Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to see Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delegitimized and isolated internationally appear about to receive yet another blow as Qatar moves to normalize its ties with Cairo. It's Erdogan who appears more isolated internationally today than Sisi, who continues to gain international recognition while consolidating his power base at home.
The latest development in the Middle East represented by Qatar’s move also compounds what Erdogan’s recently appointed “shadow foreign minister” Ibrahim Kalin once referred to as “precious loneliness,” in an effort to bring an ethical and principled twist to Turkey’s increasing regional isolation.
Qatar is the only Arab country that Erdogan has visited in recent years and received high-level visitors from. These visits have also been used by Erdogan’s supporters to prove that the region is not as closed to him as critics are claiming.
Erdogan’s last visit to Doha was in September and followed July's visit to Turkey by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar. In an indication of the frequency of these high-level contacts between the two countries, Tamim was back in Ankara for official talks last week.
Turkey and Qatar have provided strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt’s ousted and imprisoned former President Mohammed Morsi, even though many Arab governments have fallen in line with Cairo and branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
A series of agreements, including a memorandum of understanding for establishing a high-level strategic committee, were signed between the two countries during Tamim’s visit last week with a view to deepening ties and expanding cooperation on regional issues.
Speaking at a joint news conference Dec. 19, following his talks with the Qatari emir, Erdogan said Turkey and Qatar had always acted together in the Arab and Islamic worlds. “We never drifted apart. We always stuck together, in solidarity, and declared our support for the oppressed of the world as a shared attribute. Our determination in this regard will continue,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s remarks were primarily a reference to the Sunnis in Syria, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Erdogan has been blasting the international community over what he claims is its failure to condemn and isolate Sisi for ousting Morsi, and for banning the Brotherhood, which Erdogan considers to be a legitimate and democratic organization.
During his address to the UN General Assembly in September, Erdogan uttered harsh words for Egypt under Sisi, much to the annoyance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and elicited an official reprimand from Cairo and the United Arab Emirates.
Erdogan also used the recent visit to Turkey by Pope Francis to condemn countries and leaders that he claimed were legitimizing Sisi by receiving him as an official guest. Sisi was welcomed at the Vatican only days before Erdogan uttered his remark during his joint news conference with the pope.
Qatar’s move to normalize ties with Egypt — which analysts say is the result of pressure from Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, and Qatar’s strategic ally the United States — represents a fresh blow to Erdogan’s efforts against Sisi.
Qatar’s decision in September to expel the exiled leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a move that had signaled a change of tack in its position on the Brotherhood, was already an annoyance to Erdogan, who was in Doha on the day that news of this expulsion broke.
Given Ankara’s close ties with Qatar, though, Erdogan did not criticize Doha’s decision but merely restricted himself to declaring that the expelled Brotherhood leaders could come to Turkey if they wanted. Qatar’s latest move aimed at normalizing ties with Egypt was also highly embarrassing for Erdogan in terms of its timing.
It's unclear whether Erdogan knew during his news conference with Tamim in Ankara last week, when he was underlining “solidarity” with Qatar in “support for the oppressed of the world,” that the Qatari emir’s special envoy, Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdel Rahman Al Thani, was to meet Sisi in Cairo the next day.
The statement from Tamim’s office after the Cairo meeting merely compounded Erdogan’s embarrassment. It said: “The security of Egypt is important for the security of Qatar,” adding, “The two countries are linked by deep and fraternal ties.”
This provided more proof of just how isolated Erdogan has become in trying to delegitimize Sisi internationally. Retired Ambassador Suha Umar, a former Turkish ambassador to Jordan and a critic of the government’s Middle East policies, sees nothing surprising in Doha’s change of position with regard to Egypt.
“There is a serious degree of self-delusion in Ankara in terms of our relations with Qatar. We are supposed to be in close cooperation with that country but it was never clear what these areas of cooperation really were,” Umar told Al-Monitor.
“Qatar is among the first Arab countries to establish relations with Israel. It also has strategic military ties with the United States. When you add to this the way the West is approaching Sisi it is clear that Qatar is behaving normally,” Umar added.
Pointing out that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has failed to grasp the realities governing the region, Umar said Ankara’s current regional policies were seriously out of tune with these realities. “It is not possible for today’s Turkey to be a player in the Middle East,” he said.
Indirect acknowledgment of the fact that it will be hard for Ankara to sustain its current policies, especially regarding Egypt, also came from an unexpected quarter this week. In remarks that contrasted with Erdogan’s hard-line position on the topic, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told Al Jazeera Turk in an interview Dec. 20 that there was a need to improve ties with Egypt.
“Turkey may have had a different reaction from a democratic point of view to Sisi’s toppling of Morsi, but there was a transition period in that country after that,” Arinc said, pointing to the presidential elections that Sisi won.
“We say that was unhealthy also. … But there is an actual situation today that the world more or less accepts as normal. Sisi is able to visit the US and Western countries. We have to rapidly develop our ties with Egypt on a healthy basis. Maybe Egypt will have to take the first step, but we have to secure this,” Arinc added.
Diplomatic sources in Ankara have told Al-Monitor that there are concrete indications that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is also unhappy about Turkey’s regional isolation, and recognizes that improving ties with Egypt will be an important step in overcoming this.
It's Erdogan, however, who's calling the shots and establishing the tone in Ankara’s foreign policy. His hard-line positions appear set to keep Turkey locked in its “precious loneliness” for the foreseeable future, even if Ankara’s ostensible allies such as Qatar start fine-tuning their policies to bring them in line with the “actual situation today” in the region mentioned by Arinc.