Turkey eager to see Egypt assume regional role

June 17, 2012, Sunday/ 13:12:00

As the waters heat up in the Middle East and Turkey finds itself in the midst of a crisis situation vis-à-vis its neighbors, if Egypt were to stabilize, it would be highly welcomed in Turkey, as it would gain a regional ally with the same foreign policy perspectives.

The two Egyptians  -- Ahmed Shafik and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi -- are facing each other in the last round of presidential elections. Egyptians went to the polls yesterday and voting will close today. The two candidates received the same amount of votes during the first round of elections in late May, resulting in a run-off. Observers claim that no matter the result, Turkish-Egyptian relations and their political and economic partnership will continue as before.

Meanwhile, controversies over the parliamentary elections have added to the uncertainties over the political situation in the country. In a surprise decision, Egypt's Constitutional Court dissolved parliament, deeming the elections six months ago unconstitutional.

An Ankara-based diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity told Sunday's Zaman that bilateral relations seem very promising, seeing as how Turkey has established important ties and has held frequent meetings with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. But if Shafik comes to power, the diplomat felt that no cooler relations were to be expected.

Egypt has been seen by many political analysts as a hub of stability in the region, looking at its key role in balancing historical conflicts in the region. Egyptian leaders have tried to mediate between Palestine and Israel, which has been regularly attacking Palestinians, who are now suffering from an Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza, for over five decades. The country also played a key role in the 1990-91 Gulf War, helping to liberate Kuwait by contributing 35,000 troops to the international mission. After the war, Egypt led initiatives to strengthen security in the Gulf by signing the Damascus Agreement with Syria and other Gulf States. It has also participated in several UN peacekeeping missions in East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Darfur, among others.

“An Egypt that steps forward into democracy and development would benefit Turkey,” claimed Sedat Laçiner, the rector of Çanakkale 18 Mart University, during a telephone interview, emphasizing that the two countries have parallel interests in the region.

Claiming that Egypt has been perceived as a natural leader by Middle Eastern countries due to its strategic importance, Laçiner maintained that a strong Egypt that could overcome its transitional process problems would never be at conflict with Turkey.

“Turkey and Egypt are both countries that benefit from stability, as opposed to other regional powers like Israel and Iran -- whose foreign policies have unfortunately been based on tension and conflict,” Laçiner said, noting that a stabilized and democratic Egypt that was rid of radical tendencies could create a spillover democracy effect in neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan and Algeria in the long term.

Turkey, angry over President Bashar al-Assad's violation of pledges and ongoing brutality, has downgraded its relations with Syria almost to the point of cutting off all ties with the country, which was previously an important trade partner and a transit route to the Arabian Peninsula. Turkey is currently searching for other alternatives to fill this gap, starting with a Ro-Ro (roll-on/roll-off) line to Egypt which made its first shipment in May. The much-awaited line, which replaces the Syrian route that has become too costly for Turkish exporters because the Syrian side increased fees to transship goods, will allow Turkish exporters to reach with relative ease not only Jordan and the Gulf States but also African countries.

Emphasizing that Egypt and Turkey are two countries that will have important developments in the coming decade, Harun Öztürkler, a professor of economics at Afyon Kocatepe University, said the Ro-Ro trade between the two countries is extremely important right now and that such a process would also support Turkey's aim of reaching out to new markets and a population of 1 billion in Africa. “But we should nourish such an economic alliance in ways other than trade, like direct investment and sharing knowledge in the long term,” Öztürkler said, noting that much of that will fall on Turkey's shoulders with a 2011 gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately $789.7 billion, quadruple that of Egypt's 2010 GDP, according to the latest statistics.

Turkish and Egyptian trade relations are on an upward trend if we compare trade statistics from the first four months of 2012 to the same period in 2011. Even though Egypt went through an unstable period earlier this year due to ideologically motivated clashes between different groups and a lack of an established government, Turkey's exports to Egypt in the first four months of this year were almost double that of last year, up from $724 million to $1.2 billion. Meanwhile, Egyptian exports to Turkey during the same period remained the same.

In addition, at the end of 2011 Turkey established a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council with Egypt to facilitate trade and cultivate closer relations as part of its increasingly assertive policy to expand its political and economic interests in the region. The investment volume of Turkey to Egypt stands at $1.5 billion and Turkish officials are aiming to promote more investments and reach a target of at least $5 billion.

Palestine issue no more on backburner with Egyptian ‘renaissance’?

Egypt has also been known for its contributions to the Middle East peace process, having recently conducted reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah.

The country oversaw a key agreement between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo on Dec. 22 of last year which saw Hamas admitted into the PLO -- the umbrella organization of the Palestinian independence movement that has engaged in two decades of intermittent peace talks with Israel. The overthrow of Mubarak led to hopes in some Arab circles that Palestine would find a more decisive backer in terms of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks for peace.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and the director of the London School of Economics (LSE) Middle East Centre, predicted that the Egyptian military would not relinquish power to civilian authorities in the long term and that whoever becomes president would be a “weak” one under military tutelage. Gerges thus ruled out the military, which is not interested in straining relations with the US by changing the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, allowing any policy that would jeopardize relations with the US. But he anticipated that Egypt would continue reconciliation efforts between rival political groups Fatah and Hamas.

Upon the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in Washington in 1979, the two countries established diplomatic relations and Egypt became the first country in the Middle East to recognize Israel. As part of the treaty, the US has provided the Egyptian Armed Forces with $1.3 billion in aid annually.

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