BEIRUT

Middle East

Middle East ambitions: Turkey and Egypt seek regional alliance

  • Mursi meets with Davutoglu in Cairo.

CAIRO: The image of an Ottoman sultan glowered at the gridlock from a highway billboard in the Egyptian capital, his feathered headgear and gold-hewn epaulettes in elegant contrast to the grind of traffic below.

The poster for a Turkish-made movie about the 1453 fall of Constantinople recalled the early feats of an empire that eventually ruled the Middle East and beyond.Egypt, like Turkey, has its own grand history – evident in the pyramids and other monuments that its ancients left behind, and in a national pride that’s distinctive in the Arab world.

The descendants of yesterday’s sultans and pharaohs, so to speak, also have ambitions of an outsized role for their respective countries. Each wants to speak for the Middle East.

But they can’t go it alone so Turkey and Egypt now talk of working together. In some ways, it’s an odd couple.

Turkey is relatively stable and prosperous, though its foreign outreach has soured in some quarters, forcing it to tone down ambitions to become a statesman above the Middle East fray.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is struggling with problems at home. Analysts believe it will be at least several years before Cairo can play a robust role in a region that rolls from one crisis to the next, divided over everything from religion to modernity.

Their alliance could work if Egypt follows Turkey’s moderate creed of reform, along with Western ties and Islamic piety. Then again, once Egypt gains more confidence, the two nations might jostle for influence.

Turkey’s outreach (in this case, deep pockets) was on show Monday in Cairo. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his government would give $2 billion in aid to Egypt to “increase trust” in its economy, beset by a drop in productivity, a tourism slump, strikes and protests since the fall of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in an uprising last year.

“The Egyptian territory is a fertile land where great civilizations were formed. We will witness Egypt’s rise in the future,” Davutoglu said.

“With Egypt and the participation of other states, we will build a new Middle East.”

The two nations both want Syrian President Bashar Assad to quit and Iran, his ally, to stay out of the civil war there.

In the Middle East, though, diplomacy and compromise seem in perpetual peril.

Israel ponders a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, fearing its enemy wants to build a bomb. Syria’s civil war resembles a proxy conflict with a sectarian edge. Violence surrounding a film that insults the Prophet Mohammad and was produced in the United States points to old tensions between Western and Islamic thought.

Turkey, a NATO member with a mostly Muslim (but not Arab) population, has been touted as a democratic model for a region swept by revolts.

But rough-and-tumble foreign relations have removed some of the shine. Turkey split with former ally Israel and sparred with traditional rival Iran.

It doesn’t get along well with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, sheltering its Sunni vice president even after a Baghdad court sentenced him to death for running death squads.

The pivot to Egypt offers welcome relief, though a closer alliance with another major state with a Sunni Muslim majority could feed suspicions that the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide in the Middle East is deepening.

Turkey is not quite a regional power and it has its own internal challenges such as a Kurdish insurgency, noted Arda Batu, editor-in-chief of the Turkey-based Kalem Journal, a website about regional affairs.

Turkey is in a state of “having a degree of influence in the region, and having the power to impact certain outcomes – not solely, but through alliances,” Batu wrote in an email to AP. Of its troubled ties with several neighbors, he said: “Turkey doesn’t have the luxury to have so many enemies.”

Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammad Mursi, has sought to reassert Cairo’s leadership in the Middle East with condemnation of the Syrian regime. But his administration is beset with domestic problems, including security, unemployment, poor infrastructure and divisions between Islamists and secularists.

Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, said it will take a while for Egypt to become a “really engaged player” in the region – and only if the country becomes unified and the economy gets moving.

According to Hanna, there is a “certain yearning among many in the Arab world to see Egypt restored to its rightful place” as a leader.

Pride in Egypt stems partly from its ancient past, a pan-Arab ideology under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser half a century ago that ultimately fell short, and the trove of films, literature and other cultural exports.

Then there’s the question of how public a role should religion play. Turkey’s creed of religious piety and secular ideals, still a source of domestic division, has not always traveled well in the region.

Egypt’s new government is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses an “Islamic identity” for the country.

Mursi might have an edge if Egypt and Turkey compete as peacemakers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Nora Fisher Onar, an assistant professor of international relations at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, Turkey.

In an analysis, she wrote: “He has a home-field advantage as an Arab in a region where many still rankle from Ottoman domination.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 22, 2012, on page 11.
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