s visit with the Saudi monarch lasted no more than 35 minutes, which in the world of protocol, and given the time it takes for translation, is not a good sign.

Şükrü Ünlütürk, vice-president of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association (TÜSIAD), summed up the problem. He said that thanks to the Turkish serials that were broadcast throughout the Arab world, the Turks were able to generate an extremely good climate, from a commercial standpoint, in the Middle East, and the image of Turkish products was excellent.

However, the foreign policies pursued by the government towards Turkey’s neighbours and developments in the region have undermined those inroads. As a result, said Ünlütürk, “We have lost the prestige and the advantages we had won in the past.”

But the problem is not limited to the Middle East and the alienation of Turkey’s southern neighbours. Sami Kohen has observed that Turkey’s path to membership in the EU is temporarily closed due to the democratic stagnation in Turkey and deteriorating relations with Washington.

He urges the Turkish government to do something to mend its relations with the countries of the region. But the question remains: What can it do?

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