Last week, the naval forces of Turkey and Egypt completed joint military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, the latest sign of warming ties between the two former rivals, in what the New York Times said could be “a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East.”
Egypt is looking to Turkey as a guide after emerging from authoritarian rule and economic devastation, while Turkey is working to expand its influence in the region after years of pushing for closer ties with Europe.
But the big question now, according to Paul J. Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University and columnist for a Turkish newspaper, is “how close they will get.”
“Anyone who is trying to run a country like Egypt at this time period and in these circumstances, both within the country and within the region -- and including the global economy's weaknesses -- will need some powerful and good friends,” said Sullivan.
While Turkey and Egypt increasingly need one another, particularly now that Turkey no longer has Syria as a regional partner, there will be several hurdles on the path to a closer partnership.
“Egypt is still just trying to sort out where it is going,” Sullivan said, explaining that if it does not get its economy moving quickly, there could be another mass upheaval. While the Muslim Brotherhood “pretty much ran the last revolution,” a future uprising would likely be a revolution of the hungry, he said, and it “could be much worse.”
Sullivan added that Turkey “can only do so much.” He said the United States, the Gulf Cooperation Council and even China could play more significant roles in the rebuilding of Egypt. “And those partners bring other baggage with them that both Turkey and Egypt will need to deal with,” he said.
Though similarities between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey could facilitate ties, Sullivan said that the political divisions within Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed with distrust by many, represent another obstacle in the way of closer cooperation.
“Relations between the two militaries may be a bit testy at times given the Turkish Constitution's requirement that secularism and Kemalism be protected by the military of Turkey,” he added.
Nevertheless, the growing ties are driven by shared economic, trade, investment, educational and developmental interests, Sullivan said.
“Turkey could help Egypt in the development of its new relations with countries in NATO, Central Asia and even the GCC,” Sullivan said. “Egypt could be a facilitator for Turkey in its developing relations with African states, and not just in North Africa. There are also chances for technical and other cooperation in agriculture and more.”
Sullivan said Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party can work with the Muslim Brotherhood on practical aspects of leadership and governance and teach the Egyptian Islamist party “how to moderate their overall views for the betterment of the country.”
Both countries, he added, can work together on regional and global issues of mutual concern, with opportunities for “intelligence and strategic thinking synergies,” to tackle challenges such as Syria, Iran and Libya.
“Turkey and Egypt could also team up to present a moderate, progressive face of Islam, although so far I am not convinced this is where Egypt is going,” he said. “Again, we may see Turkey as a moderating influence.”
Noting one potential tension, Sullivan explained that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a supporter of change in Egypt and is seen as a hero in some ways in the country.
“He may have more credibility among more people in Egypt than [President Mohammed] Morsi has,” Sullivan said. “Morsi may resent that, but will be quiet about it to learn and benefit from these new relations.”
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