x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Turkey's diplomatic ambitions dwarf its real achievements

Erdogan scored a diplomatic victory by criticising Mubarak's regime, but Turkey is in danger of overreaching on its foreign policy.

As historians construct a timetable leading to Hosni Mubarak's resignation, most will mention Recep Tayyip Erdogan's landmark "Cairo speech" more than a week ago, in which the Turkish prime minister urged the autocratic Mr Mubarak to "listen to both your conscience and your people's voice".

Speaking in front of his own party this month, Mr Erdogan did not mince words when discussing Turkey's role in the region. "My dear brothers, we are pursuing a foreign policy with character," Mr Erdogan said. "Turkey is saying no to the oppressors. It is challenging what was blindly accepted until now. It is calling the murderers murderers. It is destroying taboos." In short, he concluded, Turkey's policies could change history.

The address was meant to place Turkey firmly on the side of reform, democracy and a progressive Middle East agenda. It was also a message to the international community as Ankara continues to press an aggressive policy of engagement in the Middle East. Egypt is in our sphere, he seemed to be saying. Indeed, as US credibility falters and Iranian influence persists, Turkey has assiduously worked to carve out a space for itself in every major Middle East negotiation in recent years.

The Justice and Development Party's (AKP) list of foreign policy goals is long. Turkish officials attempted to mediate Lebanon's political crisis after Saudi Arabia gave up last month; they brokered a nuclear fuel-swap deal with Iran last year when talks with the West broke down; they were close to facilitating a detente between Syria and Israel in 2008; they've offered to mediate between Hamas and Fatah - a role traditionally played by Egypt; and last year they even floated the idea of opening an office for the Taliban in Turkey to move talks along in Afghanistan.

While all of these initiatives have raised Ankara's regional standing, none of them has ended in a policy success. Overconfidence as much as regional stability motivates these projects; Turkey's foreign ministry seems unable to cope with such an ambitious agenda. "Although there is much to suggest that Turkey's influence in the world will in fact grow, Ankara's confidence appears dangerously close to becoming hubris," wrote Professor Svante Cornell, of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, in a recent article for the Washington Institute.

The interest in Egypt, however, seems to have both a domestic and international slant. With parliamentary elections slated for July, a show of strength has bolstered the AKP's popularity with its middle-class constituency and answered domestic criticism that Ankara had not reacted strongly enough.

The foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu seems to have included Egypt in his "zero-problem policy". Unstable neighbours make bad neighbours, a maxim that has steered Turkey foreign relations for the past nine years.

Thus Turkey's muscular policy on Egypt, a country that it does not have particularly close ties with (although Mr Davutoglu stressed that Egypt was a "very dear friend in the Middle East" shortly after Mr Mubarak resigned).

But while Turkey's newfound role in the region is popular among the public, its involvement has angered others. "Only Egyptians can decide what is good for them, how and when they can do it," Abderahman Salaheldin, Egypt's ambassador to Turkey, told the Turkish paper Zaman before Mr Mubarak's resignation. His comments come after reported diplomatic exchanges from Cairo sent a clear message to Ankara to back off.

These sentiments echo the contradictory dynamic that Turkey may face as it presses an ambitious policy of engagement throughout the Middle East. While people across the region may generally welcome Turkey's influence, governments are much more likely to push back.

And yet, supporting Egypt was a smart move - the only move, really, that Turkey could take as a country eager to flaunt its democratic credentials. If Egypt emerges as a more democratic nation, Turkey will be seen as having been one of the few countries in the region pressing for change - a boost to its reputation at home, in the West and in public perception.

The advocacy of greater freedom, democracy and humanitarian principles is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique. Some have observed that Mr Erdogan's speech only came after a phone call from the White House. But it is a line few others in the region have expressed - and speaking when others keep silent is what has come to characterise Mr Erdogan and his party. As one Twitter user said after the speech: "Again, PM Erdogan takes an honorable stand while Arab governments are watching."

Indeed, Turkey's standing in the region has been generated largely by its bullish prime minister. He cemented his regional reputation in 2009, when he stormed off stage at the World Economic Forum after accusing Shimon Peres of war crimes in Gaza. "You know very well how to kill," he fumed at the Israeli president, before throwing his microphone down and promising never to return to Davos.

More than 5,000 people met him at the airport with flowers and banners upon his return. The next year, when nine Turkish citizens lost their lives in an Israeli raid on ships bound for Gaza, his incendiary criticism sparked street protests in Egypt and Palestine.

Man of the people Mr Erdogan may be. But as Egypt struggles through a post-Mubarak era, many may discover that the man is one thing, and the grand ambition of his country is another.