Risks, potential rewards in store for Turkey in Egypt

Experts on Turkey and the Middle East discuss what part Turkey can play in the region and how its relationship with the US and Israel can be influenced by the changes.

Risks, potential rewards in store for Turkey in Egypt

Under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, Turkey has distanced itself from some of the controversial US and Israeli policies and became unpopular in the eyes of pro-American administrations, such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But Turkey has recently had an image boost among the region's independent minded intellectuals and ordinary citizens.

Recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as a growing demand for change, have also raised questions about Turkey's place in the Middle East. Four Washington-based academics who are experts on Turkey and the Middle East discuss what part Turkey can play in the region and how its relationship with the US and Israel can be influenced by the changes. They say Egypt after Mubarak -- should he step down – will not be a rose garden for Turkey, but it is not without its potential rewards, either.

Recent uprisings that challenge the status quo in the region can work to the benefit of Turkey, according to Gönül Tol from the Middle East Institute (MEI). Turkey has a more important role to play in the emerging Middle East than its previous roles as mediator.

Tol said: "Last year, we saw opinion polls conducted throughout the region indicating great support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is very popular with the people of the Arab street. Some people in Washington basically said: 'It doesn't really matter, because who cares about the Arab street? The Arab world is ruled by the regimes and their leaders.' However, the recent movements have shown us that this is untrue. The Arab street does matter." Tol recalled that many have criticized Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's emphasis on the role of conscientiousness in foreign politics, but she said, in fact, this has proven very useful in this process. "I know he has been criticized by realists who say there is no room for morality in international relations, but that's not the case in the 21st century. Legitimacy and morality have become the two most important concepts in the literature of international relations and also in political circles. In that sense, I appreciate Erdoğan's statement made in support of the Egyptian people. That was a very important step that shows that Turkey is on the right side of history."

Positive and negative consequences for Turkey

Henri J. Barkey, a visiting scholar with the Middle East Program of think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is more cautious regarding the possibilities that lie ahead for Turkey, saying that the new era in the Middle East might have both positive and negative consequences for Turkey. "On the one hand, while it may appear to enhance Turkey's position in the region, we should not forget that Turkey was silent on Tunisia and Egypt and only joined the bandwagon on Egypt when it was clear that Mubarak was leaving. If Egypt's foreign policy changes, which it certainly will, that will mean that Turkey and Egypt, which have been adversaries until now, will become closer." Adding a note of caution, Barkey said, "The last act in Egypt has yet to be written."

He also noted that there are two issues that Turkey will have to worry about. "The first is economic. Instability in Egypt and beyond is not good for Turkish businesses that have invested heavily in Egypt and elsewhere and hope to increase their exports to that region. Already, people are calculating that in one week Egypt has economically retreated by six months. If the turmoil continues, it will further shake the Egyptian economy and damage Turkish business interests. We should not expect a smooth transition; the Egyptian opposition is divided and the regime had made sure of that. The other economic downside is the price of oil, which jumped to over $90 a barrel in New York and to over $100 a barrel in London [for Brent crude]. Turkey imports all of its oil."

He also said there could be further negative consequences should this unrest spread to Syria, which he said has had a far more repressive regime than Egypt. "What position will the Turkish government take then? This unrest is unlike any other; the only countries that are immune are the Gulf countries [except for Bahrain]," he said.

Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) also warns of risks and potential rewards for Turkey. "On the risk side, Turkey may be exposed to regional security and economic consequences of a long period of chaos in Egypt, if it were to happen. It could disrupt many things: trade, investment, lots of things where Turkey has interests, even in terms of the Middle East peace process. A chaotic situation in Egypt -- or a government in Egypt that renounces agreements with Israel -- would not be a positive thing for Turkey." However, he said there were also possible positive outcomes. "Transition to something more democratic and representative in Egypt is in everybody's interest. People around the region are talking about the Turkish model as a future for Egypt. Relationships in the Middle East are no longer frozen but more fluid and provides even more opportunities for Turkey, which has already become very active in the region."

US treatment toward Turkey

Dr. Ömer Taşpınar from the Brookings Institution also agrees that if Egypt emerges as a democratic republic in the next year or so, after free and fair elections -- which he said was a big if-- Turkey will be a very popular and influential country, somewhat of a model in the eyes of the Egyptian state and its people. "Turkey would certainly benefit from democratization in the region. Turkey's soft power will further increase and it will become a more influential country in the eyes of truly democratic Arab regimes. In the meantime, Turkey is also aware that the status quo will not disappear easily. What if the current regimes find a way to muddle through with cosmetic changes? This is why Turkey, like the US, is torn between realpolitik and idealism. But, at the end of the day, I believe Turkey has a moral obligation to be on the right side of history. It was a mistake for Turkey to say nothing in defense of democracy and human rights when the Iranian Green movement was in the streets of Tehran protesting against fraudulent elections. Today, Turkey is much more critical of the Mubarak regime -- but only after Ankara realized the Mubarak regime is on its way out. There is a touch of opportunism here. I wish Erdoğan were more consistent in his support for democracy in the region."

