Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: The Egypt-Turkey rift is a victory for Iran | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Despite the sectarian, ethnic, linguistic, and ideological diversity in the Middle East, there are some ground rules governing the political arena in the region. It is true that some of these rules are not as much logical as customary, others are considered to be timeless. The primary rule is related to the nature of the relationship among the three major powers in the Middle East: Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Running in parallel to this rule is to what extent the Gulf States interact with these three powers.

Throughout history, the nature of the relationship between Egypt and Turkey has remained a key determinant of Iranian power and influence in the Middle East. It has also become a general rule that any rapprochement between any two of these three major powers would, be necessity, weaken the strength and influence of the third power.

However, with the re-emergence of political Islam in the Middle East—by which I mean the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and the Freedom and Justice Party which ruled Egypt for one year—Ankara continued to pursue the so-called “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy approach formulated by Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP’s foreign relation’s theorist. This theory paid off during the early years that AKP was in power. However in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to develop a new policy in terms of dealing with Iran. This policy seemed to have clashed with the customary ground rules of the Middle East: the Gulf along with the international powers did not easily accept Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement. This is not to mention the extremely fragile foundation this rapprochement was built on; namely, the rejection of any military intervention in Syria despite the contradictory stances they Cairo and Tehran took towards the conflict in Syria.

The Brotherhood in Egypt seemed to be unaware of the strategic ground rules in the Middle East, whether we are talking about logical or traditional norms. Thus, the equation was disrupted and Cairo became isolated from the Gulf, despite its rapprochement with Turkey and its fragile links with Iran. With the collapse of the rule of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey veered from the core of its foreign policy, and an Ankara-Cairo feud began. Although Iran, at first, had adopted a similar stance, it promptly changed its strategy, viewing the Brotherhood as nothing more than an ally of a trend that it opposes on ideological grounds, namely the Salafists. Although the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran initially agreed to condemn Mursi’s ouster in Egypt, Iran retreated from this position, declaring that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of the Brotherhood was down to a psychological complex, advising him to reconsider his stance in order to preserve his country’s interests.

Perhaps, this may be viewed as sincere advice from a rival, something that rarely happens. However, what made Erdogan adopt this stance was not out of support for the Brotherhood as much as fear of a possible military coup taking place against him in his own country. Erdogan is primarily defending himself rather that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

On the other hand, Iran was of the view that the Egyptian-Turkish discord has the potential to weaken the anti-Assad front and perhaps weaken Turkish-Gulf relations. This is something that would necessarily provide Tehran more room for economic activity in the region, on the one hand, and deepen its economic cooperation with Turkey by minimizing Ankara’s market in the Middle East, on the other. Furthermore, this would force Hamas to further move within the Iranian sphere of influence, as Ankara would no longer be able to engage with Islamist group through Egypt.

As for the issue of sectarian tensions, I’d say that, sectarian tension does not usually directly happen among the major powers in the Middle East. Rather, sectarian tensions take the form of pressure or oppression within the state, or sometimes, in the form of attacks between minor entities with the support and approval of the major states. Thus, in view of the discord between Turkey and Egypt, two Sunni-dominated countries, the Shi’ite camp is keen to avoid provoking sectarian struggle in order to maximize its benefits from this, with Iran presenting itself as an economic and commercial alternative to Turkey. Therefore, one of the results of the Turkish-Egyptian discord will be easing of sectarian tensions in the region.

Unless his attitude is not based on fear of a possible military coup against him, Erdogan is expected to change his stance following the presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt, regardless of what party emerges victorious. It is also expected that he will voice some reservations should the Freedom and Justice Party be dissolved. However, he will not be able to adhere to this stance should the party be dissolved under a law prohibiting the establishment of religious parties, given that this law also exists in Turkey. Thus, there would be no cause for discord between Egypt and Turkey, and the Middle East would once again return to its ground rules, away from the Islamists and the Brotherhood, at least as far as Turkey-Egypt relations are concerned.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.