“To paddle through”, or “to remain afloat” are two antonyms in the politics of navigation of nations towards a destiny. In the former, the firm grip on the paddles is a display of determination and drive. The steady and synchronous motion of the arms is an indication of resolve to reach a target anchor. Every flap against the waves, and the propulsion it creates, steers the vessel towards its destination. Alternatively in the latter, the movement is determined by that of the flow and ebb. Maritime aptitude and nautical knowledge are not required, only the ability to remain afloat. Rowing is too much of an effort, and the oars are only used to sweep away from a whirlpool. Otherwise, the vessel wanders around aimlessly and its mooring is where the current leads.
This metaphor applies to two countries in the Middle East: Turkey and Egypt. Turkey chooses to paddle through the Bosphorus to the outside world, and to impose its presence in the international arena. Egypt, on the other hand, is left adrift on the Nile. If some are paddling in the Bosphorus, and others are floating on the Nile, those on the Potomac are bound to watch closely. The importance of this comparison cannot be understated. When Obama decided to open a dialogue and launch an outreach to the Muslim world, there seemed no better podiums to bridge the gap than Ankara and Cairo. As much as the administration sought similarities in its selection of these two locations, the dissimilarities can not be dismissed. Turkey and Egypt are marching towards alternate routes either in delineating their spheres of influence or in their prospects of internal stability. This comparison, between those adamant on using their soft power and those who are adamantly soft in using their power, merits attention.
1. A Part of it or Apart from it
Turkey is embracing a dynamic strategy and a vibrant policy in the global stage. The visionary Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is the architect of the newly adopted approach in foreign affairs. The ambitious policy is designed to invigorate Turkey’s engagement and to convert it into a power that radiates influence in all directions. This flurry in its international profile allows Turkey to take vast strides in extending its weight beyond its traditional spheres of influence. The dividends reaped are its growing international clout and its enormous levers of influence. The pillars of this policy is: the normalization of relations with traditional foes and historically hostile neighbors, facilitating efforts to prevent conflicts, expanding visa free travel, ramping up trade and commerce, extending infrastructure, forging strategic relationships and engaging in multilateral platforms. This revival has attracted increasing attention for the intensity of its new initiatives, and its blooming portfolio.
The nomenclature earned by Turkey’s new policy makers is the neo Ottomans. Their approach is perceived as an attempt at a resurrection of an exalted and resplendent past. It was observed that the neo Ottomans shift axis eastwards in an era of Pax Ottomana. The advocates of this approach emphasized that the declared foreign policy goal of zero problems is predicated on a peaceful Middle East. Turkey’s rapprochement with those in its southern periphery is, thus, expedient. This is instigated by the impact of instability in the Middle East on its security interests, and its desire to secure markets for its expanding industries. Turkey leverages its shared heritage and cultural identity to facilitate political convergence and forging good terms even with its traditional foes and competitors. It also utilizes its economic clout to strengthen integration and interdependence with neighboring countries. For many of these neighbors, the winds have shifted as they became the benefactors of Turkish courtship. Burgeoning friendships allow Turkey to resolve lingering problems and to overcome historical grievances. This is reflected in a dramatic popular opinion turnaround from the typical antipathy towards its Ottoman past. Turkey’s diligent engagement enhanced its prestige in the area, and enriched its coffers by increasing trade, tourism and cultural exchange.
Turkey also adopts a proactive and preemptive peace diplomacy which aims to contain crises before they escalate to a critical situation. In this context, Turkey displayed an aptitude to overcome the difficulty of balancing different factions with diametrically opposed points of view. Accordingly, it touted its position as an adept mediator. For instance, as the traditionally acrimonious relations with Syria turned friendly Turkey launched mediation efforts between Syria and Israel. Turkey also brokered negotiations between Moscow and Tbilisi during the Georgian crisis. Its mediation skills are manifested in its efforts to sponsor the Serbia Bosnia reconciliation, to launch a dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to mediate between Iraq and Syria. Being an unbiased interlocutor permitted Turkey to extend its savvy diplomacy in an endeavor to contain thorny issues in turbulent countries and precarious areas. Forging good terms with all Iraqi factions, boosted Turkey’s chances to encourage a Sunni-Shiite reconciliation. This is in addition to a pragmatic engagement with the Kurds, in which they have overcome the traditional fear that autonomy for Iraqi Kurds would inspire its own Kurdish minority. Turkey also attempted to bridge sectarian divisions in Lebanon, and to lend a hand in the conciliation process between Palestinians.
The credibility of Turkish leadership was solidified by its sympathy with the Palestinians in their plight. Turkey became a primary champion of the Palestinian cause. This is reflected in the unremitting barrage of criticism on Israel that exposed the impotence of Arab regimes in delivering on their rhetorical support for Palestinians. This deviation from a long standing strategic alliance with Israel was inevitable between a country exerting its efforts to contain conflicts, and another whose security concerns are acute and the infusion of a sense of prowess is its only source of solace. Turkey launched a blistering criticism on the Gaza assault as a betrayal of its attempt to broker mediation between Israel and Syria. Erdogan lambasted the Israeli president, and stormed out of the session at the World Economic Forum. Turkish Israeli relations reached its lowest ebb especially after the latter’s interdiction and assault on the Turkish flotilla that tried to break the blockade of Gaza.
On another front fraught with problems, Turkey attempted to utilize its diplomatic competence in the Iranian predicament. Turkey adopted a trilateral diplomacy with Brazil to persuade Iran to accept a Uranium exchange deal. According to its terms, Iran would send low enriched Uranium in exchange for higher enriched fuel rods for its medical reactor. Some interpreted this as a face saving opportunity for Iran to circumvent and forestall sanctions. From the Turkish point of view, this was an attempt to diffuse a looming confrontation and an effort that both coaxes and pressures Iran to accept international verification of the peaceful use of its nuclear program. The Turks also consider the deal a promising start to the painstaking task of nudging Washington and Tehran towards broader negotiations.
Despite its shift eastwards, Turkey remains an aspirant to the European Union. It is firmly tethered to Europe, and its commitment to accession never wavered. The lengthy plea to integrate Turkey into Europe has always been challenging and a cause for frustration. Europe’s continued rebuff of Turkey is attributed to the mainstream European xenophobia, and the fear that Turkish accession will shift European borders from the Bosphorus to one straddling the Middle Eastern arc of instability. Turkey continues its attempts to satisfy the EU standards in order to nibble, one day, at the Union’s preponderance. However, becoming one of the largest economies in the world, a major energy hub, and a transit corridor for Caspian energy that traverse Turkey to Europe, implies that its increased weight is what might impel the aspired-for to seek the aspirant one day.
As much as the Turkish presence is looming large over the entire region, the Egyptian one is fading away. What is left of Egypt is a shadow of what used to be. Egypt was once a center of gravity in the Arab world, and in the entire Third World. Some assert that it is Egypt’s fate to be influential, and its role to be a regional leader is its inescapable destiny. Egypt, under its current policy makers, perceives this role as a burden that it can not continue to bear, and comes with a bill that the country can not afford.