Another important issue at stake is in what ways the new conditions in the region might influence US treatment toward Turkey. Would this make Turkey a more valuable ally, or an advisor, for Washington?

Tol says the troubled relationship between the US and Turkey is a cause of concern for the Obama administration. She notes that Erdoğan was the first statesman Obama called when the unrest in Egypt broke out. "That says a lot in terms of the future of US-Turkey relations. The US is somewhat confused and doesn't know how to read and react to the developments in the region. The US has historically established close relationships with regimes in the Middle East, not with people at the societal level, so it will have a weaker hand in the region. The US would certainly be more inclined to use Turkey's very positive public image in the Middle East for its own purposes."

Barkey also agrees that the recent demands for democracy in the region increase Turkey's importance for the US, but he also warns that there are also limits to that. "There is always the possibility that some Turkish actions will not be seen positively and can accentuate the already raw relations with [the US] Congress. The Obama administration may reach out, as it did this past weekend, to solicit, or at least appear to be soliciting, Turkey's advice and help." He said the two countries were likely to work together because both Ankara and Washington are worried about the possibility of change that was too rapid and radical. "They both have the same interest in evolutionary change. This explains why Turkey took its time before coming out in support of Mubarak's departure," he noted.

Lesser agrees that the changes make Turkey more valuable, also noting that Turkey was among the few countries in the region with whom Obama has had a series of calls with the leadership. "Turkey is clearly among the set of countries the administration regards as critical to building a regional consensus on what we would like to see in Egypt. The US regards Turkey as a stakeholder but also potentially as an important interlocutor in terms of future political and security arrangements in Egypt."

"Washington is always trapped in 'crisis management' and 'damage control' modes instead of long-term strategic thinking about the Middle East," says Taşpınar, adding that it is in the US's national interest to see Turkey's rising soft power in the Arab street as an asset. "Now that should co-opt and engage Turkey to promote the Middle East Peace Process."

Relations with Israel

These developments take place at a time when Israel's relations with Turkey as a regional power remains seriously strained -- a trend that has been in place for the past few years. Israel is now upset by the risk of losing another crucial ally in Egypt, and perhaps eventually even Jordan. Should this happen, how would Israel's policy vis-à-vis Turkey be affected? Would an increasingly lonelier Israeli government be more inclined to repair its relations with Turkey?

It is too early to tell how Israel will react to these changes, according to Barkey, who notes that even if Israel knew how to react, it would not rush for both domestic and external reasons. "The domestic consequences in Israel of this dramatic change are unknown. Will the people blame Bibi and Barack? Will they say that the post-Rabin policies were a failure? I do not know yet, and what we will hear in these early days is not indicative of future behavior," he said.

He continued: "Second, internationally Israel will feel weakened and may decide to further insulate itself until changes become more apparent. I do not believe that Turkish-Israeli relations are repairable in the medium term, let alone short term. Even if Israel were to agree to all the Turkish conditions, the Israelis know that Turkish policy on Israel will not change. So why bother? This is one way of thinking, of course, there are other ways the Israelis may work, and the most important is with the PA. That is the most beneficial route. This said, the situation is quite dangerous because it is pregnant to a major provocation, and there are enough actors who may want this, ranging from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and right wingers in Israel itself."

Tol also noted that Israel first has to re-evaluate its strategic policy with Palestine and also with Turkey. "All the dynamics in the region are changing, and Israel is becoming much more isolated. Israelis were quite angry at the US administration for its silence. Israel is not even quite sure or comfortable with its relationship with the United States. Even if the US is there for Israel, it is not going to be there in the region. This is a social movement started with people, and the US has no connections to that. The only relationship that will save Israel in the region is its relationship with Turkey. The US will pressure both parties." She said that Obama might have told Erdoğan that Turkey's alliance with Israel is more crucial than ever during the phone call after the uprising in Egypt broke out. She added, "Even neoconservatives are behaving more rationally in terms of believing that Israel made a mistake by allying itself with an 82-year-old autocrat."

The changes will serve as an incentive to repair relations with Turkey, according to Lesser, who is quick to note that there is no going back to the relations between Turkey and Israel in the 1990's. "I can see Israel is concerned about potential isolation in the region. On the other hand, there is a lot of attention on what Turkey is doing with Hamas in particular and also with others. So Turkey can expect more attention, but also more scrutiny. I would agree that it is in the best of Israel to repair its relations with Turkey. Israel can have no interest in further isolation."

Reconciliation between the two countries is of the utmost importance to overall peace in the region, Taşpınar noted. "Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has a chance to be in government in Egypt, peace in the Middle East and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question are more urgent than ever. Turkey can help," he said. For reconciliation to take place, Washington needs to mediate between Tel Aviv and Ankara, Taşpınar asserts.

"Israel cannot afford to lose Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan at the same time. The US should be much more active in trying to reconcile Ankara and Tel Aviv. Once this is achieved, the next step should be to re-launch the Syrian-Israeli dialogue under Turkish mediation."


Güncelleme Tarihi: 12 Şubat 2011, 16:19

Muhammed Öylek