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Turkey and Egypt Seek Alliance Amid Upheaval of Arab Spring 19 octobre 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) October 19, 2012, p. A 4

By Tim Arango, Istanbul

With war on Turkey’s borders, and political and economic troubles in Egypt, the two countries have turned to each other for support, looking to build an alliance that could represent a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East prompted by the Arab Spring, uniting two countries with regional ambitions each headed by parties with roots in political Islam.

Egypt and Turkey are considering plans to lift visa restrictions and recently completed joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey has offered a host of measures to bolster Egypt’s economy, including a $2 billion aid package. There is even talk of Turkey’s helping Egypt to restore its Ottoman-era buildings. A wider-ranging partnership is expected to be announced in the coming weeks when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party shares an Islamist pedigree with Egypt’s leadership, goes to Cairo.

The emerging alliance springs from the earthquake that shook the regional order when Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted and from the civil war in Syria. Though Egypt’s position had long been compromised by its economic frailty and failing diplomatic might, it remained an anchor of the region in an alliance with Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Egypt often tangled with Turkey as both vied for the hearts and minds of the Arab street, with Turkey increasingly presenting itself as the champion of the Palestinians, often to Mr. Mubarak’s embarrassment.

And Turkey’s close ties with Syria have been severed, undermining its political and economic links to the Arab world.

As a result, each country seems to need the other in an alliance that could shape the region for decades to come and help it emerge from the tumult of Arab revolutions.

« Apparently now Egypt is Turkey’s closest partner in the Middle East, » said Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, who added that one impetus for the partnership that is taking shape between the two countries was Turkey’s loss of « a major partner in Syria. »

Turkey is trying to firm up its influence in the region at a time of war and revolution by taking with Egypt some of the same measures it used in its opening with Syria just a few years ago, which became the cornerstone of a foreign policy oriented toward the Middle East, rather than Europe.

Meanwhile, a new Egypt is emerging from decades of authoritarian rule with a shattered economy and facing a contest for its future between various sparring ideologies, including Islamists and liberals, a struggle that Turkey’s experience could help guide.

The collapse in relations with Syria may have prompted Turkey to speed up its alliance with Egypt, but the partnership is also rooted in the Islamist politics of the leaders of the two countries and their respective movements: Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi. This connection offers chances for a new Sunni Islamic bloc, even as each country offers a different understanding of how Islam and democracy can coexist.

In coming together, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Morsi risk alienating their domestic political audiences by engaging so deeply with each another, analysts said. In Mr. Erdogan’s case, he may face criticism from the hard-line secularists who see themselves as the inheritors of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who forcibly imposed secularism. And for all the talk of Turkey’s presenting Egypt with a model for an Islamic democracy, many conservative Muslims in Egypt doubt the Islamic credentials of Turkey, where women who wear head scarves are still banned from working in government or running for office, analysts said.

« The Muslim Brothers are somewhat divided over Turkey as a role model, » Professor Soltan said. Some of the conservative members of the Brotherhood « have a vision for Egypt that is much more Islamic » than Mr. Erdogan’s party, he said.

But while there are some risks, both look out at the world as it is now and see little alternative, experts said.

In forming a partnership on security, economic and diplomatic matters with Egypt, its onetime rival, Turkey is advancing its efforts to shape the affairs of the Middle East while its dream of membership in the European Union, once its most important foreign policy initiative, seems more distant than ever.

Referring to Turkey and Egypt, Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, said, « Relations are warmer today than they have been in recent years, decades perhaps. » He added, « Turkey has become the effective leader of the Arab world, even though it’s not Arab. »

The scene at the annual convention of Mr. Erdogan’s party in Ankara, the capital, a few weeks ago offered a portrait of a realigned Middle East with Turkey at the helm. Mr. Morsi said at the gathering, « We offer our gratefulness for the support that the Turkish people and its administration has extended and will extend to us in the future. » To a standing ovation, Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, declared of Mr. Erdogan: « You are not only a Turkish leader. You are, now, also a leader of the world of Islam. »

Still, Turkey’s assertive role in the region is weighted by a history of Ottoman dominance over the Middle East, and resentments linger over the way the Ottomans treated the Arabs, said Paul J. Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University and a columnist for a Turkish newspaper. So, analysts say, the partnership could just as easily slip back into a rivalry for regional dominance, especially if Egypt can achieve political stability and engineer an economic recovery.

« There is within the Egyptian psyche that belief that Egypt should be the leader of the region, » Mr. Sullivan said.

As a measure of Turkey’s changing role in the Middle East, consider the story of Muhammad Bitar: Over more than two decades, Mr. Bitar, a Syrian, vacationed regularly in Turkey, crisscrossing the country by car and taking, by his count, nearly 8,000 photographs. Back in Damascus, he produced an Arabic tourist guide titled « Turkey, Heaven on Earth, » with a cover photograph of a mosque on the shores of the glimmering Black Sea.

For that, he said, he spent 23 days in prison, accused of being an agent for the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, because of Turkey’s close ties to Israel at the time, which kept it on the sidelines of Arab affairs.

Mr. Bitar is now among the tens of thousands of Syrians living in Turkey to escape the war at home, and he is setting down roots by opening a restaurant in Istanbul that will offer Ottoman and Arab dishes.

« We respect Turkey because it is going well, » he said. « I am a Syrian, but I want Turkey to lead. »

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.


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