x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Turkey's support for Morsi jeopardises ties with Egypt

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government sees the removal of the Islamist president as a setback for Ankara's ambition to encourage Islam-based democracy in the region.

Protestors hold pictures of the ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi at a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. Sedat Suna / EPA
Protestors hold pictures of the ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi at a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. Sedat Suna / EPA

ISTANBUL // Turkey is risking tensions in its ties with Egypt by emerging as one of the few countries to strongly criticise the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power, analysts say.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has condemned the Egyptian military's move against Mr Morsi, a close Turkish ally, as a "coup".

He also has said repeatedly that he does not recognise Egypt's new rulers and has confirmed reports that he was refusing to talk with the new leadership in Cairo. "I still regard Mr Morsi as president in Egypt," he said.

After the overthrow of Mr Morsi, Mr Erdogan, a leader known for his strong words, accused the West and Middle Eastern nations of failing to stand up for democratic values.

"Why don't you speak out?" he asked a recent meeting of ambassadors from Western, Arab and other nations. The Egyptian envoy in the Turkish capital, Abderahman Salaheldin, was invited to the meeting, but did not attend.

Yesterday, the prime minister condemned Saturday's early morning violence that left dozens dead in Cairo. "In Egypt, democracy was massacred, national aspirations were massacred, and now the nation is being massacred," he said.

While western governments have avoided harsh criticism after Mr Morsi's fall, some countries in the Middle East reacted with relief to Mr Morsi's overthrow, reactions that Mr Erdogan described as hypocritical.

"Countries that embrace and care about democracy should not behave with double standards towards events like the ones in Egypt and should say something is wrong when it is wrong," Mr Erdogan said.

He insisted that his position was not a result of Turkey's support for Mr Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a close political ally of Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative government.

"If the coup in Egypt had been directed against the opposition and not against Morsi, we still would have expressed our position clearly," the Turkish prime minister said, according to excerpts of his speech posted on the website of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Mr Erdogan said Turkey had paid a heavy price after military interventions against elected governments in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.

In 2007, the military publicly threatened to unseat Mr Erdogan, but the prime minister humiliated the generals by calling a snap election and winning it with a landslide. Since then, the political power of Turkey's military has been greatly diminished.

"As a country that paid dearly in the struggle for democracy, we do not want the people of Egypt, whom we see as our brothers, to suffer the same pain, to pay the same price," Mr Erdogan told the ambassadors.

The political parties represented in Turkey's parliament have echoed this view.

In a joint statement this month, the AKP, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party, demanded that Egypt's military hand back power "to the people".

Fatma Tasdemir, an analyst at the Strategic Institute Ankara, a think tank in the Turkish capital, said Turkey's approach was based on the view that democratic rule throughout the Middle East was good for Turkey, a rising regional power with an export-based economy.

"If the region is at peace, we are at peace as well," Ms Tasdemir told The National by telephone last week.

For Mr Erdogan's government, the fall of Mr Morsi is in particular a setback in its ambition to play a leading role in cultivating democratic systems in the Middle East rooted in Islamic movements. Last year, Turkey provided a financial package of $2bn (Dh7.35bn) to help the Egyptian economy.

Nebahat Tanriverdi of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara said Turkey was concerned that the removal of Mr Morsi could develop into a broader crisis for the much-touted "Turkish model" of religiously conservative parties governing successfully through democratic elections.

"Turkey's reaction is to defend that model in the region" as an example for other countries making the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy after the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Ms Tanriverdi wrote in an email in response to questions by The National.

Mr Erdogan's repeated reference to the central role of elections in a democracy was also a response to the recent wave of unrest in Turkey, during which protesters accused the Erdogan government of ignoring public demands, she added.

With Mr Erdogan so public in his expressions of disapproval over recent events in Egypt, ties between Ankara and Cairo are likely to be tense for some time to come.

"It is obvious that the most influential actor in the Egypt - the army - is not likely to tolerate Turkey's reaction," Ms Tanriverdi wrote.

Mr Erdogan revealed last week that he had refused to speak to Egypt's new vice president Mohammed ElBaradei, because Mr ElBaradei, appointed after the removal of Mr Morsi, lacked democratic legitimacy.

Mr Salaheldin, Egypt's ambassador in Ankara, warned that Turkey stood much to lose by siding so vociferously with Mr Morsi.

"I advise all my interlocutors in Turkey to have contacts and dialogue not just with one group, but with all political groups," the diplomat told the Hurriyet newspaper this week.

"If Turkish-Egyptian ties suffer, Turkey's ties with the whole Arab world will suffer," Mr Salaheldin said.

There are some signs that Ankara is trying to avoid a serious rift in relations with Cairo.

In an effort to keep communication channels open with Egypt's new government, high-ranking Turkish officials including president Abdullah Gul and foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu met the Egyptian ambassador in recent weeks.

Mr Gul also sent a note to his newly appointed Egyptian counterpart Adly Mansour this week to mark Egypt's Revolution Day on July 23, Turkish media reported.