Turkey’s Sultan Deplores The Pharaoh’s Fall

The army coup in Egypt has exposed the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the European Union and the United States for unprincipled doublespeak.

The only country that took a clear-cut position right at the outset is Turkey, which in turn presages new fault lines in the politics of the Middle East.

The autocratic Persian Gulf oligarchies rushed to celebrate the overthrow of the elected government under Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah dispatched his congratulatory cable to Cairo within hours of the announcement of Morsi's ouster.

The sense of jubilation is palpable that the Muslim Brotherhood, which spearheads popular stirrings against the Persian Gulf regimes, has lost power in Egypt. For once, real politics surges, breaking through the facade that it is sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite strife that constitutes the Middle East's number one problem today.

As for the European and the American leaderships, they are afraid to call the coup by its real name because their own laws might otherwise prevent them from carrying on business as usual with Egypt's army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Dealing with Sissi's regime in Cairo is an absolute must for the US' regional strategy because Israel's security is involved. By threatening to "suspend" the military aid, the Obama administration hopes to keep Sissi on tight leash.

Erdogan's compass

Thus, it has been left to Turkey to call a spade a spade. Just when Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come under Western criticism for his autocratic tendencies, he takes to the podium to champion the cause of liberal democracy in Egypt.

The statements from Ankara have been strongly condemnatory of the coup in Egypt. Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu said,

A leader who came [to power] with the support of the people can only be removed through elections. It is unacceptable for democratically elected leaders, for whatever reason, to be toppled through illegal means, even a coup… Turkey will take sides with the Egyptian people.

One of the deputy chairmen and the spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] Huseyin Celik spoke bluntly:

I curse the dirty coup in Egypt. I hope the broad masses who brought Morsi to power, will defend their votes… we have to applaud Morsi's unyielding stance. Blood will be shed if Morsi supporters clash with the military and anti-Morsi groups… Yet, we do not say Morsi and his supporters should just swallow this coup.

Erdogan himself took to the high ground to ridicule the European Union's double standard. He asked,

Isn't the West siding with democracy and making efforts to implement democracy in countries? This is a test of sincerity and the West failed the test again. There is no such thing as a 'democratic coup'. The European Union disregarded its own values once again by not calling the army's coup a coup… Morsi made mistakes; he can make mistakes. Is there anyone who did not make any mistake?

Undoubtedly, this is Erdogan's finest hour on the political theater of the Muslim Middle East. Yet, being a gifted politician, why is he doing this? What are his calculations?

Without doubt, Erdogan hopes to burnish his image and standing as a democrat, which got tarnished lately following the government's handling of popular protests in Turkey. He is exposing his western detractors to be hollow men.

Second, he is reasserting on an ideological plane that democracy and Islam are compatible. This has resonance in Turkish politics. Third, Morsi has been Erdogan's close friend and ally.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has launched a vigorous diplomatic campaign to "undo" Egypt's coup. Ankara's suggestion is that there is no need of an interim government and immediate elections should be held.

However, as Hurriyet newspaper reported, Turkey is finding itself alone and its "deepest disappointment came form its prominent Arab allies, namely, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which were frontrunners in congratulating the new transitional leadership and the army that conducted the coup."

Nonetheless, Erdogan will persist with his campaign. He knows he is endearing himself to the pan-Islamist sentiment in the Middle East and in the process also will consolidate his political base in Turkey during the crucial election year that looms ahead. Erdogan is by far outstripping any of those, both within and outside Turkey, who preached to him the virtues of democracy.

The Turkish assessment is that the coup is at a crossroads and it is a matter of time before the Egyptian public opinion begins to militate against the junta, which makes the return of the Brotherhood all but inevitable.

Sultan's resolve

Woven into all this is the critical dimension with regard to the politics within Turkey, which has been in a state of ferment and is poised to move into unchartered waters in the coming months as the country heads for a highly sensitive political transition next year that would have huge bearing for the future of the AKP and indeed Erdogan's own tumultuous political career.

The protests in Turkey threaten to morph into a confrontation between "secularists" and Islamists and there is also the ubiquitous presence of the military claiming to be the Praetorian guards of the state.

Erdogan still remains the master of his house, but weeds are growing beneath his feet. His rift with President Abdullah Gul, who harbors ambitions of remaining a second term as president, is widening and there are rumors that Gul is working on a political realignment that splits the AKP and creates a broad anti-Erdogan coalition.

Indeed, Gul took a markedly different stance from Erdogan apropos the protests in Turkey, distinguishing himself as a moderate and reasonable man willing to tolerate dissent. His remarks on the coup in Egypt echoed Obama's and the EU's.

Suffice to say, from the point of view of any of the external protagonists who could be involved with the "regime change" in Egypt directly or indirectly – US, Israel, EU and Saudi Arabia, principally – Gul makes a far more congenial figure today as the captain of the Turkish ship.

But Erdogan, on the other hand, just won't bend like Beckam. His nickname as a midfielder used to be 'Imam Beckenbauer' – an allusion to German football star Beckenbauer. And today he is also the sultan. Above all, he may just about call the bluff of the Egyptian coup, too.

Without doubt, the resounding statement by Iran on Monday condemning the Egyptian military and alleging Western and Israeli involvement in the coup strengthens Erdogan's platform. Whereas he seemed a lone campaigner so far, Tehran's decision to join hands changes the matrix.

The two key regional powers in the Middle East have now openly challenged the military junta in Egypt. It will have a profound impact on the so-called Arab Street. A Turkish-Iranian platform will be hard to resist, in geopolitical terms, for the coup's Arab enthusiasts – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, principally.

For Israel too, the sense of jubilation may prove short-lived. Israel's best hope is that the coup in Egypt would split the Muslim Middle East, but from all appearances, ironically, it might end up unifying the forces of Islamism in the region.

Thus, on Monday, again, the alarming scale of violence let loose by the military on the Brotherhood has prompted the Nusra Party, the Salafist party supported by Saudi Arabia, to distance itself from the interim government.

This is the first major crack to appear in the phalanx of disparate elements that comprised the anti-Morsi putsch.

Significantly, the highly respected liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei who represents the Tamarod (the rebel movement which spearheaded the protests on Tahrir Square) has also called for an "independent enquiry" to look into the violence. He may have sounded a dissenting voice.

The military junta has not been able to cobble together a credible interim government so far. On top of it all, the Brotherhood is displaying such grit to resist the military takeover that has caught everyone by surprise.

Evidently, the Brotherhood doesn't intend to sit out in the cold for another 85 years to reclaim political power.

All this points toward a strong possibility that the stance taken by Turkey (and Iran) may be vindicated ultimately. These latest stirrings would only strengthen the sultan's resolve that he is indeed on the "right side of "history."

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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