Turkey, an increasingly isolated regional actor; the lost path of impartiality
By Astrid Vanackere, MEDEA Institute
On Saturday, November 23 Turkey announced that it downgraded diplomatic relations with Egypt. The announcement came after Egypt made a similar move earlier that Saturday and requested the Turkish Ambassador Hüseyin Avni Botsali to leave the country. This happened the day after Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called for the release of the ousted president Morsi and criticized the Egyptian interim government once again. In return Egypt accused Turkey of interference in the internal affairs of the country and insulting the will of the Egyptian people and hence took action. Accordingly, Turkey decided to expel the Egyptian ambassador, who was not in the country at that time.
The diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Egypt emphasize once again that the zero problems policy with the core concept of equidistance (not interfere with internal affairs of neighboring countries), is under pressure since the start of and in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
Just over a year ago the Turkish-Egyptian relations seemed however very promising. Erdogan visited the country in September 2011, before the Egyptian presidential elections, accompanied by six ministers and some 200 businessmen and was given a hero’s welcome. One week after this substantial visit, Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu announced his vision for a strategic alliance between Turkey and Egypt calling it the ‘Axis of democracy.’
Turkey opted to strengthen the economic relations between the two countries at a time the outcome of the revolution in Egypt was unknown. Following the election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood the bilateral relations were enhanced and plans were made to increase the bilateral trade transactions.
But this is all in the past: since president Morsi was ousted from power in July this year, the diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Egypt are high.
The tensions reached a first peak in August, when Egyptian security forces cracked down pro-Morsi protesters camps, organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. The outcome was that both countries recalled their ambassadors and Erdogan uttered some insults directed at the Egyptian interim government by describing the incident as undemocratic and by proclaiming Egypt is currently suffering from state terrorism.
Erdogan also dragged Israel into the dispute, and accused the Egyptian military of conspiring with Israel to overthrow the Morsi government of which he claimed to have evidence. An Egyptian government spokesmen reverberated by calling Erdogan an ‘agent of the West.’ Then in October the joint military exercises between the two countries were suspended and on November 23 a new round of ‘expelling ambassadors’ began. This attitude raises the question whether Erdogan’s pompous approach undermines the effectiveness of the Turkish foreign policy. Turkey deploring the Egyptian coup is somewhat understandable. Good ties between the AKP ( Justice and Development Party) and the Morsi government were part of Erdogan’s ambitions for regional leadership, but Turkey has been too busy emphasizing the Egyptian democratic success to see the deficiencies of the Morsi regime. After the deposition of Morsi, Erdogan became one of the most outspoken foreign critics of the Egyptian interim government. This bombastic approach brought the zero problems with neighbors even more damage.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring the zero problems with neighbor’s policy of Turkey has been faltering. Having no problems with neighboring countries means not intervening in internal affairs. This was achievable as long as the status quo persisted in the region. The Arab revolutions forced Turkey out of its non-intervention zone and made the country end up in the jumble of regional conflicts. The concept of equidistance ended up in the gutter and Turkey chose to be a partisan actor. Although the struggle with the foreign policy in the Middle East was inevitable, the choice of Turkey to be bias rather isolated the country than increasing its influence in the region. Nevertheless, regional cooperation still has potential and can improve long-term security situation in the region. If Turkey wants to achieve regional cooperation and maintain its influence, the country will, however have to persuade a more pragmatic approach and adopt a more nuanced attitude towards internal conflicts in neighboring countries.