Friday, 30 September 2011

Egypt and Turkey: A Long History in Danger of Repeating Itself

In the Middle East, the Western superpower is withdrawing its occupying troops. In Egypt, the sudden overthrow of a military-backed autocracy, followed by ‘a series of ephemeral revolutions’, plunges the country into a state of political uncertainty and general insecurity; foreign ambassadors are threatened. Various Western governments vie for influence in the new Egypt; but it is a regional power, Turkey, that takes advantage of the power vacuum to revive the dominant role it once exercised over the region.

It is 1801, and Bonaparte’s Army of the East is evacuating from Egypt; hard on its heels come the Ottoman Turks. Three years earlier, the French invasion has routed Egypt’s Mamluke military dynasties; in the free-for-all that ensues after the evacuation, Istanbul sees its chance to reassert its former dominance over a province that no longer paid much more than nominal allegiance to the Sultan.

Egypt was not to face such uncertainty about its future again until the January 25th Revolution overthrew Mubarak’s military-backed dictatorship.

In the Egypt of the Arab Spring today, people joke about ‘Ottomania’. When Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo this month, he was greeted as a cross between a nationalist hero and an unlikely rock star. He made public speeches and gave television interviews as if he were running for president of Egypt. His uncharismatic picture was plastered on billboards all around Cairo; crowds gathered behind rope lines to shake his hand; and journalists covered his every move.

To a hyper-sensitive Egyptian psyche in search of dignity, Erdogan embodies empowerment. To a newly-liberated Egypt desperate for role models, Turkey represents the paradigm of a successful Islamic democracy, a versatile hanger on which the fractious factions of Egyptian society can hang their mantle: a secular democracy for the liberals; a military power for Egypt’s military-industrial complex; a free-market economic success for the capitalists; an Islamist party for the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan seems to hit all the right notes: a defender of his country’s national honor over the Gaza flotilla debacle and a champion of Syrian revolt and Palestinian statehood, heralding a remarkable turnaround in foreign policy for Israel’s staunchest ally in the region.

But if the Egypt of Tahrir looks to Turkey as the unique regional, Muslim-majority role model, the relationship is a co-dependent one. For some time now Turkey, repeatedly rebuffed by the European Union, has been turning eastward to the traditional sphere of influence of the Ottoman Empire: the Arab world. The Turkish charm offensive took many forms in Egypt before the January 25th Revolution, from the flagship Turkish luxury retailer Beymen to wildly popular Turkish television dramas.

But my first direct inkling of Turkey’s new role in the Arab Spring came three weeks after President Mubarak resigned on Friday, February 11th. Two days after witnessing that unforgettable moment first-hand in Tahrir Square, I left for a long-planned trip to India. Miraculously, Cairo Airport was open and operational, and I was able to fly to Delhi to join the University of North Carolina tour group I was traveling with. Three weeks later, on the plane returning to Cairo, I wondered what the new post-revolution Egypt would be like. The first surprise came promptly upon landing at the airport: instead of standing in line at passport control, passengers of all nationalities seemed to be allowed to just wave their passports in the air and sail right through. I was told that, since Turkey had announced that it was waiving visa requirements for Egyptian and Tunisian nationals as a gesture of solidarity with their revolutions, Egypt could do no less than follow Turkey’s open door policy.

This apparent abandon of security measures would have been alarming were it not for the fact, shortly before my flight to Cairo landed, an imposing young Egyptian had risen from his seat and authoritatively collected the passports of all the passengers, inspected them, and returned them with a smile.  It takes more than a revolution to disrupt Egyptian bureaucracy, inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule.  

That heritage is selectively recalled with fondness today, but that was not always the case. In that part of the world, it has been said, the past is not history, it is not even past. The last time Egypt found itself in such a crisis, a country up for grabs, so to speak, was after the brief French occupation 200 years ago destroyed the existing regime and left a power vacuum. No one could have predicted, at the time, that it would be an obscure Ottoman officer, Mehmet Ali, who would take advantage of the infighting in Egypt to shoot to power and persuade an insecurity-weary Egyptian public and ambitious Azhar clerics to accept him as Viceroy of Egypt. He would go on to found a dynasty that lasted 150 years, ending only when King Farouk was deposed by the 1952 coup d’├ętat of the Colonels. Today, if Field Marshall Tantawi and the Supreme Military Council do not abide by their promise to hand over power to a civilian government, Egypt is in danger of having had a revolution that brought the military to back to power. That is one reason the country’s liberals are pinning their hopes on a Turkish-style democracy that accommodates, within strict limits, the influence of both the military and the religious parties.    

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