The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his highly publicized “Arab Spring” tour in Cairo this month as part of an effort to strengthen relations with the new government following the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of Egyptians rushed to greet the Turkish Prime Minister, chanting “Egypt, Turkey – one hand”. Although plans for a speech in Tahrir Square were abandoned, Erdogan was symbolically honored there during Friday demonstrations.
During the three day visit, Erdogan is reported to have signed thirteen agreements with the Egyptian authorities, and pledged to triple investment and trade between Egypt and Turkey to five billion dollars. Both countries also agreed on a number of ambitious megaprojects including connecting their electricity grids across the Mediterranean; as well as hooking up Egypt’s gas pipeline to the 4,000 km long Nabucco pipeline. A week later, Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu proclaimed his vision of a strategic alliance between Egypt and Turkey which he described as an “Axis of Democracy”.
The Turkish initiatives were cause for jubilation; and in light of the failure by Western allies to deliver on a multibillion dollar assistance package in support of Egypt’s transition to democracy, Erdogan’s overtures may be seen as timely. However, it is very important to look at the proposals from the perspective of Turkish economic and geopolitical interests. The deals signed this month fit neatly with a web of regional trade, energy and transport agreements that Turkey has been busy establishing in recent years.
Turkey is an export-reliant economy and also a large source of foreign direct investment. A brief look at the balance of trade between the two countries reveals that Egypt is one of the few markets where Turkey runs a large trade surplus. As for investment, Turkey has more than 250 companies in Egypt. In contrast, Egypt has very few companies in Turkey and only about 55,000 workers there. Erdogan’s promise to triple his country’s trade and investment would work extremely well… for Turkey.
Moreover, Turkey’s economic growth has spurred a rising demand for energy. However, the energy-sharing agreements signed this month are not only relevant from an economic point of view, but must be understood within the bigger picture of regional political dynamics. Many analysts see Turkey’s recent energy ambitions within the context of a growing spat between Turkey, Israel and Cyprus over the ownership of a massive gas field, named Leviathan. Turkey has threatened to increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean should Israel and Cyprus proceed with plans for exploration.
Clearly Turkish national interests are at play here; however, one big question remains: what has Erdogan done for the thousands of Egyptians that greeted him with Turkish flags, or the revolutionaries that honored him in Tahrir Square? Apart from capitalizing on Egypt’s recent fall-out with Israel, and pitching Turkey as a model for the democratic transition, the Leader of the Arab Street has not offered them much at all. The Egyptian revolution is anything but fulfilled with pro-democracy protesters still taking to the streets on a weekly basis. Wael Ghonim one of the public faces of the Egyptian revolution has recently criticized the ruling junta for its lingering timetable for reform, excessive military detention of activists and its recent extension of emergency laws.
Erdogan has taken advantage of the transitional power vacuum in Egypt to pursue his country’s own strategic aspirations. But by cementing relationships with a non-representative interim government at such a delicate moment in the country’s transition of power, Erdogan may have tipped the balance in favor of those that stand between the Egyptians and their freedom. It seems slightly unmerited to commit to long term projects with a provisional government a couple of months before elections are due. Additionally it cannot serve the interests of the people to make lucrative deals with an administration that is still plagued by remnants of Mubarak’s corrupt regime.
In asserting itself as a leading political power in the Middle East, Turkey is challenging the influence of US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel in the region. However, as Turkey flexes its political muscle, it threatens to draw Egypt into its own regional feuds. Egypt, with its current unrest, could inadvertently find itself the seat of a regional tug of war. External conflicts, as we’ve seen in the recent border incident with Israel, threaten to derail the struggle for freedom and rally the people around their rulers. The “Axis of Democracy” may not be great for Egyptian democracy, at least not in the near future.