Which side is the winner of the growing diplomatic row between Egypt and Turkey? While bilateral relations become worse, the perception among international observers is the same: It is yet another severe blow to the image of Turkey in Egypt, and its regional policy based on “zero problems.”
OnSaturday, Nov. 23, Egypt rather unexpectedly declared the ambassador of Turkey, Huseyin Avni Botsali, persona non grata and asked him to leave immediately. Ankara reciprocated swiftly by summoning the Egyptian charge d’affaires, and declaring the ambassador (who had already left the country) “undesirable.”
Egypt's Foreign Ministry said the decision was taken because of Ankara's continued "interference" in Egyptian affairs. It said it will scale back its diplomatic relations with Turkey to the level of charge d'affaires. This is a new phase in the deteriorating relations between the two countries since August, when ambassadors were mutually recalled after a massacre of demonstrators protesting the July 3 coup that removed President Mohammed Morsi from office. The Turkish ambassador later returned, but Egypt refused to send its envoy back to Ankara.
"We are saddened by this," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "But responsibility before history belongs to Egypt's temporary administration, which came to power under the extraordinary circumstances of the July 3 coup."
Part of the deeper background behind the diplomatic dispute were the latest blunt remarks by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on his way to Russia commented on the 100-day anniversary of the Rabia al-Adawiya massacre in Cairo.
“I applaud Mr. Morsi's stance in front of the judiciary. I have no respect for those who are trying him," Erdogan said. On his return, after being told of the Egyptian decision to downgrade relations, Erdogan did not back down. First, while in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon, he made the four-finger gesture used by the supporters of Muslim Brotherhood, which refers to the massacre. He also said, “I am a person who likes to stand tall, but not to bristle. So I will never show respect for those who come to power by a coup. The love of the people of Egypt is in my heart, as well as with my party members and the Turkish people. Have no doubt about that.”
It is very doubtful, though, that these words will have a soothing effect on ordinary Egyptians. The debate on Erdogan, the AKP (Turkey’s Freedom and Justice Party) and Turkey in general in the country since the ousting of the Morsi government has steadily displayed a change of the mood which shifted from admiration and respect to skepticism and often contempt for Erdogan’s rhetoric, which was perceived as patronizing — even colonial — as it often touched issues seen as purely domestic ones. This also builds on the experiences during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that the AKP government pursued a sectarian line, neglecting relations with other political actors.
But the reactions in Egyptian media showed that bitterness about Erdogan’s rhetoric unified, rather than divided, segments both secular and Islamist in the country. It is clear that he had underestimated the well known national pride of Egyptians in general, which surpasses other arguments on the coup, no matter how legitimate and moral they can be. As a result, both capitals — crucial for a fruitful regional cooperation, meddling and peace-making — stand even further afar from each other due to personal factors.
As a consequence, economic relations may suffer. As Kadri Gürsel noted recently in Al-Monitor, citing Turkish diplomats, “The volume of trade between Egypt and Turkey has boomed by an amazing 900% over the past five and a half years, reaching $5.9 billion. Around 480 Turkish companies have invested $2 billion in Egypt. These figures alone are enough to indicate the importance of bilateral relations. It is beyond debate that bilateral relations cannot be sustained in a constant state of crisis as the AKP makes a point of its objection to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Egyptian authorities have since the summer shown that they can make things difficult for Turkish businesses through bureaucratic channels, and it should not be surprising if negative measures follow now.
On the political side, the row will certainly add to Turkey’s recently coined “worthy solitude” in the neighborhood, which in translation means another backlash for its “zero-problem neighborhood” vision. Currently, Ankara has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and Cyprus; it pulled back its ambassadors from Israel, Syria and, now, Egypt. It continues to have a shaky relationship with the Palestinian Authority, due to its “favoring” of Hamas.
Erdogan’s remarks come also after John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said that the Egyptian revolution "got stolen by the one single-most organized entity in the state, which was the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” This division marks sharp differences between the two allies once more, but this time more clearly. Except for Qatar, Turkey now stands alone in keeping a hard confrontational line with the military-led Egyptian government, which, it is apparent, will not shy away from escalating the crisis to new heights, should sound reason not prevail.
The Today’s Zaman daily in Istanbul referred to the independent Egyptian daily Al Watan on Saturday in saying that the international members of the Muslim Brotherhood continued "their plotting" against Egypt in a meeting in İstanbul. The paper was referring to a human rights conference in which participants said they will take legal actions against Egypt's new leaders for what it said were "massacres" against supporters of Morsi. This is a sign that Cairo, like Damascus, will keep an eye on the nature of opposition activities on Turkish soil.
The only Turkish leader who is trying to reverse the deterioration is President Abdullah Gul. In an interview with TRT TV, he expressed hope that “our relations will again get back on track,” adding that this is an "extraordinary period" in Egypt and that Turkey hopes the situation with Egypt is "temporary." In an earlier article for the Financial Times, Gul had marked a very different, more reconciliatory line, distancing himself from Erdogan by proposing inclusive dialogue with all parties for a quick return to democracy.