Erdogan and Sisi: Does a Potential New AllianceThreaten Regional Stability?
For the first time since 2013, Turkey is turning towards Egypt – but backing Sisi could provoke a backlash across the Middle East argues Sam Hamad
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party (AKP) have always played a contradictory role within Turkish and regional politics.
His Government is a hybrid regime. It is ostensibly democratic, yet AKP has accrued vast power in the face of a weakened opposition. Since the failed 2016 coup, Erdogan has consolidated that power by arresting journalists, as well as targeting the historically oppressed Kurdish minority, including via military attacks.
But the main contradiction in this rising regime has been Erdogan’s stance in Egypt and Syria.
This includes the way Erdogan has robbed Assad of his ‘war on terror’ narrative by equipping the National Syrian Army in Idlib to fight both the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates. Combined with this, it is the Turkish military presence in Idlib that stops the last remaining liberated province of Syria being apocalyptically conquered and cleansed by Assad and Russia.
But in Egypt, the situation is more complex.
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Broken Alliances and Proxy Wars
Since a military coup against the democratically elected Government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Erdogan has refused to accept Abdel Fattah El Sisi as the legitimate leader of Egypt.
Instead, Erdogan’s Turkey considered Morsi to be the rightful President of Egypt right up until his death in suspicious circumstances, deemed to be an ‘arbitrary killing’ by the UN.
During this period, Turkey provided refuge to thousands of Egypt’s exiled dissidents, many of whom are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a member. Erdogan blamed Sisi’s regime for the death, calling Morsi a “martyr.”
Erdogan’s hostility towards Sisi’s rule existed against a backdrop of various proxy wars, including in Libya. While SISI joined the UAE, Russia and Saudi Arabia to back the would-be tyrant Khalifa Haftar in his crusade against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (now the Government of National Unity or GNU), Turkey intervened decisively to stop the coalition backing Haftar’s attempted overthrow of the GNU.
This was, in part, because the GNU contained democratic forces affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Haftar, echoing Sisi and the UAE, had vowed to smash. It represented a major defeat for Sisi’s Egypt.
This dynamic was also behind the GGC blockade against Qatar, which was backed by Egypt and opposed by Turkey. The blockade, which came into force in 2017, began after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt accused Qatar “supporting terrorism.”
Now, with the blockade effectively ending, diplomatic boundaries are shifting again.
It seems Turkey’s Government is looking to thaw relations with Sisi. In an unprecedented move last month, Turkish authorities advised Istanbul-based TV channels affiliated with the Brotherhood to stop airing criticism of Sisi.
Economy or Humanity?
The most obvious motives Turkey has in its apparent outreach to Sisi are economic.
While trade between Egypt and Turkey has continued despite the diplomatic crisis, the trade relationship has not significantly expanded.
In fact, Egypt has cut imports from Turkey by almost half a billion dollars. At the same time, Turkey’s economy has been in the doldrums with it losing access to several formerly lucrative markets in the region, most notably with Saudi Arabia.
Better access to Egypt’s large economy would be extremely beneficial from a Turkish perspective.
But what is economically beneficial to regimes often has harmful consequences to people.
Despite its domestic contradictions, the AKP has served as a model for ‘Islamist’ forces in the region, with those forces embracing its model of Islamic democracy in direct contradiction to the Salafi-jihadi model of terrorist violence. These include forces in Syria and in Egypt.
If Erdogan is willing to ‘sell out’ the Muslim Brotherhood in order to strengthen ties with Sisi, grassroots Islamists might become disillusioned. That disillusionment risks leading to resentment and that could lead them down a path towards Salafi-jihadism.
Should the poster boy for Islamic democracy suddenly embrace their great adversary Sisi, while silencing their voices within Egypt, the entire message of Islamic democracy could be weakened if not lost. This risks, as we’ve seen before, allowing those offering violent resistance – such as Salafi-jihadis – to prosper.
Erdogan’s turn to Sisi coincides with Turkey’s continuing backslide from democracy to authoritarianism.
A shift in alliances could have a knock-on effect right across the region – particularly in Idlib, the final rebel held territory in Syria. Here, Turkey has played a key role in backing the proponents of Islamic democracy in the region to push back against those affiliated with al-Qaeda. They’ve also succeeded in getting formerly extreme forces to break with al-Qaeda and join the fight against them.
Syrians watching may now start to conclude that if Erdogan is willing to appease Sisi, the day could come when he is compelled to do the same with Assad and, more likely, Russia.
In such a case, the consequences would be genocidal. To save the rebel-held territory, some within Idlib might look towards anti-Turkey jihadis to take the fight to Assad.
If this happened, it would be a double knife in the back for Idlib. Erdogan would effectively allow Assad and Russia to conquer the province. At the same time, the void left by Turkish power would be rapidly filled by al-Qaeda, giving Assad and Russia a persuasive propaganda narrative for genocidal war.
With all of Erdogan’s contradictions and his regressive domestic policies, his foreign policy in the region serves as a significant counter to the final triumph of counterrevolution in the region. Without Turkish backing, the forces that stand for democracy and liberty in the region would find themselves in a much worse position than the long years of pain that preceded the Arab Spring.
This will always be the problem when non-state actors rely on states – very rarely will states postpone or abandon their economic interests as a point of principle.
We’re not yet at that point. We may never reach it. But with Erdogan inching closer to Sisi, it has now become a tangible possibility.