Why is Turkey obsessed with Egypt?

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Since the Egyptian army removed the country’s elected President Mohammed Mursi on July 3, Turkey has been fully preoccupied with every development in the largest Arab nation, thrusting Turkey into the center of Egypt’s contentious politics.

Hashtags condemning the army intervention in Egypt can easily become top trending topics on Twitter and almost daily social media campaigns target the country’s army-backed interim government. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered more a dozen speeches since the ouster of Mursi, doling out criticisms to the army intervention and its supporters and vowing unwavering support for what he says “Egyptian people.” Along with the prime minister, public officials, activists, prominent journalists, religious figures and ordinary Turks joined the chorus to condemn the military in Egypt.

‘You are not alone’

In streets of Turkish cities, demonstrators staged protests in show of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi’s former ruling Freedom and Justice Party hails, chanting slogans such as “You are not alone my brother Mursi.” Turkey's national newspapers feature Egypt either on their frontpages or as top stories, devoting extensive coverage. World news pages of the dailies are awash with photos displaying pro-Mursi protesters or blood-covered demonstrators killed in army crackdown.

A painful history of military coups should be taken into consideration to understand why Turkey is on the forefront on nations condemning the Mursi’s removal.

Mahir Zeynalov

Two bloody incidents in the past two weeks that killed scores of Muslim Brotherhood supporters heightened anger against the military rule in Turkey, with Erdogan going ballistic after a fast-breaking dinner on Saturday night: They first massacred the national will and they are now massacring the people.

The debates surrounding Egypt has become too sensitive to an extent that it is almost impossible to provide a different account of events. For instance, Şahin Alpay, a columnist with Turkey’s best-selling newspaper Zaman, has become a target of heavy criticisms and insults because of his column, which pointed out mistakes of Mursi and his government during his calamitous year in power. Despite a lengthy paragraph at the beginning of his article openly condemning the coup, his sentences was picked out of the context and he was quickly labeled as a “coup supporter.” Alpay’s long intellectual journey as an anti-coup academic in Turkey was ignored and rampant smear campaign against him was launched. This and similar incidents illustrate a prevailing sense of anger Turkish public vented at the army takeover in Egypt.

Against military coups

Piled on top of past painful experiences of military coup, Turks understand that no matter how popular they are, military coups are almost always have negative impacts and significantly damage democratic achievements. Beneath the rage of Turks against the coup in Egypt lies a latent but very disturbing history of past military coups.

If there is one nation that knows very well the very meaning of military coups of any kind and subsequent developments, it is Turkey. Having gone through four full-scale military coups and one what Turks popularly call a “post-modern coup,” when the Turkish army forced a civilian government to resign in 1997, Turks believe that no matter what the causes are, military coups are universally bad, absolutely unacceptable and deserves condemnation.

While Erdogan’s statements on the military takeover have unleashed a perilous, downward slide toward confrontation with Egypt’s new interim government, many Egyptians and outside the country have falsely blamed Turkish government for being an “ideological cousin” to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is noteworthy that both secular and nationalist opposition in Turkey strongly condemned the army intervention, a development almost everyone in Turkey considers anti-democratic. One major reason that emboldened Ankara’s response to the coup in Egypt is recent Turkish protests linked to the Taksim redevelopment plan, where demonstrators blamed Erdogan for weilding electoral majority to impose his party’s will. Overthrow of Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, has become part of the prime minister’s popular appeal.

If there is one political force that could be considered as close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey is ousted government of late Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, whose Islamic-leaning rule in 1997 prompted then staunchly secular media to launch a campaign to undermine him followed with the military intervention.

Painful history of military coups should be taken into consideration to understand why Turkey is on the forefront on nations condemning the Mursi’s removal. Months after former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Erdogan visited Cairo and urged Egyptians to build secular state institutions. He said Turkey prefers a model of secularism in Egypt that is not identical to the Anglo-Saxon or Western model.

Erdogan’s “secularism” term was translated as “irreligiousness” in Egypt and prompted an angry response from the Muslim Brotherhood. “Individuals cannot be secular, states are. A devout Muslim can successfully govern a secular state,” Erdogan then said. This provides a strong evidence that Turkey is rallying against the army intervention in Egypt as a matter of principle, not necessarily backing the Muslim Brotherhood.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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