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July 18, 2013, Thursday

Turkey’s Egyptian dilemma

How will Turkey deal with the dramatic changes and the deepening political crisis in Egypt? This question is added to the record of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's once ostentatious, “zero problems” based foreign policy performance, and nobody except Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows the answers.

One point is sure: It is not one of those ordinary challenges to Ankara; it is related to its ambitious regional policy architecture. After Iraq, Israel, Libya and Syria, Egypt now poses a final possibility for the AKP's foreign policy team to redesign a new balance between romanticism, idealism, deeper strategic thinking, flexibility and realpolitik.

In a meeting with journalists yesterday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “Our principled position is clear. We defend, in Egypt, exactly what we defended in North Africa and Syria. The most important point is that the will of the people must be seen as sovereign. The stability of Egypt has a meaning beyond Egypt now. If the principles [of democracy] suffer in the case of Egypt, it may lead to a negative domino effect.”

He added: “We shall cooperate with whoever comes to power by the will of the people in Egypt. It is not an issue that we support only one side or a group, as opposed to the others. I made this clear to all the sides I talked to.”  

These words come also as Erdoğan tones down -- but only slightly -- his rhetoric on the nature of developments in Egypt.

“Currently, my president in Egypt is [Mohammed] Morsi because he was elected by the people. If we don't consider the situation in this way, we would be disregarding the people of Egypt. Disregarding the will of the Egyptian people means disregarding yourself because in Turkey, we respect the will of the people. We would respect the coup regime if it had won at the ballot box,” he said at a fast-breaking dinner on Tuesday.

From a realistic point of view, no crucial point in the analysis on what has been taking place in Egypt could be reduced to calling it a coup or declaring the results of the ballot box a political absolute. A coup is a coup, yes; and polls are a criterion if legitimate, but the political processes in countries in transition display vastly complex social and cultural realities and unleash immense diplomatic challenges. It is apparent that the Arab Awakening with its huge dynamics would not reach a resolution overnight anywhere it casts new light; it may last at least a decade, easily, with a lot of hiccups, arrhythmia, U-turns, backlashes and eventual progress.

Thus, a diplomatic approach demands long-term strategic thinking and a number of scenarios.

It would be illusionary to claim that Turkey's way of dealing with the crisis in Libya was well thought out or consistent. Neither has its Syria policy shown a distinguishing diplomatic brilliance in its calculations after the collapse of the talks with Bashar al-Assad. Those two experiences are fresh in our memory.

What now, about Egypt? The signs coming from Erdoğan are reminders of the same stiff stand, marked by obstinacy. Would Ankara, as one of the very few capitals in the world that called it a coup and maintained that stance, simply shut the doors of communication with the military-led government? The question also is whether or not it has the diplomatic and economic luxury to do so.       

In a closed door meeting two days ago, a senior deputy of Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, made clear for us that while the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the AKP's support for Morsi, his party was now “open to all backchannel negotiations” to return to normalcy. “It is not about our movement or its leaders, but about a return to democracy,” he underlined.

This is a clear message to the AKP: Stop refusing to talk to the new guys, and be part of the dialogue behind closed doors.

We will see whether Ankara will soon enough maneuver towards reason. If Libya and Syria taught any lesson, it is this: Do not get too close to the leaders, stop being selective on sectarian lines and definitely be inclusive of all the political/social actors in countries in transition, looking up to you as inspirational guides.  

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