When Saudi Arabia killed the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi in its İstanbul consulate it, in fact, killed two birds with one stone. Not only the Kingdom silenced a dissident but it gave a message to all the dissidents fleeing Arab dictatorships that they should not feel safe in Turkey.
There is a little known or discussed fact in the Turkish public. Following the failure of the Arab uprisings Turkey did not only open its doors to Syrian refugees fleeing the war but it became a safe haven for Arab dissidents, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned a blind eye to their activities, letting them set up tv centers for instance broadcasting anti-regime propaganda.
But what one sees as a dissident others see it as a terrorist. Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a terrorist organization by countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Just as Turkey reacts to countries harboring outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members and to those allowing Roj TV broadcasts, Egypt hows a similar reaction.
It was not strategic national interests but the survival of the regimes standing on fragile grounds that laid at the gist of the rivalry between the two regional blocks which took shape in the Middle East following the end of Arab springs. Fearing the spread of the uprisings, the bloc led by Saudi Arabia supported the military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Turkey and Qatar fiercely opposed the coup by general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and continued supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar punished for supporting Islamist movements
The embargo imposed on Qatar in 2017 was meant to punish this small Emirate for the support it provided to Islamist movements. The AKP on the other hand was already irritated by intelligence reports about UAE’s implicit support to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. It rushed immediately to help Qatar.
The ideological hostility between the two blocs spiraled into power struggles and proxy wars in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean involving global and regional powers.
Reconciliation in the Gulf and the Brotherhood
The news on Jan. 5 that Saudi Arabia and its three allies agreed to restore full ties with Doha came at a time when the need for Turkey to normalize ties with Egypt and Israel started to be voiced more frequently in the Turkish public.
It was unclear what concessions Qatar made for the reconciliation. It is clear however that Qatar can no longer continue its support to Muslim Brotherhood unabated. This will undoubtedly affect the AKP’s relations with the group with which it has ideological ties. At any rate, it was Qatari money that largely financed the dissident activities. And if there will be normalization with Egypt, the presence and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey will certainly be on the table.
What went wrong between Turkey and Egypt
At this stage, it is important to recall the reasons behind the rift between Turkey and Egypt.
Turkey’s ruling elites embraced enthusiastically the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab uprisings that started in 2011. The AKP’s core cadres thought the time had come for the reign of the political Islamists and sought this would consolidate their power inside and outside of Turkey.
But the rising wave of political Islamists was stopped in Egypt in July 2013 when the army staged a coup, ousted the president, Mohamed Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood. The silence of Western democracies to the toppling of an elected government by a military coup shocked the AKP’s elites, leading them to take this implicit support to the fall of Islamists as a message, even a threat directed at them.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fiercely reacted to the Rabaa massacre that took the lives of early 900 protesters in August 2013. He nearly made it a personal issue. And as his criticisms did not lose its intensity in the following weeks, the Turkish envoy to Cairo was declared persona non grata and Egypt lowered the level of diplomatic ties.
At the current situation, the ball should be on Turkey’s court as Egypt would be expecting a change of policy from Turkey to normalize ties. If the problem for Turkey is Sisi himself and his vicious attitude towards any opposition, it would be futile to expect him to go or to turn into a democratic leader.
Until now President Erdoğan has not shown enthusiasm for reconciliation. Perhaps the cost of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood appeared bearable. Yet this solidarity, which is highly questionable in terms of Turkey’s national interests started to become much more costly especially in the East Mediterranean. Egypt joined forces with Israel, Greece, Greek Cyprus to isolate Turkey in the region.
While Turkey is resisting this bloc by show of military force, reliance on hard power is not sustainable especially under the current economic crisis aggravated by the Coronavirus pandemic. The way to break the isolation passes from normalizing ties with regional countries starting from Egypt. President Erdoğan might still enjoy huge popularity in the Arab streets, yet this neither translates into votes nor money. The survival instinct will most probably weigh over the feeling of solidarity with the ideological brothers.