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November 27, 2013, Wednesday

History repeats itself between Turkey and Egypt

Last week, Turkey and Egypt declared each other's ambassadors “personae non gratae.” Furthermore, they are now only represented by a chargé d'affaires in the other's country.

Then, Egypt declared its desire “to end [the] tension with Turkey.” This reminded me of several other incidents that have soured Turkish-Egyptian relations in the past, but I will mention only two.

One of them dates to the aftermath of the Dress Code Reform in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's time. A law was passed in 1925 that banned the wearing of the fez (tarboosh) and imposed the wearing of a Western-type hat instead for civil servants. Foreign ambassadors were also affected by this law. Abdel-Malek Hamza Bek, Egyptian ambassador to Ankara in the 1930s, was forced to remove his tarboosh during an official reception held on the ninth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, which was attended by Atatürk.

Among several versions of the incident, one is as follows: At the reception, Atatürk was nudging people next to him and staring pointedly at the ambassador's tarboosh. Then he went and whispered something to the Egyptian, after which the ambassador took off his tarboosh, placed it on a tray and left the reception. Since the ambassador was asked to remove his tarboosh by a person whose suggestions could hardly be ignored, this incident was reflected in the Western and Egyptian press as a scandalous humiliation of the Egyptian ambassador, and the Al-Ahram newspaper urged the Egyptian government to recall the ambassador in protest. But the Turkish foreign minister spoke to Bek, apologizing for the incident, and subsequently the Egyptian authorities sent a mildly worded protest and the incident was forgotten.

The second incident dates back to Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup of 1952. The Turkish ambassador to Cairo was then Ahmet Hulusi Tugay, a medical doctor by profession. His wife, Emine Tugay, was a distant cousin of overthrown King Farouk. The couple did not spare their criticism of those who overthrew the king. The ambassador's wife used to invite members of the so-called “free officers,” who carried out the coup, to dinner and harshly criticize Nasser in their presence.

Ambassador Tugay went one step further and conveyed these criticisms directly to Nasser himself. Accounts vary of exactly how the incident took place. According to one, Nasser came one evening to watch a performance at the Cairo Opera House. When he entered the foyer, he noticed that a group of foreign ambassadors were chatting in a corner. He waved, saying “Good evening” to them. Ambassador Tugay stepped forward, beckoned to Nasser and told him loudly that each of these ambassadors represented their head of state, therefore he should not wave and say “Good evening” as if he were greeting his friends.

Nasser maintained his composure but instructed his subordinates to “expel the ambassador this evening from Egypt.” The Egyptian authorities contacted Lt. Col. Sıtkı Ulay, the military attaché of the Turkish Embassy, who had been a good friend of the “free officers” since the beginning of their plot against the king. (Eight years later, Ulay became an important member of the so-called National Unity Committee [Milli Birlik Komitesi], which carried out the 1960 military coup in Turkey.) The Egyptian authorities informed Ulay that Tugay had left the Opera House for an important mission abroad and that the family should not worry about the trip.

The Turkish ambassador was accompanied to the airport, searched in a humiliating manner and sent back to Turkey the morning after the incident (though other sources say that he left for Turkey several days later).

In 1952, the cause of the incident was a criticism directed at the military coup which overthrew the legitimate king, and it took decades to mend bilateral relations.

Last week, the cause was a criticism directed at a military coup that overthrew a legitimate government. It is difficult to say how long it will take to mend relations this time, or how hundreds of Turkish companies operating in Egypt will be treated in the meantime.

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