Egypt's coup shakes Brotherhood's Islamic partners in Turkey

Turkey's ruling party invested heavily in Egyptian President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now it stands alone in its vocal criticism of the coup.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (r.) and Egypt's former President Mohamed Morsi salute the congress of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Turkey, last year.

Judging by the fierce anti-coup rhetoric coming from Turkey, the ouster of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president by military fiat has shaken Turkey’s own Islam-rooted leaders. 

Turkey’s ruling party invested much in Mohamed Morsi’s year-long rule, offering political support and loans and business deals worth $2 billion to Egypt’s first elected government, which it saw as a kindred ideological spirit and proof of the popular appeal of political Islam.

But as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashes out against Egypt’s coup as if it had been aimed at his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) – whose Islam-leaning predecessors faced multiple military coups – he is virtually alone. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have pledged $12 billion to aid any post-Morsi regime, though Qatar, another rich Persian Gulf monarchy and a strong backer of Morsi, has kept relatively quiet. 

“No matter where they are…coups are bad,” Mr. Erdogan said in televised remarks this week. “Coups are clearly enemies of democracy.”

“We don’t respect those who do not respect the people’s will because we paid a big price. We don’t want our Egyptian brothers to pay the same price,” Erdogan said subsequently in a video message to a rally in Germany on Tuesday.

The one-sided pro-Morsi line has been so strong that Egypt’s foreign ministry this week called upon “Turkish dignitaries” to make statements “without taking sides and in a way that embrace all Egyptians,” according to Turkish news reports. 

“A lot of Turks now read Egypt in Turkish terms,” says Mustafa Akyol, a political commentator and columnist for Hurriyet Daily News. “Erdogan and his party identify with Morsi strongly, whereas his opponents are saying, ‘You see, Morsi made the same mistakes in Egypt you are doing here, and you see what happened.’” 

Critics of Erdogan who have taken to the streets by tens of thousands since late May say that the AKP’s “majoritarian” outlook – equating victory at the ballot box with a license to ignore smaller parties and groups – has led to increasing authoritarian rule by Erdogan and chants of “dictator.”

Similarly, Morsi – who won with a razor-thin majority of 51 percent – promised inclusive government but is accused of instead ruling for the favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and its own Islamist agenda in Egypt, with little reference to the substantial secular camp that played a critical role in toppling dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Staunch supporters

One sign of the close links between Ankara and Cairo is that the Morsi government chose to bypass Egypt’s official news media and struck a deal instead with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu News Agency to release all official statements in Egypt. 

And Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this week worked the phones, calling more that a dozen of his counterparts from Qatar to Lithuania to cobble together a joint response condemning what Turkish officials – and the Muslim Brotherhood – call the “massacre” of 51 pro-Morsi supporters shot dead early Monday morning by the Egyptian military

Since Morsi’s fall, the Turkish news agency has live-streamed only pro-Morsi rallies. AKP officials have organized pro-Morsi rallies in Turkey, and some supporters have used Morsi’s photo on their Twitter account handles.

“Maybe they invested a bit much,” says Mr. Akyol, author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” of the AKP’s support of Morsi.

“It is true that they invested in the Muslim Brotherhood, and the AKP government has been seen as a patron of the Muslim Brotherhoods of the region, from Syria to Hamas,” says Akyol. “So that chain, if you will, is now maybe being broken in Egypt. I doubt it will go back to the days of Mubarak – which was really bad for Turkish-Egypt relations – but it’s also possible the new government will be less willing to engage with Turkey because Turkey so strongly comes in support of Morsi.”

Little in common beyond Islam

But in reality, the countries have few parallels. Turkey’s economy has surged in the past decade under AKP rule, while Egypt’s has only further disintegrated under Morsi. The AKP is also in little danger of being overthrown by the military, which despite its all-powerful role as a self appointed defender of secularism since the founding of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s, has been systematically pushed out of politics by the AKP in recent years, with hundreds of the top brass now in prison facing conspiracy charges. 

And Erdogan managed to weather a month of unprecedented anti-government protests across the country, while Morsi was toppled only days after millions took to the streets in opposition. 

“There is no threat whatsoever to the AKP’s grip on government,” but the Egypt coup has now stymied an AKP goal of creating "a Turkey-Egypt axis in the region," writes Cengiz Candar, a well-known Turkish columnist, for Al-Monitor.

“[T]he expectation was that as a consequence of Turkey’s largesse to Egypt, Morsi and his Brotherhood would decide to emulate the Erdogan AKP of 2002-2011 to prove the theory that Islam and democracy can coexist,” writes Mr. Candar. “The opposite, however, occurred, with Erdogan beginning to look more like Morsi, and the AKP beginning to resemble the Muslim Brotherhood ideologically.” 

Erdogan blames the Turkey unrest – clashes erupted again on Monday night between police using tear gas, water cannons and paintball guns against protestors in downtown Istanbul – on a cabal of Turks with links to “terrorist” groups, the foreign media, and an ill-defined “interest-rate lobby” that he claims seeks to undermine Turkey’s substantial economic progress under the AKP. 

Speaking by video to the rally in Germany called “Respect for Democracy,” Erdogan did not explicitly mention the recent protests, but instead spoke of decades-long repression and the history of coups. AKP's less moderate antecedents were subject to four military coups since the 1960s.

“They humiliated our values for years. They despised our beliefs, ignored our choices, desires, demands and expectations,” he said. “Regarding democracy as a privilege for themselves, they wanted to insult us by calling us shepherds, peasants, sheep…This is their sole aim.”

But the AKP has won the last three elections with increasing support each time, even if polls show that heavy-handed police action and mishandling of the protests has eroded support from the 50 percent result two years ago. 

“They want to subdue us by attacking our mosques, women wearing headscarves, religious people and our values,” Erdogan said. “Do not worry. Turkey is no longer the country it once was.”

AKP officials, who have cast Morsi's toppling as an assault on democracy, make little mention of the fact that mammoth street protests against Morsi’s autocratic rule had been building for months. For Turkish politicians and commentators alike, the obsession with Egypt has been about parallels to Turkey's domestic protests against Erdogan's us-vs.-them style, and also the “volcanic effect” on the AKP over the loss of Egypt from its regional strategy of spreading its own soft power as a successful example of moderate Islam. 

Egypt “was the most important element of a ‘new order’ that [Foreign Minister Davutoglu] is claiming to spearhead in the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Mohammad Pervez Bilgami in a column in the Hurriyet Daily News. Erdogan and the AKP “have spent much of the last couple of years branding Turkey as a model for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries; the reverse is now taking place.”

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