By Barry Rubin
Two of the region’s most important countries—Egypt and Turkey—are at a crossroads right now. Egypt has the chance to again be the Arab world’s central power; in contrast, Turkey’s government is throwing away the opportunity to become a major diplomatic player in the region while hammering the last nail into the coffin of its chance for European Union membership.
Let’s consider Egypt first. In the Gaza war’s aftermath, everyone is asking Cairo its preferences for policing the border with Hamas’s radical Islamist semi-state next door. Egypt must take the lead in any new arrangement to stop arms’ smuggling. Moreover, that country is now the Palestinian Authority’s indispensible patron and will determine whether a coherent international effort will be made to bring down Hamas. Any hope for an Arab-Israeli peace process or, more likely, simple stability is riding with Egypt now.
But that’s not all. In recent months, Egypt has taken decisive public steps toward being the leader of moderate Arab resistance to the Iran-Syria axis, radical Islamism, and—in most Arabs’ minds—a Shia threat.
Can the aging President Husni Mubarak put himself at the head of a moderate Arab coalition? Can he and his colleagues play tutor to a new U.S. government looking for a new strategy in the region? Will his successor, hopefully someone of toughness and experience, continue an anti-radical strategy or seek to appease the extremists at home? On the answers to these questions the Middle East’s future may depend.
Note that President Barrack Obama has no special link to any regional country, in sharp contrast to his two Bush predecessors who had ties with Saudi Arabia. A clever strategy could build a strong Obama-Egypt connection in which Washington would look to Cairo for ideas. Otherwise, Obama could be drawn into making concession after concession to Tehran and Damascus. European countries, notably France and Britain, would prefer to work with Egypt as well.
Remember, too, that for Egypt this isn’t merely a foreign policy issue. The critical question is whether the country can put together a post-Husni Mubarak system that will stand for decades against the Muslim Brotherhood’s challenge. Successes for Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas are not only defeats for Egypt’s regional posture but will inspire more domestic unrest.
So it is going to be Egypt-Saudi Arabia or Iran-Syria; moderate Arab nationalists or extreme Islamists; those who want regional stability or those who prefer war and bloodshed. Mubarak has the chance to leave a great legacy. It’s up to him. The ball is in Egypt’s court.
Then there’s Turkey. We have known for some time that the Ataturk era is over, but now we see that an Islamist-oriented period has begun. It isn’t just the unprecedented high level of abuse aimed against Israel. Nor is it merely the statements verging on the antisemitic which have frightened Turkish Jews more than at any time in modern history. It is also the increasing confidence—one might say arrogance—of the ruling AKP party, more openly pushing an Islamist-oriented agenda, and in some ways apparently drifting closer to Iran and Syria.
What is motivating the AKP to look more and more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing? The most important factor is its success. From election to election, the AKP increases its base of support. The opposition remains divided and incompetent. The party’s leaders may increasingly be thinking they will be in power forever and inclined to make sure their wish comes true.
And so the media is intimidated; the army is curbed by periodic arrests in retaliation for alleged coup plans. A new constitution is being written for the country. Systematically, institutions are being taken over: the party’s men are put into the bureaucracy; its controlling shadow falls on the universities, and it installs new judges in the courts.
The presidents of Iran and Sudan are feted as heroes, the would-be mass murders of the first and the already implemented killings of the second are ignored. The first got a security cooperation treaty; both obtained offers of more Turkish investments in their gas=producing fields. No wonder the AKP is so friendly with Iran, Sudan, and Hamas—they view them as ideological fellows.
As the Turkish analyst Soner Cagaptay put it, “It appears that [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, “has finally answered the question of where Turkey belongs--and that in his opinion, it's not with the West.” Almost exactly seventy years after his death, the republic’s founder Ataturk is no doubt rolling in his grave which, by the way, the AKP no longer invites visiting Islamist leaders to visit when they come to Ankara.
It is not all a free ride for Turkey, though. Erdogan has thrown away the economically valuable Israeli tourist trade—advice: go to Georgia or Azerbaijan instead—and his country’s diplomatically prestigious ability to mediate in disputes. The Turkish government was proud to host the Israel-Syria talks but it is doubtful if Israel will trust it again in that position. And as for the idea of Turkish participation in guarding Gaza’s borders against smuggling, Erdogan’s inciteful hate Israel speeches will exclude the country from that role also.
Even worse, there are many in the European Union looking for new reasons to keep Turkey out of that select club. The AKP’s extremist turn gives ample evidence of an Islamist rather than a moderate, “modern” orientation.
The Turkish government’s open partnership with radical forces horrifies many Turks and will lose Ankara lots of friends abroad. It is not too late to pull back, but it is likely the AKP will go even further, fueled by likely successes in local elections this summer.
For Egypt, in contrast, there is a great opportunity.
Will Ankara’s loss be balanced by Cairo’s gain?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To subscribe for free to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.